Etiquette, sexual repression and body snatching – A Guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde

It takes a fair amount of time before you can teach a new text with genuine confidence. Not the everyday facade of confidence that all good teachers wear routinely. Rather the calm feeling of having lots of angles covered  and few areas where a really smart pupil could catch you out with certain questions. Because no matter how carefully you’ve designed the scheme of learning on paper, there’s always that sense of uncertainty about how it might go, when launched into the real world of the classroom.

With a text as complex as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde you really need at least a year of teaching it before you can start to feel as though you have a good grasp of how best to navigate the dissection of this classic text. What do you do about the ending, for example? Give the game away and enhance understanding from the outset or try and keep the twist a secret for as long as possible (including secret pacts with the keen kids who’ve read ahead/had a study guide bought for them) for the sake of suspense?

Then there’s the context. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on the fact that I’m big on context. Not because of how many marks it’s worth on the exam paper; I want my pupils to have a detailed awareness of as many aspects of the social, cultural and historical background to the creation of the particular literary work.

So here’s my guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde. Call it a bibliography of contextual sources if you like. I tend to start with the easier stuff and work my way towards the more complicated ideas after we’ve finished with the reading of the novella but feel free to dip in and out as you see fit:

  1. A simple guide to Victorian etiquette – links particularly well with Enfield’s description of Hyde ‘trampl[ing] calmly’ on the girl ‘like a damned juggernaut’
  2. An overview of Gothic generic conventions – the usual suspects: the supernatural, the satanic/arcane, religious allusion, pathetic fallacy, horror and terror, confusion over sanity and insanity, perversion and sexual desire, the uncanny, the sublime and so on. I also ensure I’ve introduced the term ‘transgression’ as a key bit of vocab as well
  3. General introduction to religious belief in Victorian times, including an explanation of the catholic notion of Original Sin and the evolution of Satan as a concept
  4. Introduce or clarify Darwin’s theory of natural selection, linking specifically to Chapter 4 (The Carew Murder Case). I find @robward79’s Jekyll & Hyde bible very useful here
  5.   Develop the themes of urban terror and Fin-de-siècle fears (as outlined expertly by @jamestheo in his excellent knowledge organiser) through an ancient BBC documentary on the Whitechapel murders, which nicely introduces the duality of the West and East end of London. There’s also a fascinating part that discusses the diet related lack of height of Eastenders, which gives an alternative viewpoint on the stature of the ‘pale and dwarfish’ Hyde
  6. By now we’ve hopefully finished the book, so I share an interesting opinion piece by entitled ‘What everybody gets wrong about Jekyll & Hyde’, which looks at common misconceptions of the nature of duality
  7. I also throw in the extra curve ball of Jekyll’s ‘undignified…pleasures’, using Robert Mighall’s section on the doctor’s implied homosexuality in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the text.
  8. Finally – I think – I end with the most useful contextual resource of all. Ian Rankin’s indispensable documentary on the novel, which covers among other things:
  • Stevenson’s illness and drug use
  • Stevenson’s shady past
  • The duality of Edinburgh
  • Dr John Hunter and the origins of the Jekyll’s dual purpose house
  • The body snatchers and Burk & Hare
  • Deacon Brodie
  • The influence of the unfortunately named Fanny – Stevenson’s censorious wife – and Cummy – his fire and brimstone inspired story-telling nurse

And that’s probably enough to be getting on with now. Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything important. Preferably it won’t be about Fanny or Cummy as I think my Year 10 boys may well explode; I’ve already had to say “This is a matter I thought we had agreed to drop.”

Thanks for  reading,




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