Valerie Martin Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Valerie Martin 1948–

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Martin's career through 1994.

Chiefly known for her novel Mary Reilly (1990), Martin has received critical acclaim for her neo-Gothic writing style, her psychological character portraits, and her striking evocation of mood and place. Emphasizing sexuality, violence, obsession, death, and issues related to power, her novels and short stories focus on male-female relationships and humanity's link to the natural world.

Biographical Information

Born in Sedalia, Missouri, Martin was raised in New Orleans—the setting for much of her fiction—and attended the University of New Orleans, where she earned a B.A. in 1970. She received an M.F.A. in playwriting at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. Her first collection of short stories, the little-known Love, which has been described in a Booklist review as "[e]motionally painful, iconoclastic, brilliant," made its debut in 1977, and in the following years she published the novels Set in Motion (1978) and Alexandra (1979). Martin has taught creative writing courses at various institutions, including the University of New Orleans, the University of Alabama, and Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the University of Alabama, Martin met Canadian novelist, short story writer, and poet Margaret Atwood, who became a mentor and close friend. After receiving various rejections for A Recent Martyr (1987), Martin gave the manuscript to Atwood, who showed it to her publishers and eventually got the work published. Martin is also the author of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories (1988), Mary Reilly (1990), and The Great Divorce (1994). The movie rights to Mary Reilly were purchased by Warner Brothers in 1992; the film version of the novel stars Julia Roberts and was directed by Tim Burton.

Major Works

Martin's writings typically focus on personal freedom, love, sex, death, and the dark side of human nature. In Set in Motion, a novel classified by Margo Jefferson as a "gothic melodrama," the main character, a social worker named Helene, is involved with three men: a drug addict, a friend's fiancé, and a coworker's mad husband. Fear drives Helene, and, trying to remain sane in an insane world, she decides that "staying in motion" and remaining emotionally unattached are the only ways to guarantee her personal freedom. The cryptic Alexandra is largely set in the Louisiana bayou and concerns the relationships be-tween a male civil servant and two women who are possibly involved in a lesbian affair and allegedly responsible for the murder of a former lover whom the protagonist resembles. Infused with references to myth, folklore, and mysticism, Alexandra examines such topics as sexual aggression, manipulation, and betrayal. Sex and violence as well as religion are also central to A Recent Martyr, which is set in a plague-ridden New Orleans overrun with rats. Exploring the nature of love, the novel centers on a heterosexual, sadomasochistic couple and their friendship with a young postulant with a predilection for sacrifice. The popular Mary Reilly retells Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1876) from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll's maid. Continuing Stevenson's focus on the individual's potential for good and evil, Mary Reilly also examines issues related to child abuse, individual growth and development, gender roles, and the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Martin's most recent novel, The Great Divorce, similarly draws upon another popular work in the horror genre. Sharing similarities with the cult film classic Cat People (1942), The Great Divorce incorporates three distinct narratives. While the main plot focuses on the disintegration of one couple's marriage, each story line focuses on the theme of separation—from nature and from loved ones—and features female characters attracted to cats or endowed with feline qualities. Central to the volume is the legend of the Louisiana Cat Woman, who, according to Katherine Dunn, "was transformed into a leopard long enough to kill her brutal husband but resumed her human form to be hanged for the crime." Martin's focus on relationships as well as the link between nature, death, and the human condition are also central to her short fiction. In "Surface Calm" from Love, for example, a woman wraps herself in chain and barbed wire while separated from her husband. The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories features such fantastic characters as a werewolf and a mermaid, reiterating Martin's focus on sex, violence, the supernatural, and nature. Other stories from this collection concern a woman who kills her male dog after she is betrayed by her adulterous husband, a child whose house is inhabited by a large rat, a character who engages in blood-letting to achieve personal happiness, and a woman who believes that her pet snakes have invaded her imagination.

Critical Reception

Martin's fiction, which has generally been well received, is lauded for its lean prose style and its focus on female characters, power, sexuality, male-female relationships, and humanity's baser, animal instincts. Employing elements of mysticism, folklore, the macabre, and the supernatural in her work, Martin has been described as a neo-Gothic writer and has been favorably compared with such "horror" writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Like other Gothic writers, Martin examines nature's destructive capabilities and humanity's inherent baseness and affinity for violence, but critics argue that she breaks with tradition by focusing on interpersonal relationships and issues related to sexuality, freedom, and betrayal; these critics also stress Martin's use of female protagonists—these heroines, however, have sometimes been castigated by feminists as passive, masochistic, and victimized. Martin remains best known for Mary Reilly, which despite its foreign setting, has been described by Rob Smith as "a quintessential Martin novel." With its emphasis on social mores, unrequited love, and dualities, Mary Reilly has been inevitably compared to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although occasionally faulted for offering nothing new to Stevenson's tale, Mary Reilly has been praised as an essential companion piece to the novella and, like Martin's other works, lauded for its insights into human nature and the human condition, moral hypocrisy, male-female relationships, and individual and sexual freedom.