Is it simply an old cliché that girls are always attracted to the bad guys? Looking through old film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde, from silent movies to the present there is an obvious ascendance of his appearance becoming more attractive. Screen versions deviate into romances or gender swaps (any excuse for Hammer films to show bare breasts) as though the dilemma is not one of dual personality and hidden selves but all about the girl.
Strangely enough, in Stevenson’s novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Hyde’ there are no girls and certainly no romance. To be accurate there are two, briefly mentioned, women; a maid servant who, in a romantic mood, sits at her window only to witness Hyde beat Carew to death and Hyde’s landlady with an ‘evil face smoothed by hypocrisy’ (a transvestite in Victorian Soho dwellings/brothel perhaps?). No, this tale revolves around the friendships and letters of three middle aged men in repressed Victorian society; The stalwart lawyer and the friendly Doctor, Mr Jekyll and his fiendish, Freudian ‘Id’.
Every witness of Hyde gives a different description from ape-like and primitive to ‘dwarfish’ and the ‘impression of deformity’ yet none can say what exactly separates him from the norm. The lawyer Utterson describes Hyde evocatively as having ‘the mere radiance of a foul soul.’
And yet none of them can look away; repelled but enticed. Is it that each see in the candour, expression and eyes of Mr Hyde themselves? Do they get a glimpse of what is really beneath tight starched collars of social upstanding and taught morals. Hyde wears the true self on the outside, free from constraint with the wonder of a child and all the desires of an adult, the instincts of an animal.
Jekyll himself tries to suppress his Hyde side after the murder yet still succumbs as his Hyde persona grows in strength and ability to change regardless of the potion. There is an attraction in this story not just to unravel the mystery of Hyde (as in Utterson’s pursuit of him) but to be him. Jekyll looks in his mirror and does not find his ‘ugly idol’ hideous but is exhilarated, born anew.
In one film adaptation the first words from Hyde’s lips are ‘free’. The following excerpt from the novella further shows this freedom and jubilance of being unbound.
‘I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness of a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy…I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, ten fold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil, and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.’ (Stephenson 1886)
On a tangent, the potion he swallows is often made out to be some kind of transforming elixir responsible for the change. Actors grab their throats and scream in the movies having swallowed a sip. Read the final chapter of Jekyll’s explanation and the ‘potion’ can be interpreted more as a drug addiction, like preparing heroin/laudanum that is an inhibitor to losing his inhibitions.
Is that the attraction watching James Nesbitt’s (aside from the fact it is James Nesbtt) insatiably brilliant portrayal of Hyde, charm and shock in the BBC mini series, to be with someone dangerous and unpredictable? It is Hyde we all route for and not the Jekyll side of him as Dr Jackman, an uptight and methodical scientist. Yet that is the joy of fiction; the enticement of playing with danger and knowing it isn’t real. We all love an anti-hero, the abnormal and strange that whirlwinds life away from the humdrum everyone, in one way or another, complies with. For the real Hyde’s of this world would be the serial cheaters, abusers and murderers that so many times we thought were men of high society we could trust. Look at the recent child and historical sexual abuse cases of men we always thought of as charitable or admired as celebrities. Isn’t it better to absorb ourselves in the fictitious fiends with devilish smiles in a London we never walked through?
But then Hyde isn’t entirely without morals. when Utterson finally meets him he makes an excuse as to how he knows who Hyde is, that Jekyll told him. Utterson is supposed to be our faithful, truthful protagonist, the one to solve the mystery.
‘Jekyll never told you,’cried Mr Hyde with a flash of anger, ‘I did not think you would have lied.’