(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary Reilly is a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), a classic study of good and evil. Born and reared in Calvinist Edinburgh, Stevenson rebelled against his Puritan upbringing and, as a young man, led a Bohemian life, sometimes consorting with harlots. Dr. Jekyll is a handsome, “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty,” but like Stevenson, he was “wild when he was young,” indulging in irregular pleasures, suffering a “perennial war among my members.” Thus, Dr. Jekyll “stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life” before he began the chemical experiments that enabled him to separate the good and evil elements in himself and to turn into the “wholly evil” Mr. Hyde. Jekyll equivocates that Hyde alone is guilty of the sins he commits; when he turns back into the respected doctor, Jekyll is entirely innocent. The evil in Hyde was already a part of Dr. Jekyll before being distilled into its own pure form, however, and at first, Jekyll feels an exhilarating freedom when living a double life as Hyde. After Hyde commits a series of atrocities and a murder, Jekyll’s conscience takes over, as well as his sense of self-preservation, and he determines to become Hyde no more. By this time, however, his body chemistry has been so altered that he becomes transformed into Hyde without taking the formula, and it is increasingly difficult to provide the antidote. Finally, trapped forever in Hyde’s body, Jekyll commits suicide as his lawyer and butler break down the door to his laboratory.

There is no point in retelling The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde only to tell it again. It has been staged, has been filmed at least eight times (most recently in 1990), and has played in Houston as a musical. By focusing on Jekyll’s housemaid, however, who is mentioned only once and not given a name in Stevenson’s novella, Valerie Martin tells a different story that becomes interwoven with Stevenson’s. Unlike the film versions, which add a good fiancee and a wicked woman of the underworld to represent the two sides of Jekyll and Hyde and which often turn Hyde into a grotesque monster, Martin’s novel is meticulously faithful to Stevenson, leaving out any sacred and profane love stories. It describes Hyde as a small, almost dwarfish young man who nevertheless has deadly strength and a terrifying aura of evil. In its general outlines, Stevenson’s is one of the world’s best-known stories, so that it is not necessary to read it in order to understand Mary Reilly, though reading Stevenson first enables one to appreciate the great skill with which Martin has appropriated Stevenson for her own ends.

Dr. Jekyll is a bachelor who associates only with male friends, and Stevenson’s friend Henry James cited the novella as an example of Stevenson’s “heartless independence” from the necessity of introducing female characters into his stories. By shifting the point of view to Mary Reilly, Martin offers a feminist perspective not only on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but on the lower classes in Victorian England as well. Stevenson himself told the story indirectly, filtering information through several intermediary characters: Richard Enfield, who relates Hyde’s first atrocity; Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s attorney; Dr. Lanyon, in a letter left to be read after his death; and, finally, Dr. Jekyll himself, in the written confession found after his death. Stevenson also does not present the story in chronological order; only at the end does the reader learn of Dr. Jekyll’s experiments on himself. Martin retells the story in linear chronological order as Mary writes it in her daily journal. Mary Reilly is four times as long as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of necessity because Mary is not only the title character but also the central one, and the novel is her story.

Thus, the reader sees the events exclusively from the viewpoint of a poor, young, meagerly educated but sensitive and intelligent young woman who only gradually becomes aware of what is going on. After a painful childhood, in which she was sometimes tortured by her drunken father, Mary considers herself fortunate to be working for a kind master in what Stevenson calls a house with “a great air of wealth and comfort.” There is no arrogant mistress to look down her nose at Mary and no messy children for her to clean up after; in fact, five other servants help to care for Dr. Jekyll in his great house. There she is well fed, and though she shares a garret bed with Annie (another maid) and works incredibly long hours scrubbing, cleaning, doing laundry, building fires, being a chimney sweep, and doing whatever other chores are assigned for a mere twelve pounds a year, plus her room and board and half a day off a week, Mary is grateful for her position—a damning commentary on the exploitation of the servant class in Victorian England. Much of the novel is a graphic picture of the conditions of the life “downstairs,” with its own hierarchy, and all of it a world removed from the “upstairs” aristocracy. Mary has no life except working and sleeping and little hope for a better future.

Mary begins unobtrusively enough, but when her employer notices the scars of what look like bites on her hands and neck, he asks her to write for him an account of how she got them. The novel opens with this account, Mary’s first attempt at writing, as she recalls the horrible episode of her childhood in which her brutal father locked her in a dark cubbyhole under the stairs and then threw in a rat, which bit Mary repeatedly...

(The entire section is 2297 words.)