Mr. Hyde in Edinburgh

A few unoriginal comments on Stevenson’s original The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s been said before that the story has a lot of RLS’s hometown of Edinburgh about it. Although the given setting is London, with Hyde’s hideaway explicitly identified as a Soho address (that disreputable district, long home to the theatre and sex industries, would later also house the major British film companies, including Hammer House), Stevenson must have been influenced by his home city as he wrote the tale, in those two feverish overnight drafts.

Right at the start, when Hyde commits his first child-trampling, Stevenson introduces on the scene an Edinburgh doctor, described as “the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe.” This man actually typifies most of the characters, apart from J&H, who populate the narrative. In fact, the lawyer Utterson is introduced as the most boring man in literature, and this is part of a consistent tactic to surround the arguably melodramatic title character with dry, methodical and sober-minded characters, creating a stifling normal world for Hyde to erupt into. These characteristics typify somewhat the puritan, Calvinistic ethos of 19th century Edinburgh, still somewhat in the air today.

Edinburgh is a schizoid city. In Stevenson’s day it was divided between Old Town and New. The New Town is Georgian, enlightened, civilised, luxurious in a restrained way. The streets resemble Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street, and exude dignity and rationality.

The Old Town is jumbled, chaotic, a mixture of periods and styles. Narrow closes open onto tilting and dishevelled thoroughfares, arranged down the sprawl of the High Street. These are the haunts of Burke and Hare, whose exploits inspired Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (filmed by Val Lewton and Robert Wise), and Deacon Brodie, a respectable cabinet-maker and son of a town councillor who led a double life as a burglar. He’s played by Billy Connolly in a TV movie.

Sewage was still emptied out of windows in the Old Town in Stevenson’s day, to flow through the gutters, spreading disease and foul odours. (You cried “Gardyloo!” as you tipped your bucket, a bastard French version of “Look out below!”) So Edinburgh had a divided personality much like Jekyll and Hyde.

Today the Old Town, cleaned up a bit, is the tourist centre, leading as it always does between Holyrood Palace and the Castle. The New Town provides office space, shops and expensive homes. The dark side of Edinburgh has been exported to run down council estates like Muirhouse. (“In Muirhouse, no one can hear you scream. Well, we can. We just dinnae gie a fuck.” ~ Irvine Welsh.) The town council satisfies itself with keeping the centre safe and decorous, allowing the outlying slums to go to hell.

Sad to report, the young lead of Bill Douglas’s esteemed trilogy (MY CHILDHOOD, MY AIN FOLK, MY WAY HOME) was trapped by poverty in one of these areas, and succumbed to crime, drugs and an early death. They are places of despair.

“The figure in these two phases haunted the lawyer all night; and if at any time he dozed over, it was but to see it glide more stealthily through sleeping houses, or move the more swiftly, and still the more swiftly, through wider labyrinths of lamp-lighted city, and at every street corner crush a child and leave her screaming.”

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8 Responses to “Mr. Hyde in Edinburgh”

  1. In his “Lectures on Literature” Nabokov has much to say about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” especially in regard to the way Stevenson describes the setting. More than worth a read in that Nabokov appraoches Stevenson with considerable seriousness — which is to be expected as the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic is central to much of his work. In “Lolita” for example Quilty is Humbert’s Hyde.

  2. Not quite in the Nabokov league, but GK Chesterton had a nice essay praising Stevenson. “‘His sword flashed like quicksilver.’ If you think that is an easy sentence to write, try to improve on it. Stevenson remembered that there was a word which contained ‘quick’ and ‘silver’…”

    I also like Stevenson’s promiscuous use of semi-colons, which I should try to emulate; thus.

  3. I think Humbert is his own Jekyll. Quilty on the other hand in the book is just all Hyde.

    Nabokov was a huge admirer of Stevenson’s and his lectures on ”The Metamorphosis” makes strident comparisons between Kafka and ”The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” where he calls Stevenson’s book a minor masterpiece in comparison to Kafka’s work. Regardless of whether you agree or not with that assessment(I don’t), it’s still interesting reading.

    Nabokov was a great critic upto a point. His statement that Stendhal wrote books for French chambermaids never fails to make me laugh.

  4. Likewise his disdain of Thomas Mann.

  5. Not that I’ve read them but do you think that Harry Potter, written in a New Town cafe, fits into this literary subconscious sense of place? And of so what is its Old Town Dark Side?

    Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair are masters of the London narrative where the city imposes itself as a character and influence on events. Ackroyd’s “Hawksmoor” almost insinuates its way into a Stevensonian world.

  6. There are a couple of splendid castle-like schools in Edinburgh which feel like inspirations for Hogwarts, including Fettes, the alma mater of Tony Blair. I read all the Harry Potters — the prose gets better but the plotting gets weaker. There isn’t really a great sense of evil — Voldemort is just a bad guy — but lots of well-rendered human weakness and nastiness.

    There isn’t much great psychogeography written of Edinburgh, so far as I know.

  7. Edinburgh hides it’s darkness well, but it’s certainly one of the scariest places I’ve ever lived. I’ve never felt my safety to be in jeopardy quite as much as in Edinburgh and I’ve had AK47s pointed at me in Africa. The thing is , I understood why the guys were pointing Guns at me , or they wanted to rob me. That motivation was clear, so it was clear how the situation could be resolved to everyones satisfaction. The fear in Edinburgh ( and probably Britain as a whole ) is that someone will beat the crap out of you…for the hell of it ; or just because they believe that this is an acceptable form of recreation. They don’t need to money, they just want to hurt you.

  8. Yes, an armed robber has clear demands. A person venting violence randomly won’t be satisfied with anything less than a restructuring of society, beginning in his early childhood. Which is a little hard to arrange at short notice.

    Though I still don’t think it’s an unreasonable demand. Impossible but not unreasonable.

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