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Neil Dickson


Jekyll and Hyde's Hometown

The capital of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is set in London. As the skeptical scoff so beloved of the Scot has it: "Aye right." (The next time you meet one, ask him or her to say it—you'll be amazed by how much irony can be loaded into those two words.) The place names may be London ones, but where did that weather come from? "It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon… . The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face." As anyone will recognize who has struggled across the acres of Charlotte Square of an evening against a winter wind chilled by the North Sea, this is Edinburgh. Robert Louis Stevenson, with his congenital ill-health, had particular cause to remember the climate of Scotland's capital, his birthplace, with detestation.

G.K. Chesterton argued that the origins of the book owe more to Edinburgh than they do to London. The social dichotomy of the setting reflects Stevenson's Edinburgh: the smart quarters where Dr. Jekyll lives are like Edinburgh's 18th-century New Town, with its classical façades and geometric grid inhabited by the prosperous middle classes; while Mr. Hyde's lodgings are among the poor and indigent, like the medieval Old Town perched above—straggling down the Royal Mile from the Castle on top of its volcanic rock—which by Stevenson's time had been left to the poverty-stricken.

The Manichaean personality of Jekyll/Hyde—respectable by day, viciously stalking the streets by night—is based on an Edinburgh figure, Deacon William Brodie, who was a cabinetmaker and town-council member by day but a burglar by night. (Brodie was hanged in 1788 after he was recognized during a robbery.) Similarly, Jekyll's dissecting theater draws its sinister nature from tales of 18th-century Edinburgh's "Resurrection men," who supplied the city's anatomy professors with cadavers freshly dug up or straight from the gallows. So hungry for specimens was the eminent Dr. Robert Knox that two of his lackeys—Irish ...

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