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Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Psychology, Scotland on Saturday, 9 September 2017

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 410 published on 22 November 1969.

Deacon Brodie and his gang, picture, image, illustration

Robert Louis Stevenson based his famous story on William Brodie, who became a legend in Edinburgh – a man who as Deacon Brodie was a city councillor by day and a burglar by night

As a schoolboy growing up in 19th century Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by a bookcase and a chest of drawers which were in his bedroom. They had been made some ninety years earlier by the infamous Deacon Brodie – the master carpenter who was a respectable citizen by day, and the leader of a gang of burglars by night. In his walks through the old quarter of Edinburgh, Stevenson begged his parents to show him Deacon Brodie’s house, and the inns and courtyards where the criminal met with his desperate accomplices.

Brodie’s daring double life made a deep impression on the young Stevenson. And years later, when his Treasure Island had made him one of the world’s most beloved authors, he found his thoughts turning again and again to the man who wore a suit of white by daylight, and black clothes after dark. This split in Brodie’s character epitomised to Stevenson the good and the bad side of man. He felt compelled to write a novel on the subject, and for some time he wrestled with his “Brownies,” as he called the ideas which came to him in his sleep.

The author, who was always fragile in health, was then living in Bournemouth with his American wife, Fanny. She realized the mental torment he was going through, and one night his struggle with the “Brownies” woke her up and thoroughly frightened her. “My husband’s cries of horror caused me to rouse him,” she said, “much to his indignation. ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,’ he said reproachfully.”

The next morning Stevenson worked feverishly on the new book, which was inspired, of course, by the career of Deacon Brodie. He completed the first draft of 30,000 words in three days. But when Fanny read the manuscript, she told him he had not done the story justice. The novelist then destroyed the draft, and rewrote it from a different point of view.

When the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 it caused a sensation. Its story of a decent London doctor who, by the use of a powerful drug, is able to turn himself into another and totally different person, caught the imagination of the reading public. As Jekyll continues with his experiment, the tension rises to an almost unbearable pitch. After a while the evil Hyde is able to appear whenever he wants to, and Jeykll has to decide whether or not to destroy his depraved other self. The finale of the book mounts to a crescendo of terrifying action which has seldom been equalled in a story of this nature.

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