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.
Image: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster, © 188_ Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Modifications by Papa Lima Whiskey, free licence.
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.
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Thoughtful post and such a great book, cheers, Aquileana :)
Fascinating post!! Thought you might be interested in my short film “Death Is No Bad Friend” about Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson in San Francisco: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/death-is-no-bad-friend/x/1089930 Best regards, G. E.
As a writer, I often wonder if readers will pronounce my character’s names the way I intend them to sound, because I’ve stumbled upon similar scenarios in the past from both sides. Gaelic names do seem to be the most difficult to manage. I spent an entire novel pronouncing the name “Cian” as “Sigh-On” when it’s really “Key-In.” I had to be the bad guy who informed my aunt that the name she’d picked out for my cousin was wrong, because she’d mispronounced Anne Rice’s infamous character, Louis, as “Lewis” throughout the entire Interview With a Vampire novel, not realizing the spelling made it French, pronounced “Louie” instead. I think, as someone mentioned above, it’s far more important that the reader enjoy the story and if mispronouncing names is the only way they can do this, that seems like a fair traded-off to me. Besides, Jeck-ul sounds far more sinister than Jee-kul in my opinion. Probably because of it’s likeness to “jackal.”
Huh, I never knew. I must now add this information to my useless knowledge shelf.
I enjoyed this guest blog immensely. It’s interesting how much influence Hollywood can have on our lives when we adopt the film adaptation over the originally intended pronunciation. An excellent and interesting read …
The trouble is that even if Jee-kyll is the correct pronunciation, the incorrect pronunciation has become so ingrained that using the correct one is futile. I learned last year that Samuel Beckett pronounced the name ‘Godot’ as ‘GOD-oh’, with the accent on the first syllable. I changed my pronunciation accordingly, only to be corrected when I used it.
Very interesting…I love the “See-kyl” opposite of Mr. “Hide” comment…
Nonetheless a great story by a great author…
I studied this book at University and never knew this was how you pronounced the name! Very interesting :)
As a regular visitor to Edinburgh, I know there are no hard and fast rules dividing ‘Scottish’ pronunciations from ‘English’. And I have to admit that, whether in England or Scotland, I cannot recall meeting anyone who pronounces the name as ‘Jeekul’. Nevertheless, there are certain names that, in common usage, tend to be pronounced differently in different parts of the UK. One example is ‘Rowan’ which, south of Newcastle anyway is usually pronounced with the ‘ow’ as the ‘o’ in ‘roll’, whereas in Scotland it is nearly always ‘ow’ as in ‘how’. Another, I find, is ‘Evelyn’, usually pronounced with a short ‘e’ sound, but I have often heard ‘Evil-in’ (as in ‘evil’) in Scotland.
As to Stevenson, I agree with those who think his work is underrated. Who cares how it’s pronounced!
Sometimes the truth is tough to take once we get in the habit. I’ve been pronouncing Poe’s Amontillado (Amontiyado–right) wrong for years now, yet somehow the story of revenge and pride and that guilt for 50 years is not what Montressor (that one is undergoing correction as well) thought would happen after taking care of Fortunato. Dr J, like Poe’s story, has redeeming qualities behind the heinous screen of horror.
I wonder whether the differing pronunciations really do divide along Scottish or English lines. After all, gardening Gertrude was born in London and lived and worked much of her life in England, yet she and her circle used the traditional pronunciation.
The idea that Hyde and Jekyll could equate to hide-and-seek is a delightful one. I’ve always thought that Stevenson should have reversed the names. Hyde to me suggests something solid and establishment (therefore, the good doctor), whereas, Jekyll, with that angular central K, and final double-L (not to mentioned a “Y”!) seems altogether more racy and magical (therefore the transformed doctor). But your hide-and-seek idea could well explain it.
Thanks for posting about Stevenson. I do think that he is undervalued as a writer. “Treasure Island” is a masterpiece, and some of his essays are truly fine. I also have a great affection for his poetry.
Real thoughtful article it is! A great piece on a historic novella. Thanks for sharing.
I believe such things are important to some degree, especially for anyone studying the story… but as a reader I go the linguistic route of ease of articulation… I will completely slaughter a name to alter into something I can say more smoothly… and in the end the story is just as riveting…
It reminds me of how if you pronounce Van Gogh correctly people look at you like you’re an idiot.
I actually just learned from a Scottish guy the other day how Van Gogh is supposed to be pronounced… he was laughing about how we mess it up… I do feel rather bad about that because I know I hate it if anyone pronounces my name wrong… you think when someone is that famous you wouldn’t have that problem… but I guess it can happen to the best of them…
Poor old Vincent, he really got the rough end of the stick in so many ways.
You have inspired me to re-read this book after many years.
You have encouraged me to re-read this book after many years.
Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
A delightful and interesting essay on Jekyll and Hyde. Do read!
I never had that problem, as all Greek translations have “Jekyll” pronounced JECK-eel. As far as errors go, we’re in a league of our own!
*done*, not down … sorry about typo too!
I have always used the Jek-ull pronunciation but, having down garden design, also knew about the Jee-kull one from Gertude Jee-kull. So although I knew the correct pronunciation I wilfully used the wrong one. Wanton or what?
Like you, Angela, I had a shock when first hearing the pronunciation of Gertrude Jekyll’s name, but assumed the modern pronunciation of Doctor’s name was an accepted variation — without asking how it came to be accepted. But then loads of non-English names become transformed in the mouths of English speakers: for example the Welsh name Meredith should have the accent on the second syllable, not the first; and I assume a common alternative name for the raincoat should be pronounced Mackintosh when referring to someone of Scottish origin.
Should we be pedantic here? Could we argue that Dr Jekyll might have been domiciled in London for so long that he had accepted the morphed sound of his surname to Jeck-yll? I have in mind somebody I knew with the surname Scharenguivel: he knew English speakers would have problems with it so he always dictated it as “Carnival with an ess“. Who knows what it would have mutated to if he hadn’t adopted this stratagem.
I completely agree with you. The names and title of this horror work, incredible novella of the late Victorian era, are so important to the way it is studied and analyzed. The wordplay you mentioned at the end of the blog post is fun, but also plays well with the themes explored in the larger story.
Not to mention, I have seen both films and while I enjoy watching the big stars in the 1941 version, the March version is much better in my mind.
Interesting. I do recommend the March film–it’s outstanding.
Fascinating hide and seek-all treacle post! Thank you