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A Time of Terror:
England's Social Conditions in the Late Nineteenth
and the Rise of the Novel of Terror
University of Saskatchewan
The last twenty years of the Nineteenth century saw an unprecedented
rise in both the production and consumption of novels in the genre of terror,
leading to the publication of many of what have come to be known as the
most famous works in the area. Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Island
of Dr. Moreau were all written within this time frame, along with countless
lesser works known as "shilling shockers"-- cheap, mass-produced
tales of terror and sensationalism designed to appeal to a wide market.
Such facts lead to an obvious question: why was the late Nineteenth century
such a fertile time for the production of the novel of terror? The answer
can be found within the time itself-or, more specifically, within the specific
set of societal conditions present in England during this time. It is my
assertion that the best works of these periods hold the enviable distinction
of simultaneously representing, reflecting, and helping to create the society
in which they are produced. Therefore, using The Strange Case of Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the literary exemplar, it is possible to identify
a deeply symbiotic relationship among a given society, the particular literature
which it creates and to a large extent is created by, and the reader within
this society, who avidly consumes such texts. Through this, it becomes clear
that the combination and culmination of a number of distressing societal
concerns in London during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century also
formed a set of conditions perfect for the novel of terror, and that the
contemporary impact of The Strange Case, and other novels like it,
resulted largely from its interaction with and exploitation of the societal
circumstances which surrounded its production. As such, I intend to highlight
the relationship among the society of Late Victorian England as a whole,
the literature of terror which it produced, and the contemporary reader
who avidly consumed such work From this, I will illustrate not only that
this mode of literature is dependent both artistically and linguistically
upon a reciprocal interaction with the conditions perceived to exist in
the culture from which it issues, but also that the conditions present in
Late Victorian England resulted in an environment especially well-suited
to the creation of such literature.
As the end of the Nineteenth century neared, England was faced with a
number of distressing social concerns, almost all of which were urban in
nature, which insinuated themselves into the popular mindset. Crime, poverty,
overpopulation, and heightened immigration were all matters of much debate,
and matters which inspired fear in the populace. At the same time, the popularity
of several different theories concerning the psuedo-scientific topic of
degeneration theory was on the rise, and in many cases gaining widespread
acceptance. Concerning the relationship among the topic of degeneration
theory, the very real social problems and concerns which arose in London
during the Nineteenth Century, and the often exaggerated perceptions and
fears which arose as a result of both, the dialogue quickly becomes centered
upon both the conditions endured (or created, depending upon which side
of the debate one was on) by the lower classes, and the resultant threat
which they were seen to pose to "respectable" society. As Daniel
Pick notes, "degeneration was a continuing theme from the 1850s to
the 1880s and beyond. Yet the 1880s did witness a powerful intensification
of theoretical speculation. The problem was no longer merely academic or
marginal, but urgently tied to the crises of London" (201). In large
part, this crisis was centered upon the vast growth of poverty, disease,
and vice which was perceived to be located in the East End of the city.
As Mary Burgan states, "the segregation of squalor in the East End
was amalgamated in the popular imagination in the last quarter of the century"
(45). Such images were both produced and reinforced by contemporary writers
such as Andrew Mearns, who in his essay "The Bitter Cry of Outcast
London stated "few who will read these pages have any conception of
these pestilential rookeries . . . to get to them you have to penetrate
courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from the accumulation
of sewage" (58). From his observations, Mearns makes a connection between
such poverty-stricken, unhealthy conditions and an inevitable degeneration
of the inhabitants into vice and criminal behavior, speaking of the vast
moral corruption seething in the very centre of our great cities" (55).A
social reformer who sought to alleviate the deplorable conditions of which
he spoke by sensationalizing them in graphic and shocking detail, Mearns
intended to imply that eliminating the squalor and poverty which he described
would do much to eliminate the corresponding vice and immorality which threatened
While Mearns' essays and those of other like-minded reformers were by
and large aimed at producing a charitable response from the bourgeois, it
is important to note that the effect which he sought for his writing led
him to trade upon the language of degeneration in his descriptions, in an
attempt to both amplify and subsequently capitalize upon the fears of his
audience. Others writing upon the state of the lower classes from a decidedly
different standpoint also adopted the language of degeneration, in order
to produce an even more terrifying vision of the threat which they argued
was resided within the populace of London. For example, in a much more unforgiving
manner than Mearns, Henry Maudsley helped to both create and solidify upper-class
fears of a group of genetically-predisposed criminals at large in the city
in identifying what he called "a distinct criminal class of creatures
who herd together in our large cities . . . propagating a criminal population
of degenerate beings" (qtd. in Pick, 208). While reformers such as
Mearns attempted to portray a picture of the criminality and vice thought
to be running rampant in the city as stemming from environment, a large
number of influential thinkers sided with Maudsley in the belief that the
squalor, poverty and immorality in which was perceived to be engulfing the
lower classes were in fact created by the degenerative state into which
they had receded. Most noteworthy for this project is the fact that, while
these two disparate views may have been at odds as to the order of the cause
and effect relationship between environment and immorality in London, both
sides exploited the fear which the relationship caused in order to further
It is this view, of the degenerate populace living in an environment
of immorality and vice, to which the various theories encompassed under
the umbrella term degeneration speak most forcefully, and it is the combination
of realist social commentary and pseudo-scientific degeneration theory which
provided such fertile ground for the growth of the novel of terror in the
last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. The members of Maudsley's "criminal
class," for example, were thought by theorists such as Cesare Lombroso
in Italy and Francis Galton in England to exhibit the signs of degeneration
physically as well as mentally, with Lombroso describing this "type"
as "an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts
of primitive humanity and inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically.
. . [the shared physical features] found in criminals, savages, and apes"
(qtd. In Pick, 122). Simultaneously, however, there existed a large collective
fear among the upper-classes as to the potential for individuals of this
type to exist unidentified in the city's midst. As Pick states, there remained
a "tension between the image of the degenerate and the unseen essence
of degeneration, a tension inherent in earlier discourses on the 'dangerous
classes' of the city. Perceived as visibly different, anomalous, and racially
'alien,' the problem was simultaneously their apparent invisibility in the
flux of the great city" (51). This tension, then, creating a public
terrified of the possible actions of an identifiable criminal class while
at the same time fearful that these same criminals could walk among them
unnoticed, will be examined in this project as a lucrative paradox for the
novel of terror.
In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson plays
masterfully upon this powerful sense of fear provoked by the ambiguous,
ill-defined, and seemingly all-encompassing concept of degeneration, the
threatening spectre of which pervaded every element of mid to late-Victorian
culture. However, equally important is the narrative style which Stevenson
employs, for The Strange Case is as much unwritten as it is written:
the text is, paradoxically, filled with empty spaces--"unspeakable"
crimes, unexplained documents, unspoken stories, and, ultimately, an unresolved
conclusion--all of which mirror the vague, indefinable threat which was
posed by the variously identified manifestations of degeneration. And it
is here that subject matter and narrative style merge, creating a text which
supersedes the genre of "popular" horror in which its creator
intended it to reside. For by simultaneously designating the amorphous but
extremely fear-inspiring concept of degeneration as the wellspring of the
novella's terror while refusing to provide either a full account or explanation
of the actual manifestations of this terror, The Strange Case demands
an unusually high effort of pure imagination from its reader; an exercise
which will inevitably produce visions of horror far more powerful than any
attainable by the written word. By utilizing such a tactic, Stevenson adeptly
exploited the fears which so obsessed his late-Victorian audience.
In the character of Edward Hyde, Stevenson immediately and explicitly
locates the threat of degeneration within The Strange Case, a fact which
at first seems to give the lie to any argument concerning the illusive and
ubiquitous nature of the novella's representation of this concept. Hyde
is an exact characterization of the most visible, obvious, and inflammatory
threat identified by the varying theories and arguments contained within
the overall concept of degeneration: the specific "criminal type"
of degenerate identified and made famous by Lombroso and Galton. In fact,
every description of Hyde given in the novella corresponds to a remarkable
degree with these identifications of the criminal type: he is "troglodytic"
(448), "savage" (448), and "ape-like" (452), as well
as "remarkably small" (453), even "dwarfish" (448).
Indeed, it seems almost as if Stevenson created Hyde by exactly conflating
the images described by Lombroso with the most fearsome realization of Galton's
attempts to capture the innate appearance of the criminal.
Furthermore, the particular repugnancy of Hyde seems to exude evil and
wickedness, resulting in the alienation of all those who encounter him.
Richard Enfield, the first character in the novella to meet and subsequently
describe Hyde, states that "there is something wrong with his appearance;
something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet
I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere" (443). The lawyer
Utterson later mirrors this opinion after his own confrontation with Hyde,
musing that the man is "pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of
deformity without any nameable malformation" (448). Disturbed, Utterson
determines that the aura of repulsive wickedness which seems to transude
from Hyde's countenance must be a reflection of his inner immorality: "the
radiance of a foul soul transpires through, and transfigures its clay content"
(448). Utterson's connection further concretizes the image of Hyde as an
exemplar of the Lombrosian and Galtonian theories of criminal atavism, automatically
associating repugnant appearance with delinquency.
The actions of Hyde certainly seem to prove the validity of Utterson's
mental association beyond the shadow of a doubt. The first mention of him
comes in the form of an incident related by Enfield, who watched in horror
as Hyde ran into a small girl and then "trampled calmly over the child's
body and left her screaming on the ground" (441). While this display
of cruelty may have been, as Enfield goes on to state, "nothing to
hear, but ... hellish to see" (441), the same cannot be said with regards
to the next incident in which Hyde is involved, the incredibly brutal murder
of Sir Danvers Carew, a scene which must be regarded as one of the crucial
focal points in terms of both the narrative style and the subject of degeneration
in The Strange Case. This act of extreme violence is described in truly
graphic and shocking terms: "Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds, and
clubbed [Carew] to the earth. And next moment, with apelike fury, he was
trampling his victim under foot, hailing down a storm of blows, under which
the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway"
(452). When the only witness to this abhorrent act has revived from the
fainting spell which the shock of the sight had brought upon her, "the
murderer was gone long ago; but there lay his victim in the middle of the
lane, incredibly mangled" (452).Most obviously, the horrific imagery
of this description provides the absolute proof of Hyde's criminal degeneracy.
The maniacal energy with which Hyde brutalizes his helpless victim accords
synonymously with Lombroso's description of the criminal atavist as one
who feels "the irresponsible craving of evil for its own sake, the
desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse,
tear its flesh and drink its blood" (qtd. In Pick 122).
More than just a graphic invocation of the terror inherent in the degenerate
criminal however, the savage imagery of this particular point in the narrative
serves a deeper purpose in terms of Stevenson's usage of narrative space.
Stevenson's technique in The Strange Case can be compared to that
used by Andrew Mearn. Mearns was known for structuring his writings so as
to "hint at abominations which decency compelled him to leave undescribed,
and thus both to intrigue and horrify his readers" (Mearns, 16), thereby
raising their awareness and outrage over the plight of the poor in London.
Yet in his essay The Bitter Cry Of Outcast London, Mearns, while describing
(in terms which also suitably invoke the notion of degeneration) the "vast
mass of moral corruption seething in the very centre of our great cities"
(55), bluntly states "incest is common" (61). Furthermore, this
shocking statement comes after Mearns alleges that he has been "compelled
to tone down everything, and wholly to omit what most needs to be known,
or the ears and eyes of our readers would have been insufferably outraged"
(57). For Mearns, the goal is obviously to force his readers to wonder about,
and subsequently imagine, what horrors could possibly be even worse than
Similarly, after describing the murder of Danvers Carew in such excruciatingly
shocking detail, the narrative of The Strange Case never again contains
any revelation concerning the exact nature of Hyde's further crimes. Instead,
as for example in Jeckyll's "Final Statement," the doctor speaks
only of undignified pleasure and monstrous acts, stating that "into
the details of the infamy at which I thus connived I have no design of entering"
(480).1 Likewise, Jeckyll's longtime friend and colleague Lanyon, after
becoming the first character to witness the transformation sequence and
thereby learn the truth of Hyde's existence as the physical manifestation
of Jeckyll's immorality, states only that "what [Jeckyll] told me in
the next hour I cannot bring my mind to set on paper" (475). Marion
Shaw, evidently frustrated by this lack of revelation, complains that "There
is also the question of what Hyde actually does that is so terrible; when
his crimes are scrutinized, they appear either few and simple or so unspecified
as to be meaningless" (95).2 Such an opinion entirely misses the point
of both the method through which the creation of terror can be achieved,
as exemplified by Mearns, and the assertion concerning narrative space made
at the outset of this examination: by refusing to provide any detail concerning
the nature of Hyde's numerous crimes, Stevenson invites the reader to imagine
a litany of acts which must then, by definition, be even more horrifying
than the grotesque slaughter of Danvers Carew.
The savage and morally repugnant nature of both Hyde's appearance and
his actions show that Stevenson has recognized and expertly exploited what
Pick identifies as the great Victorian fear of "urban degeneration"
and a potentially resulting "social revenge of the outcast" (202)
as an obvious and efficient mechanism with which to provoke terror. However,
it is equally important to note the ambivalence and indeterminacy which
accompanies every attempted description of the villain. M. Kellen Williams
argues that "Hyde's disconcerting effect is as much linguistic as it
is visual" (412), and this is borne out by the absolute inability of
any character to accurately describe why they feel such an intense loathing
towards Hyde simply on the sight of him. For example, Utterson painstakingly
catalogues the features which he finds repugnant in Hyde following their
first encounter, but he is nonetheless completely unable to ascertain the
locus of Hyde's aura of wickedness: "all these points were against
[Hyde]; but not all these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust,
loathing, and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him" (448). The
specific feature which is responsible for Hyde's loathsome appearance--or
rather, exactly why he seems so horrifically deformed, despicable, and foul
to all who come into close contact with him--seems to evade understanding.
Daniel Fraustino suggests that the fear which Hyde provokes in Utterson
and various others stems from the "common human need to name and therefore
control" (238), a need which is frustrated by Hyde's inexplicably evil
countenance. Williams both concurs with and builds upon this viewpoint,
stating that "Hyde's capacity for eluding language is precisely what
makes him so outstanding a menace" (417). In terms of the larger issue
of degeneration, this unique example of the effectiveness of narrative space
is crucial: Stevenson has not only raised the very specific fear of the
primitive and deformed "criminal type" of degenerate through the
physiognomy of Hyde, but he has also located the larger set of fears stemming
from the indefinable "mystique and mystery" surrounding the overall
conception of degeneration within the character's unexplainably evil persona.
In all, late Nineteenth century novels of horror such as Stevenson's
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde managed to create terror
by expertly exploiting the concerns, both real and perceived, which produced
fear in their contemporary readership. Stevenson and others seized upon
the ambiguous and threatening spectre of degeneration and tied it to the
very real social problems which the population of London was facing at the
time, creating a literature which produced terror by both reflecting and,
in large part, helping to create the climate of unease which pervaded this
1. However, by cataloguing the actions of Jeckyll and the
crimes of Hyde, it becomes clear that the character coincides
so perfectly as to seem like the major case study for the
identifying characteristics of the degenerate later produced
by Max Nordeau in his 1892 work Degeneration and collectively
grouped by Violet Paget: "Eccentricity, Suspiciousness
of evil, Egotism, Obsession by the Thought of Impurity, Confusion
of Categories, Unbridled Violence of Hatred, Indiscriminate
Destructiveness; [Nordeau] has taught us to recognize all
these as the stigmata of degeneracy" (qtd. In Pick 188,
2. Judith Halberstam also notes the opinion of Eve Sedgewick
on this matter, stating "Homosexuality, according to
Sedgewick, becomes equivalent to the unspeakable in Gothic"
(65), a position which, while perhaps identifying a potentially
valid explanation for the crimes of Hyde, nonetheless still
forces an unnecessarily restrictive interpretation upon an
area which provokes a greater fear if left open.
Burgan, Mary. "Mapping Contagion in Victorian London: Disease in
the East End." Victorian Urban Settings: Essays on the Nineteenth-Century
City and Its Contexts. Debra Mancoff and D. J. Trela, eds. New York: Garland
Publishing, 1996. (43-56).
Fraustino, Daniel V. "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde: Anatomy of Misperception."
Arizona Quarterly, 1982 Autumn (38:3). 235-40.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters.
London: Duke UP, 1995.
Mearns, Andrew. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. New York: Leicester
UP, 1970. First Published 1883.
Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-c.1918.
Melbourne: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Shaw, Marion. " 'To Tell The Truth of Sex': Confession and Abjection
in Late Victorian Writing." Rewriting the Victorians: Theory, History,
and the Politics of Gender. Linda M. Shires, ed. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. "The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll
and Mr. Hyde." Robert Louis Stevenson: The Complete Shorter Fiction.
Peter Stoneley, ed. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1991.
Williams, M. Kellen. " 'Down With the Door, Poole': Designating
Deviance in Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde."
English Literature in Transition 1880-1920. 39:4 (1996). 412-29.