The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

THREE – THE LEGEND

 

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The parents of Frederick Bailey Deeming described their son as a difficult child.   The troublesome child became an impossible adult. In 1891, Deeming killed his first wife and four children and buried them all under the floor. Fortunately there were no children in the second marriage. After moving to Australia, Deeming hid his dead second wife under the hearthstone in the bedroom. A dollop of cement kept the body secure and discreet. Deeming was arrested for his murders while arranging a wedding with his third beloved. The first family was murdered near Liverpool in the large village of Rainhill. The village is known for the steam engine trials of 1829. There was plenty of puff and noise that day but the place is quiet. In the trials Stephenson introduced the Rocket, and it became famous as being the first modern steam locomotive.   There are a couple of miles between Rainhill and where I lived as a child.   I attended school with children from the village. We all knew about the Rocket by Stephenson. If the adults had discussed Deeming the murderer and his crimes, the house where the bodies were discovered would have been a magnet for children. But, like a puff of steam from the Rocket, the gossip about Deeming faded away.

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The consensus is that Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes. Deeming murdered six people, and four of them were children. His name is known by some but only because Jack the Ripper experts have felt obliged to name Deeming as a possible suspect for the Jack the Ripper crimes.   The reasoning is simple. Deeming was alive at the time of the murders and he killed people. He is not, though, Jack the Ripper. Because he had an active criminal life that included fraud and theft, Deeming was in prison when the five prostitutes were being murdered in Whitechapel.   The investigation of the homicides by Deeming, like that of Doctor Crippen, involved communication between countries separated by oceans. Jack the Ripper and Doctor Crippen became notorious and their crimes inspired novelists and filmmakers. Poor Frederick Bailey Deeming is not even remembered in a village on the outskirts of Liverpool and where not much happens.

The name Frederick Bailey Deeming did not help him. It is too precise a name for mystery. Frederick Bailey Deeming sounds like a title or a definition of a particular human being rather than a clue to identity. Although he was not middle class, the name of Deeming suits a posh accent. The name Jack the Ripper suits all tongues and is as mysterious as the London fog in which five Whitechapel prostitutes were killed.  Doctor Crippen has a name that is also evocative. It does not swirl like fog but it suggests cruelty and sticks between the teeth. The Doctor is preserved as a second rate wax dummy in the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds.   The story of the romance that inspired Crippen to kill suggested lost opportunities. Ernest Raymond recognised this and wrote the entertaining and gripping novel We The Accused.  Doctor Crippen, though, is not a legend. His temptation and weakness that led to his false steps are qualities we all understand. We are curious about Doctor Crippen rather than mystified.

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Fame depends on timing. Edward Carpenter the political radical and poet described the Victorian age as a ‘fascinating and enthusiastic period.’ Much of that enthusiasm was sparked by a changing world. Politics, art and industry were all affected. Jack the Ripper was not the first psychopath to murder women but his narrow interests, poor and hardened women in an area blighted by poverty and prostitution, gave him a foothold in modernism. Jack the Ripper is not regarded as a human suffering from temptation and weakness. His crimes suggest the strength of a monster. Jack the Ripper is a creature that belongs in comic books. He was regarded as the superman of criminals.  Elements of the Victorian printed media responded to the fantasy figure and indulged in sensational cartoons and reports.

The solitary human icon, though, is more rare than we think.   The artists and scientists that create revolutions are part of cultural shifts that affect more than them. Movements and trends are important.   Jack the Ripper was a clever fiend that had a monster within him.   Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, two years before Jack the Ripper committed his first murder in Whitechapel.   Stevenson imagined modern science being used to liberate the monster within men.   The poverty and slums of Whitechapel inspired Jack the Ripper, and his escape was aided by the London fog, the industrial pollution that scarred lungs and English pretensions.  Jekyll sipped his serum, and Jack the Ripper sniffed London fog and industrial blight.

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Sherlock Holmes was also important to the Victorian imagination that was haunted by Jack the Ripper. For Christians the existence of the devil confirms the presence of God. Sherlock Holmes was the alter ego of Jack the Ripper, two men without empathy and shaped by crime. Jack the Ripper existed to supply mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes was created to solve them.   Both men had odd behaviours. Jack the Ripper murdered women, and almost as bad, Sherlock Holmes played unlistenable melodies on his violin and took cocaine.  Jack the Ripper even left a clue that belonged in a story by Conan Doyle, the odd inscription on the wall about ‘the Juwes’ not being blamed.  Holmes, Jekyll and Jack the Ripper connected in the imaginations of the British.  Each made the legend of the other two more potent.  All three were imagined to be gentlemen. Holmes and Jekyll are the upper class creations of Stevenson and Conan Doyle. Despite there being no evidence to suggest Jack the Ripper had surgical skill the newspapers established the myth of a slayer in top hat walking the streets of Whitechapel.   Comic books and action movies demonstrate the importance of the exceptional costumes in melodrama.   The top hat, cloak and cane were an imagined and inappropriate costume but still potent symbols. Add an upper class accent and refined features and we have not just a solitary murderer but also an exceptional figure. No one wanted to meet Jack the Ripper but plenty wanted a glimpse.

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The ease with which Jack the Ripper was given a false upper class identity was not a consequence of sloppy thinking.   Social class was important to the Victorians.   Many workers were antagonistic towards the wealthy but others talked about their ‘betters’. The middle classes and men believed their privilege was justified by industry, superior intelligence and a sense of honour.   Jack the Ripper did not lack industry and he was clever enough to mutilate bodies in the dark and escape detection.  The crimes of Jack the Ripper involved daring and risk, qualities in the world of commerce that earned reward and affluence. There is also the suspicion that the murderer may have had a sense of honour or a code that belonged to a gentleman.  The victims led what were considered to be immoral lives.

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The notion of the Ripper as a gentleman with purpose and method has persuaded some that the Monarchy was involved in the murders. This notion is as daft as the suggestion that Deeming might have been Jack the Ripper.   The British Monarchy is far from being an attractive institution but it was not involved in the crimes of Jack the Ripper.  The stories, though, have done the legend no harm.   The powerful do protect their own but in the case of Jack the Ripper we are all baffled by who or what he might have been.   We have to assume that the police wanted to catch Jack the Ripper but in a society etched in social class and snobbery it is not difficult to imagine a police force rendered incompetent by deference, hierarchy and an entitlement to privilege.  It is now believed that the letter from Jack the Ripper to the Press was faked by a newspaperman. Back in 1888 it would have reinforced the suspicions of the poor and confirmed for them that the police were dumb lackeys for the powerful. One of the Sergeants on the case even had the unfortunate surname of Thicke.

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All the above contributes to the legend but none of it as important as the mystery of the identity of the killer. The inexplicable is not just addictive. It permits thought and fancy and appeals to frustrated engineers who do not like to have dirty hands. In the years between the end of the Second World war and 1960 the complicated light from the legend was dimming.   The sixties generation pledged to overthrow any remnants of Victorian puritanism but the decade had elements of the end of the last Century.   The period was ‘fascinating and enthusiastic’. It also produced know-alls who believed that modern and superior detective work would identify the killer. Amateur detectives bred like rabbits, and books promised a solution to the mystery.   Author Patricia Cornwell is a recent example. When her theory was dismissed as silly, she claimed that it was because she was American and female. The thrillers of Cornwell have sold over a 100,000,000 copies. The woman is a slick operator yet Cornwell bought 30 paintings by artist Walter Sickert.  She believed their dark themes established his guilt. This is bizarre logic.   Paintings are an exercise in imagination and, although Cornwell does not think it important, Sickert was in France for four of the murders by Jack the Ripper.  The sensible books on Jack the Ripper avoid extravagant claims.   A mystery is different from a puzzle. It does not need to be solved to be interesting.  Silliness, though, will continue.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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MARY REILLY

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Mary Reilly has many of the ingredients that we remember from Hammer horror films.  The Victorian costumes are tight, and the rooms of gentlemen have plenty of furniture. To catch our eyes the doors inside are painted red. Everyone walks with a straight back, and the anxious hurry through London fog. The elite rest on their walking sticks, and the poor scatter. Because this is a film, the fog is white and not the yellow muck that plagued Londoners in the 19th Century. No wonder Jack The Ripper never worried about witnesses to his dreadful crimes.  The difference between the typical Hammer film and Mary Reilly is that this film has a script written by someone who does not have a tin ear for dialogue. The film retells the tale of Jekyll and Hyde but through the perspective of the maid. We do not need to worry about spoilers. Everyone knows Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde did not have a happy ending.   The fate of Mary is ambiguous but it does not require melodrama. She loses an employer and a job and becomes confused but there may or may not be hope for the quiet maid at the end of the film. This should surprise no one.

Creativity consists of talent, sensitivity, serious application and skill. It also requires the creative, when they work, to make decisions. Sometimes the talented can make wrong choices about scenes, characters and plot. Mary Reilly attempts to combine a sensitive study of a complex relationship and sensational gothic horror. Not every call made by director Stephen Frears feels right but no one should underestimate the difficulty of knowing what to do for the best.  The serious will want restraint, and genre fans will want blood. The brothel owner Mrs Farraday adds little to the film, and her slaying takes the story too close to explicit horror. The appeal of the original story was that we had the sense that the evil of Hyde was beyond not just the Victorian imagination but our own.   Robert Louis Stevenson makes it clear that Hyde has murdered but the violence in the novella may be a consequence of a reckless lifestyle and foul temper rather than a brutal compulsion to harm. In The Strange Case Of Mr Jekyll and Mr Hyde bourgeois manners and ignorance define the shock and horror. In his masterpiece Treasure Island, where he wants to reveal obsession and greed, Robert Louis Stevenson is more explicit. This novel also happens to have some of the finest exposition in English Literature albeit that Stevenson is Scottish.

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The performances of John Malkovich and Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly have attracted criticism. Despite the emphasis on gothic style within the film and an interesting yet anything but realistic story some people have carped about the American accent of Malkovich and the attempts at an Irish brogue by Roberts.  Mary Reilly was made in 1996, and dialogue coaches were not as common then as they are now. Malkovich is an American actor, and there is no reason why Jekyll cannot for the purpose of the film be an American resident in London. Roberts never masters the rhythm of the Irish accent but she is good at catching the soul of an oppressed innocent.   She has clear eyes and is sympathetic and likeable. Her charisma is rooted in a mystery that has vulnerability at its core. Malkovich does not emphasise the difference between Hyde and Jekyll. The former is clean-shaven and has dark hair. His features do not become grotesque. Hyde is not monstrous, and Jekyll is not the familiar cultured gentleman who possesses impeccable manners.

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The book Mary Reilly was written by Valerie Martin, and she lives in Louisiana. The book and the film have an additional American sensibility, and this is a bonus. It is possible to imagine Jekyll as the plantation owner tortured by his conscience and Hyde as the man who will not deny himself the opportunity to use slaves to indulge his desires. Malkovich creates an original interpretation of Jekyll.  The actor defines a gentleman as someone compromised and frayed by privilege, wealth, appetites and a conscience. Interesting this may be but Malkovich is perhaps a misguided choice for the role. He has an unusual and distinctive voice but it has a limited range. Malkovich is best at being weird. The two extremes between obedience and rebellion are not in his quirky nature. It is valid to keep the distinctions between Jekyll and Hyde subtle but the voice of Malkovich denies rather than enhances subtlety. If any subtlety is achieved, it is not present in the final scene. In their death throes the two bodies of Jekyll and Hyde exist as separate entities in the one body. Imagine a head struggling to leave one of your shoulders. No doubt there will be a technician who is proud of this effect but this technical work is redundant. It is neither the equal of the transformation in An American Werewolf In London nor appropriate. The distortion of the body makes Mary squirm and it provides a climatic shock for the audience but it is inconsistent with what has been suggested by Malkovich, the extremes within one nature rather than two battling individuals. The decapitation of Mrs Farraday and the dual headed monster look like ideas imposed by producers.

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The film is best when it is being subtle and there are enough of these moments for Mary Reilly to qualify as superior horror. At the end of the film we understand that Mary was attracted to both Jekyll and Hyde but not certain as to why and how she was attracted. The obvious explanation is that she was attracted to the physicality of Hyde and had sympathy for the troubled Jekyll but it feels more complicated than that.   Mary has the truth explained to her on two occasions. When Hyde explains to Mary, we see the two in close-up. When Jekyll says almost the same thing, we watch from the top of a very tall staircase. Both relationships are strange and extreme but in different ways.

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Jekyll has a monster within him but without Hyde as his alter ego he may not have been able to acknowledge Mary as a human being. Jekyll likes that Mary reads and is impressed by her curiosity. More than a few of their conversations take place in the library. Mary is defined by work and servitude and is grateful for modest comfort and security. She also has memories of an abusive and violent father. Her past produces not just pain but suppressed hatred. Good and evil can be explained as the consequences of love and hatred. Mary has enough hatred to feel an affinity with Hyde. She also understands the benefits of puritanism and hard work. She may lie down next to the body of Jekyll at the end of the film and seek consolation for a wounded heart but, like Jekyll, she will have to make a choice between the two aspects of her nature.

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The emphasis on the visits of Hyde to brothels implies that evil or damage are rooted in the uncontrolled sexual libido of the male. Prostitution is a high-risk occupation that exists as a safety valve for a society that requires obedience and restraint. The respectable man that Hyde murders also has selfish appetites but, unlike Hyde, he is discreet. But sex is not the only destructive force identified in the film.  There is also the conflict that exists between ignorance and curiosity. Jekyll wants to understand the nature of man, and Hyde is curious about his appetite for pleasure. Both men are expanded by knowledge but neither they nor their appetites will prevail. Hyde uses his knowledge to wield power over others. Jekyll discovers insights that reveal guilt and conflict. The servants and neighbours may lack curiosity, indeed the truth of what happened is beyond them, but they survive and remain intact. Mary has knowledge that she did not have before and she will have to at least find a job to survive. More than that, as the final shot in the film makes clear, she will remember what happened to Jekyll and Hyde and how she felt. She cannot share in the ignorance of the others.

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For much of the film Mary is an obvious victim and the film can be regarded as feminist criticism of men and their hierarchy. These women were not only dependent on male strength, power or privilege but also had to endure the oppression of men who failed to achieve the self-control and honour demanded by the hierarchy. Later in the film we discover that Mary is not merely a victim. Like Jekyll, she has to keep separate the moments that provide pride and respect from those that insist upon shame.   All the characters are, to some extent, like Jekyll and have to keep at a distance the memories that generate self-hatred. Poole the head servant is the biggest snob in the Jekyll household and, when his status is threatened, he can be cruel. But he also has compassion when there is tragedy. Both rivalry and camaraderie exist amongst the servants. But all, servants, masters and the rest of us, are obliged to distance themselves from the dark aspects of our natures and those dreadful incidents in our histories. By averting our eyes from past failure and transgressions we maintain an essential gap between self-respect and shame. Knowledge has its benefits but it forces us to look. As we understand more, the distance between what we like to remember and what we need to forget becomes narrow. This is the psychological threat that we spend most of our lives attempting to sidestep.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.