Was the story of Jekyll and Hyde based on real-life characters?
There are a select number of literary works whose characters have entered the public imagination. One of these is the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ This work on the nature of good and evil in human nature has spawned countless movies, plays, television shows, comics, and movies. The two main characters have come to represent the duality of human nature and split personalities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although written in the 19th century, is still as relevant today as over a century ago. What are the possible historical figures and literary sources that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write one of the greatest horror stories?
The story behind the novel
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is one of the greatest of all Scottish writers and the author of many memorable works such as ‘Treasure Island.’ Stevenson was born and educated in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. He came from a family of prominent engineers and suffered from ill-health all of his life. Despite suffering from bronchial problems all his life, he was a great traveler and wrote a great many works in a short span of years. While still a young man he began to write novels and short stories most of whom were well-received.
Stevenson wrote ‘Treasure Island’ in 1883, and this made him famous. In 1886 he was working on his follow-up. Stevenson had long been obsessed with the conflict in people, between good and evil. For many years he had been seeking to find a story that would allow him to tackle this subject. One day while lying in bed, because of ill-health, he had the idea, after recollecting a dream. Stevenson wrote the ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in a number of weeks in 1886.
Many commentators have claimed that Stevenson was on drugs at the time, such as opium, for his illness. Later, the Scottish author wrote ‘Kidnapped,’ which was another great success. However, his health declined, and he moved to Samoa in the South Pacific for the sake of his health, Stevenson died in 1894, in the South Sea island.
The plot of the novel
The novel opens with John Utterson, telling an acquittance of his, the strange story of Dr. Jekyll. A man, Edward Hyde, has run over a child, and for some reason, the injured girl’s family were compensated by Dr. Jekyll, a very respected medic. Utterson states that he believes that Hyde is blackmailing the doctor. The following year, Hyde attacks one of Edinburgh’s leading citizens and murders him in the street. Utterson becomes involved in the case because he is Jekyll’s lawyer and not just his friend.
In the doctor’s house, the murder weapon used by Hyde is discovered. Jekyll claims that Hyde has run away and produces a handwritten note, allegedly written by the wanted man. The doctor who is also an eminent scientist begins to lock himself away in his laboratory. One day, Utterson, who has not seen Jekyll for some time and his servants break into the laboratory. They find Hyde dead and mysteriously dressed in Jekyll’s clothes. A letter is found alongside the body, and Utterson takes it home and reads it. Jekyll wrote this letter, and he stated that he and Mr. Hyde are the same people.
In a second letter that had earlier been given to Utterson, Jekyll explains everything.  He narrates that he developed a potion, which he hoped to control his evil impulses. He had developed a potion or elixir, which he hoped would enable him to control his dark desires and drives. Jekyll transformed himself when he drank the potion, and he would change, into a deranged and sinister figure, by the name of Edward Hyde. In the novella where Jekyll transformed engaged in unnamed vices and crimes.
However, soon, he began to transform involuntarily, without even drinking his concoction. The doctor writes that he knows that Hyde is evil and is the embodiment of his dark side. He believes that he is slowly transforming himself into Mr. Hyde and fears that he alter ego will commit many heinous acts and crimes. The letter suddenly breaks off; this break suggested that Jekyll has permanently and irrevocably changed into the evil Hyde. Utterson, speculates that Hyde knew that he would soon be caught, and he committed suicide so that he would not be apprehended and hanged.
The Gothic tradition
The Gothic horror literary tradition very much influences the story and its characters. These are tales of the supernatural, and they are set in spooky places. Certainly, there are many of the motifs of this genre in the novella. ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ has many of the themes and motifs of this genre. The Gothic explored how humans could become inhuman. This theme is present in the transformation of Dr. Jekyll, a respectable member of society, into the sociopath Hyde, who is truly monstrous. Another theme in Gothic literature is that of the dangers of scientific investigation. This is also present in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll is, in many ways, an archetypical ‘mad scientist’ who transgresses by peering into nature’s mysteries and pays a terrible price.
Louis Vivet: Multiple Personality
In the mid-to-late 19th century, doctors were beginning to understand the mental processes of the human mind and began to treat mental health as an illness and not as some character flaw or punishment from god. In the 1860s and 1870s, doctors were beginning to develop modern psychiatry, especially in France. There was a great deal of public interest in this new science, and it was widely reported in British newspapers. One case of mental illness that caused a sensation at the time was that of Louis Vivet.
Vivet was the first person to be diagnosed with split or multiple personalities, known today as dissociative identity disorder. Vivet was born in 1863, to a prostitute in Paris, who neglected and abused him. He turned to crime at the age of 8 and was sent to a youth prison. When working on a farm, he was bitten by a snake and became semi-paralyzed and unable to walk. At the time, those who were paralyzed were sent to a local asylum. One day, Vivet begins to walk suddenly, and this astonished the doctors. A number of medics interested in psychiatry and placed him under hypnosis, to their amazement, they found that Vivet has multiple personalities.
The Vivet case, with his reported dozen personality, was a topic of much debate in intellectual circles. It appears that Stevenson was aware of Vivet's story. It seems that the story of Vivet inspired the idea for one person to have two personalities. It was this case that persuaded him to write about the duality in human nature and our inner struggle, as they are torn between good and evil.
Was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a Scottish criminal
Edward Hyde, in the work by Stevenson, is not only the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll, but he was also the personification of the evil that lurks in every human. Hyde was not just a symbol; he was based on a real-life figure, namely William Brodie. He was an infamous criminal and a clergyman, and the young Robert Louis Stevenson was familiar with the story of his life and crimes.
William Brodie, known as Deacon Brodie, was from one of the most eminent families in Edinburgh. His family was one of the wealthiest and esteemed in the Scottish capital, and several Brodie’s had served in the City Council. Brodie was apprenticed to a cabinet maker and later established himself in business in the mid-eighteenth century. He made cabinets and also fitted locks for some of Edinburgh’s leading families.
However, Brodie led a secret life. He was addicted to gambling and had a secret lover. To support his lifestyle, he used his locksmith skills to burglarize the homes of the wealthy. It is believed that Brodie robbed houses for 20 years until he was captured and publicly hanged. He successfully kept his double-life a secret for twenty years. Brodie was possibly a model for both Jekyll and Hyde.
His double-life was similar to Jekyll's. His crimes, such as burglary and theft, are identical to those committed by Hyde in the novella. Stevenson was fascinated by Brodie, even though he had been hanged in the gallows many years before he was born. Apparently, there was a cabinet made by the burglar in his family home, and he wrote a play based on the criminal while a teenager. This is considered by some to be an early draft of what would become the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’
A French Jekyll
Stevenson got the name Jekyll from Reverend Walter Jekyll, a friend of Stevenson. He was a very respectable figure in Edinburgh. However, another friend of his youth appears to have at least partly inspired the character of Jekyll. In his youth, Stevenson became the friend of a former medical student and a French language teacher. It appears that the former teacher of Stevenson introduced the two. Chantrelle was a charismatic and charming figure and something of a ladies man. The future author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, apparently liked to practice his French with Chantrelle, over drinks.
In reality, the Scottish author knew that he was having a good time with a devil. Chantrelle was a sexual predator and possibly a serial killer. The Frenchman was arrested for the murder of his wife. She was only a naïve 16-year-old girl from Edinburgh when she was introduced and fell in love with the French charmer. However, after their marriage, he abused her horribly and later coldly murdered her, for money.
At the trial, it emerged that Chantrelle had been preying on young women for years. He also may have poisoned some, and many may have died as a result. The trial, which Stevenson attended, caused a sensation at the time. The young author was surprised and later profoundly shocked by the discovery that he had been a friend of a monster. Stevenson became preoccupied with the two-fold nature of people, who could be inexplicably evil and yet also decent, after the trial of Chantrelle. This theme of the double nature of humanity is one of the most important in his novella of 1883. Chantrelle was hanged in Edinburgh in 1878.
Jekyll and Hyde is a great story, at once a classic of the horror genre and also a thriller. The story of the respectable doctor and his alter ego tells us something about our inner nature. Naturally, the story is only a work of fiction, but it is rooted in historical fact. Stevenson was clearly influenced by the emerging science of psychiatry and especially the case of Vivat. Then he had a life-long obsession with the life and crimes of Deacon Brodie. He was a perfect example of the duality of the human condition, at one respectable and moral, at other times, malign and dark. The double life of the Edinburgh cabinet maker, undoubtedly, influenced the Scottish author, in the creation of both Hyde and Jekyll. Stevenson appears to have been profoundly shaken by the discovery that his friend, Chantrelle, was a murderer. The French killer was probably the model for Dr. Jekyll.
D'amato, Barbara. "Jekyll and Hyde: A Literary Forerunner to Freud's Discovery of the Unconscious." Modern Psychoanalysis 30, no. 1 (2005): 92-106.
Doane, J., and Hodges, D., 1989, October. Demonic Disturbances of Sexual Identity: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr/s Hyde. In Novel: A Forum on Fiction (Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 63-74). Duke University Press.
Buzwell, Greg. "Man Is Not Truly One, but Truly Two': Duality in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."." The British Library (2014), pp 1-5
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- Balfour, p. 121
- Barbour, p. 2013
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- Bradley, Jane Real-life Jekyll & Hyde, who inspired Stevenson’s classic, The Scotsman, 25 November 2016, p. 4
- Bradley, p. 4