Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mary Reilly: Review

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin is a retelling of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Vividly told from the point of view of Mary Reilly, a maid in Jekyll's house, we are given an inside look at how Jekyll's house was run and how his household viewed his behavior during those fateful months when Hyde was let loose. Her story is told in the form of journal entries made during her time in Jekyll's household..

Mary is a likeable character and, as the narrator, tells her story well. We learn that she endured her own Jekyll/Hyde character--found in her father. Her father was a man who never showed great love for Mary, but who turned into an abusive demon-like character when, as she puts it, "the drink was upon him." It is the scars on her hands, a result of such abuse, that first draws her to the attention of her Master. Jekyll asks her for a written account of how she acquired those scars and she obliges. One might wonder how a housemaid in Victorian London is able to read and write, but that is explained. Mary had the opportunity to attend one of the schools that Jekyll charitably supports and she made the most of her brief time there.

Over the course of the story, Mary and Dr. Jekyll are drawn together. It would seem that he has taken an interest in her precisely because of her experience of the dark side of man. And he seems interested in her responses to the experiences she has had. He asks her how she felt about the monster her father became at times. And she replies, "Oh, I don't think he were a monster, sir. He were an ordinary man, but drinking did for him as it has many another." He considers her answer and asks, " You don't hate this father of yours, Mary?" She replies, but doesn't really answer his question. She continues to struggle with this question throughtout the book.

For her part, Mary is totally devoted to Jekyll. She believes she has found the best employer possible and a safe haven from her past in the dark back streets of her childhood. She worries at his apparent failing health as he continues his "work" in his laboratory and frets at the influence the strange Mr. Hyde seems to have over him. And worries about herself as events unfold and she is reminded more and more of her father.

Mary is a believable, strongly drawn character. She is observant and tells us all she sees and experiences--even those experiences that seem to show her idolized employer in a less than ideal light. It may stretch our belief a bit that Dr. Jekyll would talk to such a one as Mary as he does and take her into his confidence in some of the matters that he does, but the story is so well-told that our disbelief is willingly suspended. I was completely drawn into Mary's story and absolutely enjoyed this alternate take on the familiar tale. When I took part in the Dueling Monster Read-a-Long, one of the questions asked was if we thought the lack of female characters detracted from the story. I think that Valerie Martin has given a very good rendition of what the story could have been with female characters strongly to the fore.

My main quibble comes from the Afterword--written as if the diaries were real and Ms. Martin came across them. Ms. Martin writes it as though she is completely unaware of the account given by Robert Louis Stevenson. As if there's a question of what really happened in the end. Surely a faculty member in a graduate writing program has heard of the earlier account. It would have read much cleaner if she had made her bows to Stevenson's work.

Three and a half stars out of five.

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