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The bestial side of Victorian England

Posted by Christopher Shea  October 8, 2009 08:17 AM

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The 1941 adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

The Coolidge Corner Theatre's Science on Screen series has cooked up another monstrously enticing encounter between scholars and a cinematic classic (or, anyway, a decent flick). On Monday, Oct. 19, Anne Harrington, chair of the department of the history of science at Harvard, and her husband, John Durant, the director of the MIT Museum--both scholars of Victorian science--will introduce a screening of the 1941 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," starring Spencer Tracy (and with Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman, to boot) .

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the original novel, was no master of subtlety, and it doesn't take a Harvard professor to figure out that the story has something to do "the beast within." But Harrington and Durant will speak, for example, about how "Jekyll and Hyde" reflected Victorian attempts to grapple with the arrival, and triumph, of a Darwinian view of the world. If humans could evolve, for example, might it not be possible for them to degenerate as well? The notion of inevitable, Whiggish progress began to be called into question, and Victorian observers began to see rampant crime, inequality, and an apparent increase in cases of madness as signifiers of devolution.

Victorian elites viewed the poor, reflexively enough, as evidence of man's subhuman origins. But "Jekyll and Hyde" pushes a stronger point, Harrington explained in a recent interview. Elites "who try to wall themselves off from their bestial nature are practicing the height of hypocrisy," she said.

The novel also contained a surprisingly modern critique of the "shadow side" of science, in Harrington's words (a perspective we tend to associate with the post-Hiroshima era).

Stevenson's ambivalent view of science and scientists may have been shaped, Harrington, says, by the real-life story of William Burke and William Hare, who in 1827 and 1828 killed 17 people and sold their bodies to an anatomist with ties with the elite Edinburgh Medical College, who used them in his courses. The anatomist claimed to be oblivious regarding the origins of the bodies, but the public had its doubts, as, quite likely, did Stevenson. He wrote a short story based on the infamous case, called "The Body Snatcher."

The event begins at 7 p.m.

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