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  • Twins, Twinship, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Emily A. Bernhard Jackson (bio)

It would seem that there is nothing left to say about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Over the last century, the text has been read as a moral allegory, a reflection of colonial and class fears, an expression of panic about homosexuality and masturbation, an economic parable, and a case study tied to Victorian psychology and brain science: it appears this particular potion has been drunk dry.1 One ingredient, however, remains unmeasured. Despite the fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde makes explicit reference to twins when Jekyll, contemplating evil and good, regrets “that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continually struggling” (49), no critic has linked Stevenson’s divided-yet-connected doubles to the phenomenon of twinship. Yet, as scholars have acknowledged, Stevenson was extremely interested in science, and the nineteenth century saw the inception of the science of gemellology (twin studies) by Francis Galton, whose work he admired. Moreover, as a lifelong invalid, Stevenson had regular contact with the medical books and ideas that contained and generated nineteenth-century beliefs about twins. In fact, both gemellology and medical twin beliefs play an important role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not only influencing the novella as a text in its own right, but also refiguring its relationship to nationalism and to Stevenson himself.

There has been considerable scholarly discussion of the implications of doubles and doubling in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and at first glance, it may be difficult to see how a discussion of twins differs from this.2 Doubles, however, are both a supernatural and an inexact phenomenon: their duplication suggests something supernatural, or they are supernatural beings who make themselves identical for a purpose, thematic or otherwise. (Perhaps the most obvious example is found in James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) At the same time, literary doubles are not necessarily physically identical, but are made and recognized to be symbolically identical. Twins, on the other hand, are actually identical, without attached symbolism.3 They thus are not a symbol but rather come to be invested with symbolism: doubles impress symbolism upon a text, but symbols rise out of the fact of twinship. My goal in this article is to see what kinds of symbolism arose around twinship in sources that might have influenced Stevenson, and to examine how they play out in, enhance, and widen our understanding of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. [End Page 70]

Twins were far from a rare phenomenon in nineteenth-century Britain. To begin with, conjoined twins of various kinds were a staple of the hugely popular Victorian freak shows that toured the nation. The promoters of these shows plastered the towns they visited with posters and handbills; when Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, first visited Edinburgh in 1830, for example, their manager exhausted his advertising budget promoting their appearance. The “exhibits” received more mainstream consideration, as well. “Lalloo, the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy” was the subject of two articles in the British Medical Journal (Tromp 167), and on the Bunkers’ second visit, from 1868–69, their case was written up in the same journal by Sir James Young Simpson (Wallace et al. 95, 265), Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, where nineteen-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson was a bored engineering student (Harman 42). Such scientific consideration of freaks legitimated them, making their Victorian gawkers feel less like sensationalist voyeurs; perhaps equally important to the displayed and their managers, the learned articles also brought them to the attention of a wider public.

In fact, such twins had been a source of lively popular interest in Great Britain since at least the sixteenth century. The first recorded set of conjoined twins made their appearance at the court of James IV of Scotland in 1508; they are variously reported to have been joined at the thigh, sharing one pair of legs, or connected elsewhere, each with his own pair of arms and legs (Fiedler 201). Over the next century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 70-86
Launched on MUSE
2014-05-24
Open Access
No
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