The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson said that the idea for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came to him in a dream in the autumn of 1885. Within weeks, he had dashed off his tale of a doctor who sometimes is transformed into a monster. Published early in 1886, the novella was an immediate success in both England and the United States, and that success has continued to this day with hundreds of film, stage and television adaptations. The novella’s enduring fascination surely reflects the universal truth that even the most respectable of us have unspeakable thoughts that sometimes, unfortunately, we act upon.
Stevenson’s book was written from the point of view of the prominent London doctor Henry Jekyll. While studying the duality of personality, he concocted a potion that, when drunk, turned him into the creature called Edward Hyde. The doctor is presented as an upstanding citizen who comes to be tormented by his creation, the crude, violent, seemingly evil Hyde.
Daniel Levine, in his spellbinding first novel, “Hyde,” takes a revisionist look at this classic story, which is reprinted in toto following his own variation on the theme. “Victorian sensibilities,” he explains in his introduction to the original, “did not care for shades of gray; sympathy for the devil wasn’t culturally popular, the way it is today.” His Hyde — who is the narrator here — remains Jekyll’s creation, but he is less a devil than the confused, increasingly angry agent of the doctor’s secret desires.
The first thing to be noted in comparing the two versions is that Stevenson’s story is only 84 pages, while “Hyde,” at 297 pages, is more than three times that length. As a result, events in the original novella are greatly expanded in “Hyde,” and Levine has added many entirely new incidents and characters. One striking difference regards sex, the dirty little secret of the Victorian era. Stevenson treads softly there, but Levine details an abundance of unsavory business engaged in not only by Hyde but by the supposedly virtuous Jekyll. He also, unlike Stevenson, suggests a reason for Jekyll’s strange, self-destructive behavior.
In another change, Stevenson’s Jekyll became Hyde by drinking a potion, but Levine’s summons his other self by mixing a crimson liquid and a chalk-white powder and injecting the result into his arm, much as heroin users do today. As Hyde relates the story, it was in October 1884 that Jekyll’s experiments began and his alter ego was “roused from my long hibernation.” At first, he would simply walk the streets at night, then return and “give the body back.” At that point, Hyde says, “I could feel Jekyll’s urgings, but I couldn’t always decipher what precisely he desired me to do.” Soon, however, Jekyll’s wishes become all too clear.
While the doctor dines with other gentlemen in exclusive clubs, Hyde explores the sordid pubs, “girly houses” and opium dens of London’s Soho district. When Jekyll’s yearnings for a proper lady named Georgiana are frustrated, Hyde takes a 16-year-old prostitute who Hyde says looks remarkably like Georgiana to live with him in a filthy flat. Levine’s portrait of the dark underside of 1880s London is a vision of hell.
Finally, when Jekyll fears that a high-minded member of Parliament is going to expose his double life, he orders his other self to kill the politician, and Hyde brutally beats the man to death on a dark street. But there is a witness, and soon Hyde — whose twisted body and frightening face are most unlike those of Jekyll — is a wanted man. When he realizes that Jekyll wants to be rid of him — to murder him, as Hyde sees it — he vows to resist.
“What was I meant to do — crawl off and die?” he asks. “Go to sleep? Return to that dreamless void wherein I had lived for almost all of his life? No, I wasn’t going back there.” Hyde’s determination to live on is so powerfully presented that the reader may forget that, if the story is to make any sense at all, Hyde’s mind is simply part of Jekyll’s mind, and his loathing of Jekyll reflects Jekyll’s own self-loathing. Passion, not logic, animates this feverish tale. “Hyde” is a sometimes demanding novel, as we move between one man’s warring minds, but it offers many surprises and rich, often intoxicating prose. It’s a fascinating read.
It is, incidentally, a wonderment to realize that earlier in 1885, the same year Jekyll and Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream, he had published his exquisite “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” Really good writers never cease to amaze.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for Book World.
By Daniel Levine
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 397 pp. $24