The strange case of Dr Jeekyll and Mr Lewis

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Some time before Christmas there was an excellent programme on Radio 4 about Robert Louis Stevenson done by Hunter Davies, who had done his homework on RLS to the extent of forcing himself to endure the almost unbearably pleasant task of going out to Samoa and seeing the idyllic conditions in which Stevenson lived.

(On the day Stevenson died, said Hunter, I like to think he had already taken a swim in the pool in his gardens - not an artificial swimming pool, but a pool made by one of the streams that ran through his grounds. As I found out, Hunter added rather gratuitously, when I swam in it myself during my visit ... I think it is rather unnecessary to inflict that sort of information on the listener, don't you?)

Among his other chores, Hunter had interviewed the two wealthy American Mormons who have bought the old Stevenson place and are in the process of restoring it in Stevenson's memory, and one of the interesting things that emerged from their chat was that the Americans called Stevenson "Louis". Not Robert Louis or RLS or Stevenson, but Louis. Not only that, but he pronounced it in the American style, with the "s" sounded, so that the name came out like Lewis Stevenson.

It is always unsettling to find that something which everyone can agree about on paper is quite different when you start saying it. Everyone, for instance, knows that there is an "s" on the end of Louis Armstrong's first name, but we don't go round actually sounding it, do we? Well, wrong. In America, apparently, it is sometimes pronounced Lewis Armstrong. They say Lewis, we say Louee. And it isn't necessarily that we, feeling closer to our French brethren, tend to be more correct in our pronunciation and that we approximate more to the French way of saying things. After all, Louis Armstrong's great contemporary Sidney Bechet was pronounced in the French style by the Americans (As Sidney Beshay) but the French, wishing to say things in the American style, assumed that the Americans had got it wrong as usual and called him Sidney Beshette.

Quite a lot of this cropped up in Davies's programme. Samoa, he said, is not pronounced the way we usually say it, and he demonstrated the correct pronunciation, which I can't transcribe very accurately. But the surprising thing for me was to learn that Jekyll and Hyde was, if you are going to be a stickler for accuracy, pronounced Jeekyll and Hyde, or at least that that is the way Louis, or Robert Louis, Stevenson wanted it. I knew that the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll was pronounced that way, but Ihad always imagined that it was a short "e" in Jekyll and Hyde, making it Jeckyll and Hyde. Not so, said Hunter, and he swung rather uncomfortably between the two all through the programme.

You can see why. The correct pronunciation is not always the right one. Stevenson may have asked people to say Jeekyll, and that may be the authentically correct pronunciation, but if everyone has decided to say Jeckyll, then surely that becomes right? If we as a nation decided that we want to pronounce the French capital as Paris, and to call the Italian capital Rome, which is not its name at all, wouldn't it be a bit strange for any of us to start using the correct pronunciation and go around talking about getting the train to Paree or Roma?

Similarly, I have always felt uncomfortable when people correct the way I say Anthony Powell, on the rare occasions when I do mention his name. "It's not actually Powell," they say. "It's pronounced more like ..." and then they utter a rounded sound which comes out as something between Pole and Pearl. I don't go along with this. Powell is not some precious grand name to be treated with gloves. It's a bog standard, nice ordinary Welsh name meaning son of Howell (a contraction of ap Howell) and I don't see why anyone should pretend anything else, even when it is worn by a grand old English novelist.

Yes, that is the lesson for today. Correct is not always right. It may be pedantically incorrect to split infinitives, but I stoutly maintain that it is right to split them when you have to. I think my resolution for 1994 will be to have a card ready to send back to grammatical puritans when they write to me, stamped: "It is good to be correct but it is better to be right." And underneath, in smaller letters, I will have printed, "Do you say Jeekyll and Hyde? If not, why not?"

Comments