Sunday 10 April 2011

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin won the Orange Prize back in 2003 with 'Property' and I bought 'Mary Reilly' on the strength of how much I enjoyed that book. It was mentioned in passing on Park Benches and Bookends recently which was why I pulled from the TBR pile. I started reading and then realised that serendipitously it was linked to other reading (I like it when that happens).

This is the story of one Mary Reilly, who, it transpires, is housemaid to Dr Jekyll. M and I had picked out stories by Robert Louis Stevenson on CD at the library a few weeks ago and spent an afternoon listening to the tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I actually found this story to be more disturbing that the original because the malevolent presence of Mr Hyde in the house is far more vividly portrayed from the point of view of Mary who has no understanding of what was going on. The book opens with a description that Mary has written for Jekyll of abuse that she suffered as a child at the hands of her father; she is locked in a cupboard and he puts a rat in with her that mauls her horrifically leaving her badly scarred. Jekyll's observation of her scars and interest in her story marks the start of a subtle alteration in the master/servant relationship, where through intermittent conversations they come to both see each other as real people; he to understand that she is an articulate intelligent young woman with a yearning to learn and understand the world, and she, though she never loses her sense of her subordinate position, to develop a devotion to him beyond her domestic role. His attention to her makes her life feel more important, not 'ideas above her station' but simply the sense of being respected as a human being:

"When Master is gay and kind to me, as he was today, asking my opinion and listening to me as no one has ever listened to me, then all the sadness I feel lifts as suddenly as a bird, leaves me entirely, and I know such a soaring of spirits as I think mun come to few in this life. Though I tell myself this is only a gentleman having idle conversation with his housemaid for want of a better pastime, I don't believe it, have no will to believe it, but respond, no, he wants my company and not another's." (p.72-3)

The book is about Mary though, not Jekyll, so it is a domestic story, victorian household chores abound, step scrubbing and fire laying, and about the below stairs relationships between the hierarchy of servants, and the life on the London streets as Mary encounters it. It is never dull because the dark atmosphere created by Mr Hyde keeps upsetting the contentment of the house. They have no reason at first to think anything of him but his unattractive appearance, coupled with the aura of menace soon created a feeling hostility towards him, particularly when it becomes apparent that his actions and behaviour are the cause of stress and anxiety for Dr Jekyll. Mary's encounter with him confirms her suspicions:

" 'Then you know who I am,' he said, very cool and seeming pleased to have been discovered.
'You are Master's assistant,' I said, for I could not bring myself to say his name.
This made him smile and I wished it had not, for there was that in his smile no woman must care to meet, nor man neither, and I felt myself shrink inside my cloak. His cold eyes was all over me as well. He leaned back against the writing table and gestured to the book behind him. 'I was just taking notes for your master,' he said, 'upon a little project we have underway together.' " (p.133-4)

Valerie Martin is at pains to emphasise the contrast between the behaviour of Dr Jekyll towards Mary and her growing fear of Mr Hyde, and having read the other story, and knowing the progress of Jekyll's loss of control over the transformations into Hyde, you are constantly fearing that he has evil intent towards her as a kind of punishment of Jekyll for trying to keep this alternate side of his nature under control. As you would expect from Martin the writing is wonderful, Mary has some education but she maintains a very authentic working class voice throughout, her opinions and thoughts and her expectations of her friendship with her employer are all subdued by her social status, of which she is conscious and unquestioningly accepting. It is similarly a morality tale of the tussle between good and evil. A clever book that integrates the original story well; Poole, the butler for example is significant in both stories and come across as well researched and true to the original. At the same time as adding to the original it stands solidly on its own merits, though I am sure it would inspire any reader to go and seek out Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

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