Guest Blog: The Surprising Truth behind Jekyll and Hyde
By Daniel Evers, University of Bristol
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the most famous supernatural horror stories of all time. The novella’s impact on Western culture is such that ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has entered the English lexicon as a definition for any morally ambiguous person.
The text is enjoyed by many, and rightly so, but the majority of readers continue to be deceived by a lie, created and perpetuated, it would seem, by the media of film and television.
The point is that most people are convinced that they know how to correctly pronounce the name of the eponymous Dr Jekyll. The correct pronunciation is, and always has been, ‘Jeck-ul’, of course.
Or has it?
Well no, as it happens. The correct (and little-known) Scottish pronunciation of Jekyll is ‘Jee-kul’, a fact that, when shared with a discerning listener in the course of polite conversation, is most often met with a quizzical look as if to suggest that, ‘You, dear boy, are as mentally unstable as the good doctor!’
Such an earth-shattering revelation (I may have exaggerated the impact slightly) can take time to settle in. Some people just do not want to be told that the thing they thought was correct all this time has actually been incorrect all along. Even after providing evidence to support my assertion, some folk assure me that they will continue to use ‘Jeck-ul’ because that is what they were taught, thank you very much.
But as much as I seem to take a little too much pleasure in my knowledge of the arcane pronunciation of a character from a book published over 125 years ago, I have to ask myself, ‘does it actually matter how the name is pronounced? Surely we can all enjoy Stevenson’s work without resorting to tit-for-tat about a name!’
However, I believe this question creates a valuable debate about Stevenson’s own motivation and meaning, as well as the artistic appropriation of the text by English and American filmmakers in the twentieth century.
I originally discovered this uncommon fact whilst studying at Kent. It was told to me by a favourite lecturer who said that Stevenson had intended ‘Jee-kul to rhyme with treacle, not Jeck-ul to rhyme with heckle’. Whether or not these were Stevenson’s words I cannot tell (there is no good evidence to suggest they are), but they stuck with me.
I decided to find out why, in some cases, even the most well read of academics were unaware of this pronunciation.
My quest launched me into the world of Hollywood (fount of all cultural wisdom), where in 1941 a film was made based on the text starring Hollywood heavyweights Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner. The film was a remake of a 1931 production starring Fredric March.
The interesting thing is that March pronounced Jekyll ‘Jee-kul’, whilst Tracy pronounced it ‘Jeck-ul’. Despite being made only ten years later, Tracy’s portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde marked a watershed moment for the shift in pronunciation in mainstream society.
So why did March’s pronunciation not take hold instead, given that it had a ten-year head start?
The answer lies in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s decision to locate and destroy every print of the 1931 film that they could lay their hands on. MGM had acquired the rights to the 1931 film in anticipation of their release of Tracy’s 1941 version, and to ensure that people would watch their film, the studio deemed it necessary to rid itself of the competition. MGM’s destruction of the 1931 original essentially made it a lost film for many years (except for miscellaneous clips) until a full copy was found and restored. But in that time, Tracy’s star quality had promoted the 1941 film and taught a generation of people how to pronounce Jekyll incorrectly.
Before 1931, the only adaptations of the text were silent film productions. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Fredric March was the first actor to be heard speaking the name on film. Unfortunately, since 1941 there have been many further adaptations on film and television, each taking Tracy’s lead and perpetuating the myth of ‘Jeck-ul’ to an unsuspecting audience.
There seems little doubt that Stevenson meant for Jekyll to be pronounced the Scottish way. Jekyll is an actual Scottish surname and Stevenson borrowed it from a family he befriended (that of famous horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll).
But if Stevenson meant for the name to reflect the Scottish pronunciation, why did he set the novella in London rather than Edinburgh (his place of birth)? By making the characters in the text English, was he not shifting the cultural boundary of the novel to England and therefore inviting English pronunciation?
These are perfectly reasonable questions. But Stevenson was not the only Celtic writer to relocate the setting of a text from the periphery of the British Empire to its spiritual home in London. Other Scottish and Irish writers (such as earlier writer Jonathan Swift) adopted England as their home because it was the best (and often only) place to flourish as an artist during the nineteenth century. Perhaps Stevenson simply wanted to give his novella the best chance of success by placing the action in London.
There is also a lovely anecdote that suggests Stevenson may have chosen the name as a joke, intending ‘Jee-kul’ to rhyme with ‘seek all’, in opposition to Mr Hyde (or Mr Hide) and in reference to the children’s game ‘Hide and Seek’.
Ultimately, whether you pronounce Jekyll ‘Jee-kul’ or Jekyll ‘Jeck-ul’, I hope we can at least agree that Stevenson’s unnerving story deserves its place in the canon of horror fiction. And if I have succeeded in converting some of you, all the better. Now go forth and spread the word: ‘Jee-kul’ has been found alive and well.
Learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson’s fascinating life and work here.
Daniel Evers is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Bristol. He is undertaking a comparative literary study of British and American poetical responses to the mid-nineteenth century European revolutions. He is reading the works of Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and the Brownings. Daniel created and manages the postgraduate journal HARTS & Minds.