A man lies dead in the gardens of Rudyard and Nightingale Crescents.As the title indicates, Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous Victorian Gothic novel. Emma Tennant sets the story around Notting Hill Gate in the late 1980’s: the women who inhabit this area have lived in fear of the attacks of a local rapist for a very long time. One day, a man who appears to be the attacker is found dead death, and one Mrs Hyde, who lives in a poor area just behind Nightingale Crescents, is suspected of his murder.
The gravel path, which was raked only this morning by residents and members of the garden committee, is disarranged at the point where it curves round to run alongside Ladbroke Grove, to the east; the hair of the dead man, brown-grey and thin, lies across it like a weed.
Tennant uses a framing device and a narrative technique similar to those used by Stevenson in the original to reconstruct events from multiple points of view. The narrators – the women from Nightingale Crescent – tell us what they remember from around the time of the crimes, and help the editor arrive at the troubling truth about Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde.
As I’m sure you have gathered by now, Two Women of London is a feminist retelling of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Using an approach somewhat reminiscent of Angela Carter, Emma Tennant tells a story that is less straightforward than my brief synopsis might have made you think. She writes about forms of violence that disproportionately affect women, yes, but also about how, as she says in this interview, “the frequently intolerable pressures for one woman today—single parenthood, need to compete in the marketplace, a Manichean split between ambition and ‘caring’—can lead to disintegration and murder.” The themes, then, are the same as Stevenson’s, but applied to the position of women in a supposedly post-feminist society rather than that of men in the late nineteenth-century.
Two Women of London also takes a swipe at gender essentialism. To cite Tennant again, her story draws attention to the fact that “of course every single woman has had those very violent feelings, just like every man.” Yet female anger is often pathologised and excluded from what we perceive as legitimate behaviour – Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde take this to the extreme and embody two different versions of femininity that exist side by side in popular consciousness and are perceived as mutually exclusive. One is the “naturally” kind and caring angelic woman; the other the woman that by virtue of her violence or gracelessness is no longer thought of as a “proper” woman.
Another interesting thing about Tennant’s writing is how self-aware and intertextual it is. Her characters explicitly discuss the political issues the story engages with, for example, and the literary allusions go beyond the obvious one. Ms Eliza Jekyll hires a woman to clean her house about once a week; in a nod to readings of Jane Eyre that see Bertha Mason as Jane’s repressed alter ego, the name of this woman is Grace Poole. Her writing is full of little details like these that make it all the more enjoyable.
As I read Two Women of London I experienced the unique excitement of finding a new author you know you could really love. This has less to do with how much I enjoyed this novel (I liked it well enough, but at 128 pages it couldn’t delve as deep as I might have liked) than with Emma Tennant’s style and sensibility, both of which really appealled to me. Much of her work has gone out of print, but Two Women of London was recently reprinted by Faber Finds along with Faustine — which as you might guess is a feminist retelling of Doctor Faustus. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)