Did Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic emerge from a drug-induced nightmare?

by Jeremy Miles

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

The fevered imagination of author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson shocked and thrilled late Victorian Society. His Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – said to have been written during a six day cocaine binge – appalled and excited readers in equal measure.

For nearly 130 years this psychological thriller – originally published as a novella in 1886 – has been revisited again and again on stage, screen and the written page. For decades there have been Hollywood movies, theatre productions, TV and radio plays and regular documentaries examining the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon.

Now a new ITV production penned by author and star of The Fast Show Charlie Higson is midway through a controversial run proving once again the enduring fascination and appeal of what Stevenson himself described as “a fine bogey tale”. Yet how many people realise that this gripping story of good versus evil and one man’s struggle with the beast within was written in what was then an extremely genteel Bournemouth?

A 1920 film poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

A 1920 film poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Scots born Stevenson who came from a family of leading lighthouse engineers was a rising literary star and had already written Treasure Island when he arrived on the Hampshire/Dorset coast in the 1880s. He and his wife Fanny moved to Bournemouth on medical advice, hoping that the bracing sea air and pine-scented chines would help combat his increasingly frail health.

By the time he wrote his Jekyll and Hyde story, Stevenson was virtually housebound, racked by a fearsome cough and barely able to leave his substantial Westbourne home. His house, Skerryvore – named after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland which was designed and built by his uncle – had sweeping views across Alum Chine to the sea. It was given to Robert and Fanny as a family wedding present.

Sadly it would later be destroyed in a Second World War air-raid. Its ruins were finally demolished in the 1950s. All that is left today is a rather unkempt memorial garden, the footprint of the old house and a curious stone model of the lighthouse which gave it its name. The sea views that Stevenson and Fanny enjoyed are long obscured by trees and buildings. The site of the house remains however a popular port of call on the regular ‘walkingtalks’ guided history walks that are run in Westbourne.

Before arriving at Skerryvore the Stevensons stayed first at a number of addresses on Bournemouth’s West Cliff before moving on to rent the newly-built but now long demolished Bonallie Tower in Burton Road. The site, near the junction of Lindsay Road, is now home to residential garages.

First hand accounts of Stevenson during his Bournemouth years describe him as being pale and sickly, rake-thin, nervous and agitated. Two portraits of the author painted at Skerryvore in 1885 and included in the recent John Singer Sargent exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery seemed to confirm this.

John Singer Sargent's strange 1885 painting of Stevenson and his wife Fanny

John Singer Sargent’s strange 1885 painting of Stevenson and his wife Fanny

According to Sargent, Stevenson was like “a caged animal”. This of course fits neatly with the oft-repeated claim in books, newspapers magazines and documentaries that Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while high on cocaine. The truth I suspect is little more mundane despite the fact that RLS was clearly no stranger to the pleasures of exotic drugs.

His biographer James Pope Hennessy tells how a decade before the Bournemouth years RLS and his cousin the artist Bob Stevenson “pursued girls together and smoked hashish (when they could get it).”

However that was Stevenson footloose and fancy free in his 20s. As a married man in his 30s, although rather eccentric and unorthodox, he remained very much a product of his straight-laced, Presbyterian Scots upbringing. He was fundamentally a highly respectable man and certainly not any kind of debauched, coke-snorting libertine.

He was however under constant medical supervision and, like many Victorians, regularly prescribed medication derived from both cocaine and cannabis. The ‘tonic’ he was taking may well have boosted both his energy and imagination.

Stevenson’s friend and Bournemouth neighbour, Lady Jane Shelley, daughter-in-law of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, was convinced that Stevenson’s book was inspired by the vivid dreams induced by local doctor Thomas Bodley Scott’s prescription of a hemp preparation to cure hemorrhages.

A vintage Jekyll and Hyde poster

A vintage Jekyll and Hyde poster

Whatever the truth, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was an extraordinary work and the speed with which it was executed was astonishing. Fanny Stevenson is quoted as saying: “That an invalid in my husband’s condition of health should have been able to perform the manual labour alone of putting 60,000 words on paper in six days, seems almost incredible.”

Apart from ministering to Stevenson’s medical needs, Dr Bodley Scott – later Mayor of Bournemouth – became a trusted friend and in return the writer dedicated Underwood, his 1887 collection of poems, to him. When Stevenson left Bournemouth that same year to travel first to the United States and then Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti and Samoa he continued to correspond with the good doctor about his failing health and the efficacy of various exotic remedies.

It did little good. Stevenson died in Samoa in December 1894 aged just 44-years. Remarkably it wasn’t the lifelong chest problem – almost certainly tuberculosis – that finished him. He suffered a massive stroke while struggling to open a bottle of wine.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s spirit lives on his books and particularly the story of Jekyll and Hyde which originally found favour with a late nineteenth readership fascinated by the struggle between science and religion. Amazingly more than 130 years later his cautionary tale about the perils of meddling with the natural world has lost none of its impact

Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s new ITV version of Jekyll & Hyde is a mixture of fantasy, horror and sci-fi. Set in 1930’s London, it focuses on Robert Jekyll, grandson of the original doctor, and inheritor of a ‘curse’ that takes over his personality in times of stress or anger. Although aimed at an audience principally made up of children – a Doctor Who style demographic –  it  has already shocked viewers. The opening episode  received more than  450 complaints about violent scenes and disturbing imagery which many thought were too frightening to screen before the 9pm watersheds. By the time the media had got its teeth into the story the number o objectors had risen to 800 and Ofcom had to open an investigation.

In fact the programme is a fairly innocuous thriller. The horror element is comic book in style. Charlie Higson got it about right when in a radio interview he said he was sorry if the programme had upset anyone but stressed that Jekyll and Hyde was intentionally scary. “It’s a scary show,” he said. “I was expecting more people to complain that it wasn’t scary enough.” He pointed out that compiling about a horror story being frightening was a bit like complaining about a comedy being funny.Yep, I  don’t think RLS, who was a hugely successful children’s writer himself, would have had much time for a bland and unscary version of his “fine bogey tale”.

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