I have lost count of how often I have taught R.L. Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which I have published here several posts, as this seems to be an inexhaustible text. I return once more to it after having marked the most recent batch of students’ exams to focus on their answer to our question: is this text specifically about men? Can we imagine the same type of moral duplicity in women?
Four years ago I wrote a post in which I mulled about the possibility of a contemporary female version of Jekyll, a Prof. Henrietta Jekyll who, like Jekyll’s successor Dr. Hannibal Lecter, had a secret life in which perhaps she had her own students home regularly for dinner. I took the chance then to reject Elaine Showalter’s famous reading of Jekyll’s male circle as a closeted gay ring, with Hyde being the incarnation of the ‘evil’ pleasures by which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour a decade later. Despite Wilde, I find the idea that Stevenson is covertly dealing with homosexuality uncomfortably homophobic, and particularly distasteful when defended by contemporary feminists.
Back to my students answers, then. The matter is very simple: is Stevenson claiming that duplicity is a necessary condition of masculinity in late Victorian times? Or is he taking a man as a representative of all Victorian individuals? Could we, in short, place a woman in the centre of his story and if we did so, how would it change?
This is not, as you can see, a simple question to answer as it is necessary to take into account whether gender or class matters predominate in Stevenson’s text. In class, we followed the argument suggesting that Stevenson’s target is the hypocrisy of, specifically, Victorian gentlemanliness of the upper middle-class professional (not aristocratic) variety. This lead my students to write exams split among three options to explain why Stevenson’s text dealt exclusively with masculinity: a) for Victorians it was impossible to imagine ladies leading double lives, and so it was for the author; b) the author was a misogynist and this is why he practically excluded women from the text; c) since women were excluded from the professions and Jekyll led his double life to protect his professional reputation, no woman could replace him as a protagonist.
Let’s see… To begin with, we had read together Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which made it very clear that ladies like Helen Graham faced daily, like gentlemen of their class, the challenge of having to keep up appearances or see their reputation destroyed. Now, Helen creates a false identity for herself to protect her son and not to indulge in secret pleasures, yet Victorian fiction is full of femme fatales, from the vampire Carmilla to the scheming Lady Audley–it is simply not true that Victorians were incapable of imagining perverse women. Rather, as Bram Dijsktra very well explained in his classic Idols of Perversity (1988) the problem is that they imagined too many… by which I do not mean that all Victorian ladies were angelic. I’m sure Henrietta Jekyll could have been imagined as a committed adulteress, for instance; fancying her a nymphomaniac would have been harder indeed. What puzzles me is the students’ denunciations of Stevenson as an anti-feminist for as I insisted again and again in class, Stevenson offers a very negative image of masculinity in his text, and, well, paradoxically, making a woman the centre of his tale would just have resulted in just one more case of the kind Dijkstra describes, by no means in a feminist story.
Some re-writings of The Strange Case.., like Hammer’s quirky movie Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) or the idiotic American comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), have fantasised about Jekyll’s dark side being a woman (in the 1971 film, she commits, in addition, Jack the Ripper’s crimes!). Others, have enhanced women’s participation in the story, producing totally unnecessary melodrama: just recall Julia Roberts as the maid falling in love with her master Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s silly romance (1990). I have been unable to locate, whether in fan fiction or in film, however, a retelling with a female Jekyll, with the only exception of the seemingly pathetic horror comedy Jacqueline Hyde (2005), in which shy Jackie discovers she’s the granddaughter of the original Dr. Jekyll. The rest, it seems, is porn.
I have awarded the highest mark to a girl student who simply argued that Stevenson could have equally focused on a woman but once he decided to focus on a man he made the suitable decisions to make his tale as solid as possible. Of course. It makes perfect sense for Jekyll to be a gentleman scientist as it would make perfect sense for a Henrietta Jekyll to be, for example, his widow (even a former lab assistant as many scientists’ wives were). If you don’t want to go the SF way, then stick to fantasy and provide Miss or Mrs. Jekyll with a dark fairy godmother and a magic potion (Wilde, remember?, used magic for Dorian Gray’s picture). Henrietta Jekyll surely must be a lady, for ladies rather than low-class girls risked it all by losing their reputation as fallen women. If you still have problems visualizing her unspeakable pleasures, just read Dracula (1897) where you’ll find a lovely lady, Lucy, attacking every evening poor children to drink their blood.
Here’s a challenge for anyone interested, as I don’t have the time to do this myself: take Stevenson’s text and just alter the gender of the main characters, and see what happens. It will definitely not work if you insist on presenting Henrietta as a newly-minted pro-feminist Dr. Jekyll (unless you want to produce a misogynistic tale against the few women doctors practising in the 1880s). But think of all those angelic, repressed Victorian ladies and imagine what kind of secret life they would lead if in possession of a magic potion. Perhaps, here’s my conclusion, Stevenson knew very well how to do this… but refrained himself from writing what could only have been an outrageously scandalous text. Yet not impossible.
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