Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most widely read writers of the Victorian age. He was a gifted diarist and letter writer, poet and essayist, but he is remembered mostly for the haunting stories and novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island which brought him a large audience and an enduring popularity. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in particular has entered the popular imagination with a huge number of imitations, derivatives and references in all kinds of places from cartoons to feature films as well as other stories and novels, such as Emma Tennant’s 1989 novel Two Women of London.
Stevenson had a tremendous facility for language and plot. His writing is always sharp, never flaccid or slack, and his stories burn with a vivid intensity that many people believe to be a product of the illness that stalked him throughout his life and which eventually forced him to leave the country in search of a climate where he would feel more at ease. He went first to France, where he met the woman – an American eleven years his senior – who would become his wife. Thereafter he travelled widely throughout Europe and across the United States, finally settling in Samoa in the South Pacific where he became an active member of the community and continued writing. He was working on his final novel, Weir of Hermiston, when he died at the age of 44.
He is best known for the dark, gothic satire on Victorian values The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the adventure stories Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and his collection of poems A Child’s Garden of Verses, along with his short fiction, outstanding amongst which is the grim tale Thrawn Janet.
The theme of dualism is strong in his fiction which many people have interpreted as a commentary on the many divisions which existed in Scottish, or indeed British society. Not least of these divisions can be found in Stevenson’s home city of Edinburgh with its two very different Old and New Towns. This is a theme in Walter Scott’s novels too but with Stevenson the divisions are internal, more psychological, as well as social. In Kidnapped the two main characters are the lowland Whig, David Balfour, and the Highland Jacobite, Alan Breck Stewart. It is interesting to note the development of this theme since Scott, as Stevenson’s two characters are friends, not enemies, suggesting that Scotland’s divisions (political, social, geographical etc.) are not wholly irreconcilable.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) presents us with a more psychological kind of dualism: the guilty secrets and furtive goings-on among the middle classes, particularly professional men who present the world with a respectable face while getting up to all kinds of immoral mischief in private. Stevenson’s target is Victorian hypocrisy. His book satirises a society where the clothes one wears and the company one keeps is of more importance than whatever personal qualities one may possess; it is a world not very unlike our own, where surface frequently carries more value socially than substance. These double standards are manifest in the character(s) of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the latter a malformed reflection of the former. Behind the respectable exterior of this middle class doctor and pillar of the community lurks an evil ‘inner self’. The message is clear: the faces we put on for the world may conceal a darker, uglier truth.
Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t the first Scottish novel to explore psychological dualism. More than 60 years before, another novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg, dealt with a similar theme, with a similar purpose. This novel, considered one of the greatest in European literature, set out to expose and satirise the double standards and hypocritical values of the age, in Hogg’s case a particularly extreme form of Presbyterianism. As Hogg in Justified Sinner uses a radical structure to unsettle the reader and force him or her to question the text, so too does Stevenson experiment with structure, giving the reader only a slippery, almost intangible sense of the title characters for much of the narrative.
Critical favour towards Stevenson’s work soured somewhat in the 20th century, as the cold eye of Modernism began to survey much that was written in the previous century with detachment and a disapproval that bordered on disdain. The Times Literary Supplement wrote of Stevenson in December 1919: ‘His writing is a game… We like to see him playing with his toys; but it is a game in which we are seldom tempted to share.’ Critic HL Mencken, writing in the literary journal The American Mercury, gave a further twist of the knife in 1924 when he dismissed him as an adolescent who never grew up: “His weakness as an imaginative author lies in the fact that he never got beyond the simple revolt of boyhood – that his intellect never developed to match his imagination. The result is that an air of triviality hangs about all his work and even at times, an air of trashiness. He is never very searching, never genuinely profound.”
Generations of readers who have fallen under Stevenson’s spell would disagree. But writers come into and out of taste and fashion, even the best of them. Despite the influence of the Modernists Stevenson remains a hugely popular writer throughout the world and his most famous works have never been out of print. As we begin to rediscover the writers of the Victorian period of literature Stevenson stands out as much for the breadth and variety of his achievements as for the high quality of his best works.