David Floyd (Charleston Southern University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘“A Promise of Intellect and Refinement”: Stevenson’s Silencing of the Victorian Professional’

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of experts who “depended for their livelihood on the marketing of particular specialized knowledges” (Daly 45). These professionals were represented by types like Doyle’s Holmes, whose deductive successes “celebrate the capacity of rationalism to organize the material of existence meaningfully” (Kaymen 48) and whose negotiations of the treacherous moral landscape of the fin-de-siecle proposed to protect society from the chaos of modernism. Consequently, Victorian professionals apparently served as embodiments of a propriety and respectability denoted by their intellectual capacity and financial status. In the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, however, these upholders of the status quo are frequently depicted as emblems of patriarchal oppression as well as the bearers of a disquieting moral ambiguity.

Stevenson often portrays professionals as exemplary of what Louisa Villa describes as the pressure Victorian fathers exerted upon their sons to establish some kind of economic stability, a financial security that was at times complicated by the inevitable damage to familial connections such success effected (110). Through gothic and modernist narrative techniques, Stevenson subverts the professional at crucial stages in the narrative whereat their “specialized knowledges” might otherwise be applied and the standards which they suggested be subsequently reinforced. One example is the narrative abandonment, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of Utterson at the point where he is endeavoring to comprehend Jekyll’s collection of papers by putting into action the proficiency by which his occupation as lawyer is characterized, the effect of which is to silence Utterson for the remainder of the narrative. In this quelling of representatives of societal protocol, which a peregrine and adventurous Stevenson found uninspiring and limiting, he could deflect paternal assertions of power, effecting an Oedipal slaying of the father with whom he often quarreled.

Stevenson also suggests that the professional was potentially marred by the same immoral capacity as the subjects of their voyeuristic preoccupations. Gail Marshall, for instance, cites Jekyll’s own personality as “the catalyst for his alembic adventures” (111). In “The Body Snatcher”, Mr. Gray seems an odd admixture of criminal attributes exacted by Lombroso in Criminal Man while at the same time possessing “a promise of intellect and refinement”. Or, in Ilaria Sborgi’s words, he “looks like a criminal and yet could be a gentleman; he looks like a gentleman, and yet acts like a brute” (147).

John Kucich argues that the secular professional “provides consolation for the diminishing importance of the clergyman in late-Victorian life” (qtd in David 14). But several of Stevenson’s works call that security and reliability into question. Stifling the paternal voice and calling into question the moral assurance of the professional, Stevenson attempts a demythologizing of the “reassuring father figure” suggested in Holmes and others like him (Nayder 186).

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