'Mrs Jekyll & Cousin Hyde: The true story behind RLS's Gothic masterpiece' by Jeremy Hodges (Luath Press)
Jeremy Hodges is a committed Stevensonian. His biography of the writer, originally published in serial form, and intriguingly entitled 'Lamplit, Vicious Fairy Land,' can be read on the Edinburgh Napier University's website. The result of 10 years of painstaking research into Stevenson's life, it casts light into some dark places in Edinburgh's Victorian underbelly where the youthful writer spent much time in pubs and brothels. It's racy, occasionally speculative and utterly fascinating.
In this new biography Hodges focuses on Stevenson's relationship with his first cousin, Katharine de Mattos, whom he loved, helped and finally quarrelled with irreparably. His dedication of 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' to her recalls their deep childhood friendship.
Katharine was also a writer, but we know very little about her. She was the daughter of Stevenson's uncle Alan, a man of instinctive literary tastes who corresponded with Wordsworth, but who bowed to his father's more pragmatic perception of an appropriate career and qualified as an engineer. He built the tallest and most elegant of the many Stevenson family's lighthouses round the Scottish coast – Skerryvore, off the Isle of Tiree.
He married relatively late and had two children: Bob, artist, art critic and legendary conversationalist and Katharine. But from the time of Katharine's birth he was seriously ill, possibly from multiple sclerosis, possibly from the consequences of a youthful indiscretion in his prolonged bachelorhood. Katharine grew up in an atmosphere of gloom and Calvinistic morbidity. She and her brother were close to Stevenson in childhood and relished the happier times they spent with him.
In adulthood Katharine did not help herself by making a disastrous marriage. Sydney de Mattos was a Cambridge-educated lawyer, a convinced atheist who set his own moral compass, could not settle to a steady profession, starved Katharine of her marriage portion and was chronically unfaithful. They had two children but she eventually sued for divorce. It was to Stevenson she turned to help her through the prolonged legal wrangle, but also to help her to learn to write and thereby find work.
Over the divorce he was proactive. Apparently Katharine was with him when he embarked on his journey into the Cevennes after he had met and fallen in love with Fanny Osborne, but her presence had to be kept secret in case the opportunistic de Mattos learned of it and used it to cite him as a co-respondent in the divorce case.
Over Katharine's wish to earn her living by writing, Stevenson was more sceptical. Struggling to make his own way against the background of chronic illness, money worries, his long-distance affair with Fanny and aware that good writing requires time, effort and technique, his comments reflect a sense of imposition. He gives her one bit of good advice: 'you are writing with gloves on just now; you must learn to write with the quick of your fingers.' Elsewhere he rather disparagingly refers to her writing as being 'childish' although acknowledging it had some power. As for her idea of taking up book reviewing he is much more withering: 'I think I shall manage for her; but not without throwing a good deal on myself... I shall read the books and make my own notes, and then send them on to her; she can then write what she will, I can always straighten it up when it comes back.'
In fact, with more help from Stevenson's English friend, W E Henley, Katharine had a productive career for many years as a book reviewer with various high-powered London magazines, such as the Athenaeum and the Saturday Review. Stevenson did not need to direct her pen in that regard. Unfortunately it is difficult to assess the quality of her reviewing since her pieces were unsigned. Women were not then encouraged to advertise themselves in this way.
She was less successful with her fiction. She published one novel, 'Through the Red Litten Windows,' a darkly introspective tale that drew on the fin-de-siècle interest in the duality of good and evil in human nature that informs the likes of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,' 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and the morbid horrors of Edgar Allan Poe. It was not well received and we have no indication of what Stevenson himself thought of it.
What caused the rift between the cousins concerned a short story Katharine had written that she couldn't get published. Fanny, by then Stevenson's wife, and, as his collaborator on 'The Dynamiter,' also a published writer, took an interest in it and thought she could improve it, which Katharine, probably reluctantly, allowed. Fanny reworked it and it was published as 'The Nixie.' When Henley spotted it, he wrote to Stevenson, suggesting that Katharine's original authorship should also have been acknowledged. Stevenson's reaction was one of uncharacteristic rage, against both Henley and Katharine. Katharine was distraught. The breach between the cousins never healed although, in the way of men, Stevenson did resume his correspondence with Henley, while Bob in his laid-back way seems not to have taken it too seriously.
Tragically, Katharine's friendship with Henley seems also to have broken down over the issue, which he, failing to heed the old saw about its being ill to come between a husband and wife, had instigated.
Hodges helpfully includes several texts by Katharine: her novel, another piece of fiction called 'The Old River House,' a poem published in 'The Yellow Book' on the recommendation of Aubrey Beardsley and an account of a lazy summer day among artistic acquaintances. He also includes the published version of 'The Nixie.' It would be interesting to be able to read the original version, but certainly its style is crisper and sharper than the other examples of Katharine's writing Hodges includes.
Fanny was a tough, blunt American who had experienced frontier life; Katharine a less self-assured, Scottish Victorian middle-class lady. Neither could write fiction like Stevenson though they may have aspired. Fanny could write a good plain descriptive letter. Katharine was more wordy, her style more ornately latinate. Her skills were reflective. She could create atmosphere. But she was not a storyteller.
This quarrel does not show Stevenson in a good light, he who was so often a champion of justice elsewhere. Katharine was highly intelligent and articulate, but circumscribed by convention and misfortune. Some individuals seem born to endure rather than enjoy their lives and she was one of them. In a later age she would have had the option of more freedom and opportunity – not that patriarchy has finished with women writers yet.
Hodges' account is lively and absorbing. He relives those individuals he has researched so long and deeply. His speculations never go beyond the plausible. Moreover, this story of a forgotten Scottish woman writer, who might not otherwise merit a book solely on her own account, casts a personal light on Stevenson the man, lifts the lid on aspects of Victorian class, moral and gender attitudes and reflects on the struggles of those who aspire to write, whatever the obstacles and dangers, and whatever the consequences.
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