Robert Louis Stevenson

I was reading over on Jade’s blog, Chasing Empty Pavements, that she is about to read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for her Brit Lit class.  It reminded me of one of the most chilling murder scenes I have read to date.  He describes a maid servant’s witnessing of Hyde’s attack on one Sir Danvers Carew, an aged MP.

“Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon.  It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing.  Never (she used to say, with streaming tears, when she narrated that experience), never had she felt more at peace with all men or thought more kindly of the world. And as she so sat she became aware of an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention.  When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness.  It did not seem that as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it some times appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.  Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike.  He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience.  And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman.  The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth.  And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.  At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.”

Wow.  What a passage, and truly disturbing.  I think maybe what was most disquieting to me when I was younger was it was a kind of summit meeting of the civilized and the barbarian.  And the barbarian utterly destroys him. I guess we could argue that this conflict is, naturally, the theme of the novel as a whole, but this little scene zooms in on it in a terrible way.  The words “a storm of blows under which the bones were audibly shattered” was burned into my brain and has never left me.  I can just hear the bones “audibly shattering” still.

I love some of the other language in this short passage as well:  The description of Carew as having “an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.”  Well-founded self-content.  That’s great. Also, how Hyde seemed to listen with “an ill-contained impatience” and suddenly “broke out in a flame of anger” – all great stuff.

One other memory just came back to me, which I’ll share briefly.  When I was young my brothers and I had a collection of old comic books.  Some were of the normal, kid-stuff subject matter, but there were also many of a series named “Classics Illustrated,” and I swear I gained a nice head start in literature appreciation from reading these comics – probably dozens of times each.  Of course we also had one of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and I can still see the grotesque face of the latter in my mind’s eye… (the cover image below does not do justice tothe pictures within the comic book)

Many readers know of Stevenson more from other books such as Treasure Island, and Kidnapped, but of the novels I have read, this one was my favorite.  I also read Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae – a good story of revenge – as an adult, but it doesn’t come close either.  I also just learned – during my ‘research’ for this post – of another novel, Prince Otto, which would be a perfect read for me.  “Otto” is also my handle when I play the “buzztime trivia” game in the bars all over Bibliophilopolis – er, I mean Indianapolis.

1 Comment

  1. Jade said,

    April 11, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    I really did love this story! I had to do a presentation on it for my class as well, and it was probably the most lively conversation we’ve had as a class. I’m glad you posted this bit about him, I think he is so interesting.


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