“You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others…”
There are certain works of art where the more you learn about their creation, the more you appreciate how brilliant they are. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a brilliant poem, and one of my favourites, yet it gains an extra levels of “wow” when you realise he wrote it on a whim in a friendly poetry competition with a friend. So it goes with Jekyll & Hyde, which is a brilliant book in its own right but becomes even more amazing when you realise Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it in six weeks, in bed, while recovering from illness. (And, in honour of that marvellous feat, I have elected to write this review in bed too, and to try and write it as quickly as possible!)
You can feel the feverish pace with which Stevenson wrote the story as you read it – both author and reader seem to be breathlessly racing to uncover the twist at the heart of this wonderfully gothic story. I think the best thing the book does is to take central conceits of science-fiction and gothic literature, such as fear of the unknown and the shadowy natures of man’s desires and whims, and with them creates manifestations of the well-documented social and personal repressions of the Victorian Age to completely sell the reader on the story of one brilliant man’s hubris and downfall.
The book isn’t without its problems. None of the characters really register all that much; even the narrator’s favourite character, Mr Utterson, who has the most to do in the story besides Dr Jekyll himself, is a pretty feeble narrator, and indeed Stevenson abandons him completely in order to complete the story well.
Yet this ultimately doesn’t really matter – any more focus on other characters would either detract from the mystery surrounding Jekyll and Hyde which forms the central drive of the novel, or bloat the novel and slow its pace to a crawl. Everything in this novel is visceral and immediate, from the tangibly dangerous fogs of London to the heart-wrenching (if slightly implausible when you stop to think about it) confession that comprises the novel’s conclusion. A worthy read, indeed.
“There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”