An unlikely Alliance:

Andre Norton and Robert Block's The Jekyll Legacy

by Judith Tarr

January 31, 2022


I would love to know the story behind this collaboration. It’s one of very few novels Norton cowrote with a male writer, and the only one, as far as I know, with a writer of at least equal eminence. Robert Bloch was a master of the genre in his own right, and he was a prolific writer of short fiction as well as novels. His most famous work was Psycho, the novel behind the Hitchcock film. He had a long and storied career in film as well as fiction; much of his work was horror or dark fantasy.

At first I wondered if The Jekyll Legacy might have been conceived by an editor or a publisher rather than by the writers themselves: the kind of thing I’ve seen referred to as “a glitzy one-off” to capture a couple of disparate but sizable audiences. The two authors don’t seem, on the face of it, to have much in common at all. They occupy almost completely separate corners of the science fiction and fantasy genre.

And yet, whoever came up with the idea—whether Norton and Bloch together or an enterprising editor—the result is a splendid combination of their talents. It’s the kind of thing I really do love. It’s set in a vividly realized Victorian London, there’s a mystery to solve, there’s a bit more romance than Norton mostly indulged in, but still rather understated.

At heart it’s unabashed fanfic, a continuation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It picks up after the suicide of the horribly transformed doctor, and introduces his young relative and eventual heir, an orphaned Canadian expatriate who has grown up under the name of Hester Lane.

Hester has no knowledge of her heritage. She’s been raised by a reclusive, abusive father, who has died and left her destitute. She has come to London as a governess, following a very thin thread of clue, a book that points toward the mystery of her father’s origins.

When the novel begins, Hester’s employment has been terminated by her charge’s grandmother. Her funds are nearly exhausted, and she is trying to find employment as a journalist. She very much values her independence, which is a difficult thing for a woman to maintain in that place and time.

Hester fits nicely into the spectrum of Norton’s Gothic heroines. She’s an orphan as most Norton protagonists are, with a mother who is essentially a nonentity, and a father who has treated her poorly. She has to find her own way in the world, but she also has an inheritance to claim, if she can—and in this case, if she will; there’s great evil in the Jekyll legacy, as she learns once she’s forced by circumstance to claim it.

There’s a strong strain of social justice about the novel. Hester’s plight as a woman alone without resources drives her to seek employment with a ladies’ magazine that tries to educate its privileged readers about the predicament of the lower classes—but not too obviously or with too much uncomfortable accuracy. Sent to report on a meeting of the newly formed Salvation Army, Hester dives deep into the very real horrors of life among London’s poor, while also, for her own survival, accepting the inheritance to which her family connection entitles her.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the fundamental duality of human nature, the conflict between good and evil that exists in every human heart. Hester’s legacy, wealth and property aside, is the dark secret that destroyed her relative, and that has somehow survived the death of Jekyll/Hyde. Or did Hyde really die? That’s one of the mysteries she has to solve.

It’s fascinating to see how the collaboration with Bloch deepened and expanded Norton’s ongoing theme of the battle between Light and Dark. Jekyll/Hyde is the literal manifestation of this fundamental conflict. Hester’s situation, the choices she has to make, the contrast between the poverty her father left her in and the wealth she inherits, further develops the theme. She is never tempted to go over to the dark side, but the dark side threatens her life and livelihood in multiple ways.

It’s a gripping read. Hester is a fairly standard Norton protagonist, but she holds her own in the story, and she’s rather less driven by outside forces than often happens in a Norton novel. She has a strong moral compass; she stands her ground against both the relentless police inspector—who represents Lawful Good—and the shadowy manifestations of Chaotic Evil. Though she’s deceived by a false friend, she doesn’t come across as plot-stupid. She’s an honest person who presumes honesty in others. That’s more to her credit than not, even when it nearly costs her her life.

My only regret is that there’s no other collaboration between Norton and Bloch. It really was an inspired pairing, though I’d never have thought so before I read it.

Next I’ll make one last stop in the world of the Time Traders, another collaboration with P.M. Griffin, Firehand.

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