The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem with reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 21st century is that most of us probably already know what the story involves. Even without having read it or seen any of the film versions, everyone knows what is meant by a ‘Jekyll and Hyde personality’. And this completely takes away the suspense and air of mystery that the story relies on so heavily. I’m sure the original Victorian readership would have found the connection between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde much more shocking! So is there still any point in reading it? Yes, I thought there was, because although I knew what the ultimate revelation would be, I didn’t know all the details of the plot or how the conclusion would be reached.

We first see Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, Mr Utterson, who becomes concerned when he discovers that Jekyll has made a new will leaving everything to Mr Hyde. All Mr Utterson knows about Hyde is that he’s a sinister and brutal man responsible for some cruel and unprovoked acts of violence. The first half of the book follows the lawyer’s attempts to learn more about Hyde and his relationship with Jekyll. It’s only as we approach the end of the story that we hear from Dr Jekyll himself, in the form of a letter addressed to Mr Utterson, and the truth is finally revealed.

The story is cleverly structured so that if you had no idea what was coming, you would be kept wondering, knowing only as much as Mr Utterson knows, and it’s disappointing that for most modern readers the surprise has been spoiled. The part of the story I found the most interesting was the final chapter, after the secret has been uncovered and Jekyll gives his own explanation of what happened and his views on the good and the evil aspects of human nature. We can really feel his desperation as his own dark side grows stronger and things begin to spiral out of his control.

The edition I read contained just the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; other editions include a selection of other Stevenson short stories. Jekyll and Hyde on its own was only 88 pages long and if I’d realised how short it was I would have made time to read it earlier. This was one of my choices for RIP VII, and I would recommend it to other RIP participants who would like to read an important piece of classic Victorian fiction without committing to a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved it and it’s not something I would want to read again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once and can see why it has become a part of popular culture.

Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome

Last year I read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) which was one of my favourite books of 2011 and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Three Men on the Bummel is the sequel, less well known but still worth reading. It’s set a few years after Three Men in a Boat but it’s not really necessary to read them in the correct order. In this book we join our old friends J, Harris and George again (this time without Montmorency the dog) on a bicycle tour across Germany’s Black Forest. There’s not much of a plot – like the first book, the whole story really just consists of a series of mishaps and disasters, funny anecdotes told by the three friends, descriptions of the places they visit, and some philosophical musings and observations from our narrator, J.

The humour in this book is very much the same as in the first and some of the stories are very similar too (if you remember reading about Uncle Podger in Three Men in a Boat, for example, there are more Uncle Podger stories here). But I did start to lose interest a little bit towards the end of the book and I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Jerome had used up most of his better ideas in the previous book. There’s nothing here that has stuck in my mind the way the pineapple incident or the Hampton Court maze did, to give just two examples. But there are still some moments that stand out: George being accused of embarking on a life of crime after getting on a train with the wrong ticket, the three of them being lost on a hillside arguing over which way was north, Harris and his encounter with a man watering the road, George’s experiment with a phrase book, and a few others. My favourite was the trick J and Harris play on George, leading him to believe a statue is following him around the town, appearing in four different places at once.

“Why, that thing,” said George; “look at it! There is the same
horse with half a tail, standing on its hind legs; the same man
without his hat; the same–”

Harris said: “You are talking now about the statue we saw in the

“No, I’m not,” replied George; “I’m talking about the statue over

“What statue?” said Harris.

George looked at Harris; but Harris is a man who might, with care,
have been a fair amateur actor. His face merely expressed friendly
sorrow, mingled with alarm. Next, George turned his gaze on me. I
endeavoured, so far as lay with me, to copy Harris’s expression,
adding to it on my own account a touch of reproof.

“Will you have a cab?” I said as kindly as I could to George.
“I’ll run and get one.”

The German setting in my opinion didn’t work as well as a backdrop for the novel as the River Thames did in Three Men in a Boat but it does give Jerome an opportunity to have fun with British and German stereotypes (though in a gentle way, I thought) and the misunderstandings that could arise from differences in language and culture. He spends a lot of time discussing different attitudes to law and order for example:

Nowhere, and under no circumstances, may you at any time in Germany walk on the grass…The very dogs respect German grass; no German dog would dream of putting a paw on it. If you see a dog scampering across the grass in Germany, you may know for certain that it is the dog of some unholy foreigner. In England, when we want to keep dogs out of places, we put up wire netting, six feet high, supported by buttresses, and defended on the top by spikes. In Germany, they put a notice-board in the middle of the place, “Hunden verboten,” and a dog that has German blood in its veins looks at that notice-board and walks away.

Overall this wasn’t quite as funny as Three Men in a Boat and I can see why it’s not as popular, but I still enjoyed reading it. Both books were written in the late Victorian period (this one was published in 1900) but I would recommend them even to people who don’t usually like Victorian fiction as they do have quite a modern feel and a lot of the humour is still relevant today.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the word ‘bummel’ means, it is explained but you’ll have to wait until the end of the book to find out!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Despite my love of Victorian literature, Charles Dickens has never appealed to me as much as other 19th century writers and until recently the only Dickens novel I had actually read was A Christmas Carol. A couple of years ago I decided to give him another chance and although I still don’t think Dickens will ever be one of my favourite Victorians, I’m pleased to say that my opinion of his work is rapidly improving with every book of his I read!

Great Expectations is narrated by Pip, a young orphan who is brought up by his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Near the beginning of the book two important incidents occur: first Pip meets an escaped convict in the graveyard near his home, and then soon after this he is invited to visit the eccentric Miss Havisham who lives at Satis House. When Pip unexpectedly receives a large sum of money he moves to London to become a gentleman and leaves his old friends behind. But who is the mysterious benefactor and will Pip’s ‘great expectations’ really change his life for the better?

I won’t go into the plot in any more detail for two reasons: firstly, because I suspect many of you will already be familiar with the story even if you haven’t read the book, and also because I wouldn’t want to spoil any of the surprises and plot twists the novel contains. But as well as the wonderful plot, Great Expectations is also full of strong and memorable characters. Miss Havisham, hidden away in her ruined mansion wearing her wedding dress, is probably the one most people will think of when they think of this book, but from the convict Abel Magwitch and Pip’s best friend Herbert Pocket to the lawyer Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella, the book is full of unforgettable characters. I posted a few weeks ago about one of my favourites, Joe Gargery, and how sad it is to see the way Pip’s relationship with Joe changes after he is given his great expectations.

If you’ve never read any Dickens before, I think this might be a good place to start. I’ve read four of his other novels (A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and in comparison to some of those, I thought this one was much easier to read and understand. And I loved all the observations on life and human nature that Dickens scatters throughout his writing, like this:

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Or this:

“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”

Now I just need to decide which of Dickens’ books I should try next. I have three of his novels on my list for the Classics Club: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. Have you read any of those or is there another one you would recommend?

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel. She was unable to find a publisher for it during her lifetime and it was eventually published posthumously in 1857. Like Jane Eyre and Villette, this book is written in the first person, but with one difference – the narrator is a man. This is interesting as it shows us Charlotte’s views on how a man would think and behave and what his feelings towards women might be.

The narrator’s name is William Crimsworth, and at the beginning of the novel he is starting a new job as a clerk, working for his brother Edward, a rich mill-owner. However, William finds Edward impossible to get along with – he’s cruel and cold-hearted and treats William badly. Finding himself out of work again, William takes the advice of another businessman, Mr Hunsden, and goes to Belgium to teach English at a boys’ school in Brussels. Here he becomes involved with two very different women: one is Zoraide Reuter, the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ school, and the other is a poor friendless student-teacher, Frances Henri.

This is the third book I’ve read by Charlotte Brontë. I first read Jane Eyre when I was a teenager and it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t begin to explore her other work until just last year, when I read Villette. Villette, like this book, is set at a school in Brussels and in many ways is a very similar story to The Professor, but with a female narrator and a more complex, layered plot. In both The Professor and Villette, Charlotte was able to draw on her own personal experience of teaching and studying in Brussels. This is obvious both in her descriptions of the city and in the way she could write so knowledgeably about education and the relationship between teachers and pupils.

What I love about Charlotte Brontë’s writing, as I mentioned in my earlier post on the author, is the way she writes about feelings and emotions. In The Professor she perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation a man might feel on arriving in an unfamiliar country with no money and without a friend in the world.

William is not as sympathetic a character as he should be though, due to Charlotte Brontë expressing some of her own views and prejudices through his narration. There’s a lot of racism and anti-Catholicism throughout this story, particularly when William is describing the girls in the school, making assumptions about them based on their nationality and considering them inferior to Protestant English girls. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the scheming, manipulative Zoraide Reuter is Catholic, while the quiet, honest Frances is Protestant (and half-English). Even allowing for the fact that the book was written in the 19th century, some of these passages were uncomfortable to read. And because I could never really warm to William’s character, I didn’t find this book as moving as I might have done otherwise.

Brontë also includes a lot of French dialogue in this novel, which it is assumed that the reader can understand. Some editions of the book provide translations in the notes, but the French is not translated in the original text and it can be frustrating to feel that you might be missing out on something essential to the plot. Also, the constant references to ‘physiognomy’ started to really irritate me (physiognomy is the concept of judging a person’s character based on their appearance). The word seemed to appear on almost every page, whenever William met someone new!

I know I’m probably giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, but that’s not true. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is beautiful and for that reason alone I would say this book is definitely worth reading. Just don’t choose this one as a first introduction to Charlotte’s work – my recommendation would be to start with Jane Eyre and then move on to Villette before deciding whether to try The Professor. I can’t comment on her other book, Shirley, as I still haven’t read that one – maybe later in the year!

Reading the Victorians in 2012

I love Victorian classics but seem to have been neglecting them in recent months, so I’m looking forward to taking part in the 2012 Victorian Challenge hosted by Laura of Laura’s Reviews.

Here are the challenge details:

1. The Victorian Challenge 2012 will run from January 1st to December 31st, 2012. You can post a review before this date if you wish.

2. You can read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an audiobook, anything Victorian related that you would like. Reading, watching, or listening to a favorite Victorian related item again for the second, third, or more time is also allowed. You can also share items with other challenges.

3. The goal will be to read, watch, listen, to 2 to 6 (or beyond) anything Victorian items.

Laura is planning to focus on a different Victorian author for each month in 2012 and I would have liked to have done the same, but I know from experience that scheduling my reading in advance just doesn’t work for me. Therefore I’ll be taking a less structured approach to the challenge. I’ve listed below some of the books and authors I’d like to read, but I’m not planning to read them in any particular order.

The Brontës. I still have two Brontë books to read, both of them by Charlotte – Shirley and The Professor – and I’ll try to read one or both of them in 2012. I’m hoping to spend some time re-reading old favourites next year too, so could also decide to re-read either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I read both of Anne’s books in 2010 and although I enjoyed them, I don’t think I’ll be reading them again in the near future.

Charles Dickens. It’s Dickens’ 200th birthday in February, which makes the beginning of 2012 the perfect time to read one of his novels. I’ve only read four of his books which leaves me with plenty to choose from. I’m thinking about Great Expectations, but could change my mind.

Thomas Hardy. I’m definitely planning to read at least one Thomas Hardy book for the challenge. I loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and A Pair of Blue Eyes and enjoyed Under the Greenwood Tree too. I’m not sure which one I should try next but I do want to read all of his books eventually.

Wilkie Collins. I had to include my favourite Victorian somewhere on my list! I’ve read all four of Collins’ most popular novels – The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name and Armadale – as well as Poor Miss Finch, Man and Wife, The Law and The Lady, A Rogue’s Life, Basil, The Dead Secret and The Haunted Hotel. If anyone has read any of his other lesser-known novels, I’d love to hear which ones you’d recommend. I do have an e-reader so will be able to download anything that’s available free online.

George Eliot. So far I’ve only read Middlemarch (and Silas Marner at school, though I can’t remember very much about it). I think I’d like to read The Mill on the Floss in 2012.

Anthony Trollope. I’m still working slowly through the Barsetshire novels and hope to finish the series in 2012 by reading The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset. I do also have a copy of Can You Forgive Her? the first in the Palliser series, but it’s probably too ambitious to hope that I’ll have time for that one too.

Elizabeth Gaskell. Again, I have plenty of choices as I’ve only read North and South and The Moorland Cottage so far.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Aurora Floyd was on my list for 2011 but I didn’t manage to find time for it. I’ll definitely try to read it next year and hopefully I’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife.

The challenge also allows books that are set during the Victorian period and I’m sure I’ll be reading some of those too.

Are there any Victorian books you think I should definitely read in 2012? Any suggestions or recommendations are welcome! Will you be reading some Victorian literature next year too?