City of Dreadful Night

Some thoughts on the gothic cityscape that forms the disturbing stage for Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde (1886).

Gustave Dore, Dudley Street, Seven Dials (1872)

As there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England? May we not discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great equatorial forest?—William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890)

A few weeks back, at its regular Friday meeting, the team spent the best part of the day breaking down the multiple locations and major actions of Jekyll and Hyde into basic elements that might form the basis of the Jekyll 2.0 experience. Being such an episodic narrative, Stevenson’s novella readily lends itself to this kind of staging, so we made some considerable headway in a relatively short space of time. At the heart of his story lies a compelling and disturbing of the metropolitan world: hardly surprisingly, 19th-century London was a magnet for people from all parts who sought a new and better life, while drops in the mortality rate contributed to a booming population. According to Peter Whitfield, the population within ten miles of Westminster grew from 1 million in 1800 to 4.5 million in 1881, and by 1911 this would be 7 million.

The large part of our discussion focused on inside / outside locations in Jekyll and Hyde, and how they intermingle. What struck us was how successful Stevenson is in depicting the Victorian city as a labyrinthine and gothic leviathan, a creature both monstrous and monster-making. In addition, we noticed how the novella becomes systematically claustrophobic, as the text moves from the outdoor locations of the cityscape (streets, rivers, courtyards) to the internal spaces of the house—culminating in the climactic moment of the text, when Jekyll’s friend Utterson and the butler Poole discover the twitching corpse of Jekyll/Hyde on the floor of his deranged laboratory. The city is a recurrent trope of late-19th-century gothic fiction, a paradox which symbolizes both modernity and decadence, progress and deviance. Its spaces mark both economic prosperity and abject poverty, genteel respectability and gross criminality. Characters compare the more dubious locations of London to districts ‘of some city in a nightmare’; houses lie ‘gaunt and silent’; ‘blistered and distained’ doors marked by ‘prolonged and sordid negligence’ open onto ‘dingy’, ‘sinister’ neighbourhoods.

These topographic representations of urban locations and their domestic interiors can, of course, be read as analogous to the mental spaces of the protagonist: the further we proceed into the narrative, the more deeply we penetrate the mind of the hapless Jekyll. That sense of claustrophobia—of the narrative, and by consequence the reader, being squeezed into increasingly smaller spaces—aptly enacts Jekyll’s own increasing sense of isolation from the rest of humankind and paranoia regarding Hyde’s dominance.

Stevenson’s most effective tool in conveying the disturbing half-glimpsed horrors of London life is the fog. The fog permeates everything. The umber haze hides crimes and misdeeds in the middle of the day, transforming light into dark almost instantaneously. As the perfect metaphor for the blurring of and between spaces and states, not only does it cloak the streets of London in a ‘chocolate-covered pall’ with its dense vapours, it invades domestic interiors, giving a sinister aspect to the most respectable-seeming of places:

Mr. Utterson was at last received into the doctor's cabinet. It was a large room, fitted round with glass presses, furnished, among other things, with a cheval-glass and a business table, and looking out upon the court by three dusty windows barred with iron. A fire burned in the grate; a lamp was set lighted on the chimney shelf, for even in the houses the fog began to lie thickly; and there, close up to the warmth, sat Dr. Jekyll, looking deadly sick.

Much like Jekyll’s house, then, evil cannot be kept at bay, but insidiously seeps into the deepest recesses of the mind.

Gustave Dore, Over London by Rail (1872)

Jekyll and Hyde begins with a door—a side entrance to Jekyll’s house, which is opened by the skulking and brutish Hyde, thus initiating the mystery of his relationship with the respectable Jekyll that propels Utterson into role of detective in the first part of the story. It also concludes with a door—this time, the door to Jekyll’s ‘cabinet’, his inner sanctum, a contorted mixture of Victorian bourgeois domesticity and arcane scientific transgression—which is broken down by Utterson and Poole, concerned for Jekyll's well-being at the hands of Hyde.

At the centre of the room, next to the dead body of Jekyll/Hyde, is a ‘cheval-glass’, a full-length mirror, which reflects back the horrified faces of Utterson and Poole, suggesting some kind of complicity between these respectable men and the crimes it has witnessed during Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde and vice versa. And, if the text is a mirror of its reader, then we too are caught up in that web of criminality, deceit and hypocrisy. Modernity might signify progress and advancement, but it also brings with it fear and loathing, isolation in the midst of the crowd. In this light, the city as symbol of modernity is truly a gothic space. 

In thinking through Stevenson’s confusing otherworld of half-lighted horror and dissolving selfhood, the Jekyll 2.0 team are looking at the ways in which to render this into a pervasive experience, chopping up the environment into a dizzying array of light-and-dark, of mist-riven locations that cloak uncertainty and echo muffled footsteps and sinister whispers to benighted participants, a chiaroscuro of fear and anxiety.

The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;
There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;
The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,
A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain
Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,
Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,
This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.
—James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night (1870–74)

Spencer Tracy, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)