I recently read a couple of famous Victorian horror books: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein. It was fascinating to go to the source of two so very famous stories. We all know the stories…or at least we think we do. They were in fact quite different to how I assumed they would be (major spoiler alert).
I bought the Penguin’s classic version of The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Unsurprisingly, it has an introduction explaining a little about the story of the story. The introduction made the very good point that Victorian audiences were, of course, not aware that Dr Jekyll and My Hyde were in fact the same person. It was this shocking twist that so captivated them.
The story follows a lawyer trying to uncover the truth behind the strange behaviour of his friend, Dr Jekyll, and why the elusive, and evil, Mr Hyde keeps cropping up. It isn’t until the end that the truth is revealed. One of the characters describes having seen Mr Hyde drink the infamous elixir and return to the form of Dr Jekyll. The introduction highlighted how much this twist shocked Victorian Britain. People had never heard of such a thing before and the idea horrified them. On account of this, the book became spectacularly successful. Even Queen Victoria is said to have read it. And, after all, the book’s impact was so great that even today we still refer to people who display such contrasting behaviour as ‘Jekyll and Hyde characters.’
Today we know the story so well that we’re unable appreciate this twist in the way the Victorians could. The whole story is constructed in such a way as to create maximum confusion through the drip feeding of little scraps of information leaving the reader struggling to make sense of what is happening, while simultaneously making them desperate to know. I have to admit, I felt a little jealous of the Victorians who got to appreciate the story as it was intended. It must have been enthralling to reach the conclusion and experience the shocking revelation for the first time.
The other story, Frankenstein, was even more interesting. It wasn’t how I expected at all. To me, the most famous part of the story is the dramatic scene of the monster’s creation, depicted so strikingly in numerous films. In truth, that scene wasn’t really dwelled upon in the original story. In fact, most of the story was not how I expected. It was mostly told from the perspective of the monster as he tried to make sense of the world and find a place in it. He recognised that he was different from humans, but hoped that if he studied humans and learnt enough about them then they might accept him and he wouldn’t be alone any more. This hope turned out to be in vain. The humans rejected him.
It seemed to me that the real monster in the piece was actually the creator, Frankenstein, (it’s worth noting that many people incorrectly think Frankenstein was the monster, not the creator. The monster never actually had a name). It was Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation that led to the disastrous events that followed. The monster only wanted acceptance and companionship. But first Frankenstein, and then humanity in general, rejected him because of his frightening appearance. The monster was intelligent, sensitive, lonely and, initially, peaceful. It was only through repeated rejections that he turned violent and began his murderous rampage.
This killing was the monster’s way of punishing Frankenstein. It seemed to me to make the point that Frankenstein had actually created the monster twice. First, he physically created him, but it was his rejection and mistreatment that truly turned the creature into a monster. It’s no surprise that Frankenstein was written by a woman. There are obvious points about how Frankenstein, as the monster’s creator, is essentially its mother, but, being a man, is unable to properly fulfil this role.
The introduction explains that Shelley was dubious about the progress of science at the time and the book highlighted what she considered to be ‘masculine’ science encroaching upon the feminine act of childbirth. It would be interesting to know what she’d make of similar concerns today about the prospect of ‘designer babies’.
Lastly, I thought the cover of Dr Jekyll brilliantly, and disturbingly, put across his bizarre split-personality. It was simple yet very effective: