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The Price of Pretension: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Part 1)
   
By Arthur Paul Patterson

My God, Do I Look Strange? • Samoa 1894

FANNY WAS IN
a mulish mood. Robert Louis Stevenson muttered, “balmawhapple,” (Gaelic for obstinate) under his breath as he descended to the basement to retrieve his finest Burgundy. After a cigarette and a hand or two of whist, he cajoled his discontented wife into helping him construct a luscious salad of Samoan fruits and fresh green lettuce harvested from their tropical garden. He tore a large juicy leaf; his entire body jolted and shuddered as if electrocuted.
His expression contorted. His face melted down the side of his head.

Stevenson image
The kitchen mirror trapped a visage he’d seen only in his nightmares. The face leering at him from the looking glass was a metaphysical anomaly, a collage of faces, some resembling his younger self, others from early Scottish eras: John Knox, William Deacon Brodie. Discontented to take on a fixed form, the face sluiced into hideous caricatures of his father Thomas, his nanny Alice, and his boyhood friend Bob. Sepia-toned images of the writer’s fictional characters fueled the final macabre likeness: Long John Silver, Markheim the murderer, Prince Florizel of the Suicide Club, and finally Dr. Henry Jekyll metamorphosed into Edward Hyde.

Louis’ bony fingers clutched his scalp; he swung toward Fanny and slurred, “My God! Do I look… strange?” Fanny graciously lied. Stevenson sank into benevolent deception and died.


Bournemouth, South England 1885

Stricken by Bluidy Jack, as he called his lung disease, Louis, propped on a pillow, turned his face toward the ornate dresser that his father had sent from Edinburgh. Crotchety as his engineer father was at times, Thomas Stevenson had a sentimental core. Louis remembered his father’s letters composed during his lighthouse inspection tours. Often his father would ask, “How’s my little smoutie (small fry) doing?” The nickname irritated Louis. It drew attention to his frailty, but he understood that the term came directly out of his father’s affectionate large heart.
 
Thomas longed to be greeted by the scrawny lad, whose gigantic imagination told Bible stories in hilarious detail, including cigar-smoking Israelites trooping out of Egypt.

Memories of his father’s delight, his barrel-chested laughter and proud embrace had a medicinal effect on the ailing, mid-aged Louis.

pull-out quotationThe effect dissolved as he remembered that his father’s love had changed over the years. Their relationship became shrouded in disappointment and tarnished by stubbornness, suspicion and argument. Recently, in a letter to his cousin and best friend, Robert (Bob) Stevenson, Louis admitted that his parents expected the worst of him and that he consistently gave it to them, to his shame. Accompanied by another wrenching cough, this truth tore into him.

He regretted hurting his parents yet couldn’t bear the cost of conforming to their strict Calvinist beliefs and Victorian morals. He was ashamed of his immaturity as he lay on his sickbed: thirty-six years old, financially dependent, living in father’s gift house, staring fish-eyed at the old dresser. He felt suffocated, a split self: a passionate free spirit, with a butler and a bride, in what Mark Twain called the gilded cage of duty-filled Victorianism, crushed beneath the velvet glove of his father’s controlling kindness. These thoughts and his ensuing rage brought on another lung tearing coughing spell.

Why did an oversensitive conscience and hypersensitive lungs plague him? Pondering the question, his eye turned toward the ornamental design on the bureau on which the letters “W.D. Brodie” were etched. A faintly wicked, mischievous smile crossed his face as he fell asleep exhausted.
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