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SOURCE: A review of Set in Motion, in The New York Times, June 23, 1978, p. C23.
[Broyard is an American critic and essayist. In the following review, he favorably assesses Set in Motion, noting Martin's focus on male-female relationships.]
Helene, the narrator of Set in Motion, is walking down the street with Richard, the husband of her closest friend. Although she has run into him accidently, she says, "I sensed that he was up to something." And of course he is. Everybody, everywhere, is up to something; and it is this that I often miss in modern fiction. It sometimes seems, in the novels and short stories I read, that no one is up to anything.
Miss Martin even seems to know what people are up to. While I think that by now I would have settled for an author who simply recognized the fact that people are scheming, striving and sweating with intention, it is still more satisfying to find one who actually knows, and tells me, what it is that they are trying to do.
Now, you might suppose that she arrived at her insight into people by oversimplifying them, by giving them obvious things to do. On the contrary: her characters seem to have passed beyond disillusionment into a deeper stratum of behavior. They don't fool around. When Helene asks Richard's wife Maggie whether she loves him, Maggie answers: "I'm determined to." When she warns Maggie that Richard is crazy and asks why she stays with him, Maggie says "I want to see what's going to happen."
Maggie has another reason in reserve. In spite of his dangerous madness, she still loves Richard. This will seem surprising until you stop to think about it and check it against you own observation of other people. Maggie puts it very well: "When I found out that there were things about him that I didn't love … things I couldn't love, it didn't change anything … It just makes it all so much more difficult."
Richard loves not Maggie, but Helene because, as he puts it, "she is never fully conscious." This seems to come as a relief to him, and I can see how it might, even if he were not already overwrought. Too much consciousness may be, for some people, the death of love. As it is, Richard seems to see Helene as someone who is thrillingly unfinished. He wants to complete her so that he too can see what's going to happen. Don't we all want to see what's going to happen? And don't some of us suffer from the melancholy presentiment that it already has, that we have arrived after the climax of things?
Speaking of Helene's passivity, Richard says that people in love "don't have any faults for one another," because they are one another's faults. When Richard is finally committed to a mental hospital, Helene visits him and tries to give him what he wants, not because she loves him, but because she believes in saving people. Though she has never allowed Richard to touch her before, they embrace passionately in the doctor's office until the attendants rush in and separate them. It is a beautiful scene and I felt that Helene might actually have succeeded in bringing him back into the world.
Helene's passivity affects Michael, too. He is also married to one of her close friends, and I wonder whether sleeping with the wives or husbands of one's close friends isn't a contemporary substitute for incest. Michael is the sort of man who likes to knock...
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the heads off flowers with a stick. Beauty minding its own business irritates him, as if he were a factory foreman who felt that beauty should have a full production schedule.
Miss Martin has a fine ear for the cruel, cold lines that such men reserve for women. When Helene says that she was surprised to see him arrive in a red car, Michael asks, as if he is disgusted by the extent of her interest in him: "You tried to imagine what kind of car I have?"
While Miss Martin knows how to cut through the fat, this has not made her book thin and self-conscious as some acute books are. She writes as if she felt that, now that we know the worst about ourselves, we might as well sit back and enjoy it. I enjoyed Set in Motion, and you probably will too.
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SOURCE: "Escaping Relations," in The New Leader, Vol. LXI, No. 16, July 31, 1978, pp. 15-17.
[Merkin is an American novelist, critic, short story writer, and editor. In the following excerpt, she offers praise for Set in Motion, relating the novel's thematic focus on love and emotional "disengagement."]
As the title of her powerful and unsettling first novel, Set in Motion, suggests, Valerie Martin writes about our contemporary romance with mobility, the freedom to get up and go—generally away from rather than toward involvement. The allure of disengagement is a recurrent and popular American motif: Innumerable films, from Five Easy Pieces to the more recent Looking for Mr. Goodbar, revolve around some aspect of our incapacity for sustained emotional commitment, and it is the favored subject of that elusive cultural avatar, Bob Dylan. What Martin manages to convey, in language all the more resonant for being so determinedly low-keyed, is that this obsession with flight, or at least the maintained possibility of flight, creates a paralysis of its own, a subtle inertia of emotions rather than of limbs. Near the end of the novel, Helene, the narrator, admits: "I would never, never give up the option to walk away." Yet a page or so later the covert desperation of her attitude emerges with an ominous clarity: "No wonder I'm frightened, I thought, I'm living in a world of suicides."
Set in Motion is reminiscent of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer both in the more obvious detail of a shared New Orleans locale, and less tangibly in a common concern with a state of irredeemable enervation—a condition in which people brush by each other even when they are trying very hard to meet. But whereas Binx, the narrator of The Moviegoer, is beset by his sense of failed purpose and tries to expiate it in the afterglow of the silver screen—to win for himself "as plenary an existence" as he imagines William Holden's to be—Helene has resigned herself to futility and has lost sight of even this dim, vicarious irradiation.
The book opens, signally, with a random encounter. Helene is driving from New Orleans to visit her friend Clarissa in Baton Rouge. Along the way she picks up a black woman who appears to be traveling with no destination in mind. The woman's evident distress threatens to arouse Helene's instinctive, albeit muffled, compassion: "When I glanced at her, I saw a tear trembling on the edge of her cheekbone, glistening in the dark. 'For Christ's sake,' I said. She gave a little shudder and turned her face away from me. 'Please don't cry,' I demanded. Now we were going to have an emotional explosion. I would have to stop the car. I would wind up looking after this poor creature for the rest of my life. It was more than I could stand."
The woman mysteriously disappears while Helene stops at a gas station; Clarissa's house is mysteriously empty when Helene arrives. The reader is presented with all the trappings of a mystery novel, except that Martin, in the dry modern manner, adroitly bypasses the awesomeness of mystery for the prosaic ways of mere chance. Helene goes to the university to check Clarissa's office and stumbles instead upon Michael: "The light seemed to be coming from him. His hair was light, long, surrounding his face in a full beard, so that he looked out from a circle of gold. His eyes were startlingly blue, light, wide, looking as if they could not believe what they saw." The devil—if devils were allowed into such firmly disbelieving novels—in disguise, as Helene is to discover after she goes to bed with him.
Back home, Helene is employed as a social worker; she assists the disenfranchised who are assigned to her with a grim, detached efficiency. She refuses to grant herself any energizing sense of mission and conducts her personal life with a similar calculated affectlessness. About her long-standing affair with Reed, a drug addict, she remarks: "Certainly he could be treacherous. But I knew him, I felt I knew where he would fail me, and I him, and these were not intentional failures, not acts of any kind, only the absence of will." The only obstruction in Helene's straitened path is Richard, the disturbed husband of Maggie, Helene's coworker.
Richard is a blocked painter who tries unsuccessfully to entangle Helene in his darkening private vision. After locking himself in the bathroom and setting it on fire, he is hospitalized. His psychiatrist gives Maggie two notebooks that are found in his pockets. One of them contains a description—lucid in its very madness—of the malaise that stifles the vital responses of a fugitive such as Helene, leaving her unable to reach out even when she would like to comfort a grieving Maggie: "I wanted to take her hand in my own, but even this small gesture struck me as too great an intrusion." Richard's insane jottings flicker with the denied intensity that is at the core of all these muted lives: "But for those of us in fear it's important to stay in motion…. We don't waste our time looking around, speculating. Helene and I. Moving toward each other, away from each other…. Inside fear is love. Love of the thing we fear…. Can it harm me? Will it harm? Can she harm me? Can she avoid harming me? This is love, who's afraid of whom?"
Valerie Martin has written a haunting, deceptively modest novel that explores the pervasive unease of our times with impressive skill.
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SOURCE: "The Push that Brings on Spring: Valerie Martin's Set in Motion," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 849-51.
[An American critic, editor, and educator, Fischer is both a friend and former teacher of Martin. In the following positive review, he discusses characterization and Martin's use of language in Set in Motion.]
To say what kind of novel Set in Motion is poses a number of pleasant embarrassments. To begin with, Set in Motion is a first novel, but is far too accomplished to be classified by that fact. It is also a local novel: its author lives in New Orleans, has set her novel there and in Baton Rouge, was my student in Baton Rouge, and is my friend. However, these facts matter to me in talking about this novel only because the novel triumphs over them. Against odds, Set in Motion absorbs even my own office furniture and makes it new to me, and that capacity to preserve itself in the midst of its own contexts is both the book's art and its lesson.
Really to live in this world and yet not really be of it is probably the only way people can remain sane; it is also probably the hardest way for people to live. Helene Thatcher, the main character of Set in Motion, spends the month or two that the novel spans trying to learn how to do this. To help her learn she has intelligence, courage, fear, good reflexes, and the ability to recognize grace "when I run right into it." Opposing her assets is the world itself, which when viewed from a distance seems meaningless and when held too close is maddening.
Traditionally, the ideal posture for people living in the world but not of it is that of a pilgrim. As Set in Motion opens, Helene Thatcher is poised on a section of interstate between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Her destination is Baton Rouge, but at the moment that the novel begins she stops her car and stands in the dark Louisiana night, high above the swamp her interstate traverses. Her situation becomes allegorical. She feels the wind on her cheek and is moved by the iridescent beauty of the cranes in the water below her. But, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, she travels elevated on a straight and narrow road from which it would be madness to stray. Open to the night, touched by the swamp, but traveling above it to a destination beyond it, she is a picture of what she must become.
To become the pilgrim she emblematizes at the beginning of the book, she must resist two sorts of temptations. The first, and, for her, the more dangerous, is to try to stand clear of the world altogether. Her desire to attempt this is completely understandable: beginning with a black woman who startlingly appears by her side on the interstate, all sorts of people make untoward claims on her. One of her lovers, riddled with pride, wants to possess and humiliate her; another, riddled by madness, believes himself possessed by her. And always, because she is a welfare worker, she hears the voices of the hungry poor, who must be fed and can never be filled. To pick her way among those who need her without losing her sense that their individual worth legitimizes at least some of their claims on her is one-half of her moral task, her journey through the world.
Of course, the other half of her task is to push beyond the temptation to surrender entirely to those claims. Intuitively, she knows she cannot avoid that disaster by merely erecting a system of thought, a "way of thinking" that filters out most of the world. She knows, too, that for the real task of self-preservation the sort of pride that fools call self-respect is also useless. What she needs, and eventually finds, is the knowledge that life is always larger than the creatures it animates, though it is only through those creatures that she can know its sweetness and its power. If she were theological, she would call what she finds the presence of grace. In fact, once she almost does call it that, having met an old woman who tells her how "Every person you meet be someone and every li'l thing you see is something to see. If a chile like you can see that, then the world comes sweet for you and you thankin' the Lord for every day what He gives you, every breathe what He breathes into your mouth."
Finally, though, the language of grace is more the old woman's language than it is Helene's. Helene's language is the language of motion; it captures the push that brings on spring, sends blood pumping through the body, breathes wind through the swamp, realizes each thing in turn, and sets it in motion toward a destiny that, like the heart, is soundless and mysterious to us. Committed to that motion herself by the close of the book, Helene becomes the pilgrim its beginning prophesied.
One last word seems appropriate. I have many reasons to hope this book will attract a large audience, but one is especially pressing. The author of this book is a woman; its chief character is a woman who works for her living; the book deals with relationships between men and women. Were Valerie Martin less an artist, this novel might have been a tract for women only, a prescription for feminine independence. But, in this way, too, Set in Motion lives through and so transcends its context. I cannot imagine a wiser book than this for women now because I do not know a wiser one for men. None of us lives apart from the main, but each must save his or her own soul.
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SOURCE: "The Beautiful Cliché," in The New York Times, July 21, 1979, p. 17.
[In the following, Broyard offers a negative assessment of Alexandra.]
Claude, the narrator of Alexandra, describes his past life as "pennypinching, joyless tedium," and I'm afraid that to me he remains tedious. Though he is only 49 years old, he says, "My hands and feet are stiff with arthritis, my back aches, and it hurts to straighten my knees." Spiritually he's not very limber either.
When Alexandra, the heroine of Valerie Martin's second novel, asks Claude whether he has ever been married, he says, "I've not had that good fortune." When he gets off a feeble riposte, he remarks, "I heard myself with satisfaction." After his first night in bed with Alexandra, he says: "She was delighted with my performance and I admit to being pleased with myself. Such powerful and satisfying passion had not so emboldened or sustained me in a long time …"
It sounds as if he's not at home in the English language, or in the world, either. Nor is he a man one looks forward to knowing better.
Alexandra is beautiful, so beautiful that she makes other people "look unevolved." What she makes me do is wonder whether the beautiful woman is not a cliché in fiction, a stock character who begs the question of character, whose behavior, through some convolution of snobbery, is assumed to be significant simply because she is beautiful.
Alexandra works as a bartender, an unusual job for a beautiful woman, one that attests to her inscrutability. Yes, she's inscrutable as well as beautiful, and at the risk of seeming querulous, I confess to being fed up with inscrutability as well as with beauty. I don't believe in it. I find inscrutable people not mysterious, but blocked or neurotic.
In Alexandra's case, inscrutability means she prefers to have Claude go home after making love to her. It means that we don't know why she sees him. It means that she has no books, pictures, records or television in her apartment. To compensate for this absence of motivation, Miss Martin makes a fuss over Alexandra's boots and their interminable laces.
Alexandra also throws knives as a hobby. I was reminded of an inscrutable middle-aged couple in a novel by Thomas McGuane who warmed up for their lovemaking by jumping on a trampoline. It's a strenuous business, inscrutability.
Claude is persuaded by Alexandra to quit his job—he is a petty Civil Service clerk—and run away with her to a Shangri La in the bayous outside of New Orleans. This palace or plantation belongs to Diana, whose relation to Alexandra is best described as Gothic. Diana is pregnant and wants Alexandra to assist her in natural childbirth.
Diana is even taller than Alexandra "well over six feet." (Is the book a tall story?) The father of the child has been dismissed. He is described simply as "short." Diana is beautiful, too. She says: "That's why I wanted a child, to share that with. There's not much chance of his being anything but beautiful. And even if he isn't, I hope to impart to him some sense of what beauty deserves, in all its manifestations."
At Diana's place, several uninteresting questions are raised and left untantalizingly open. Do she and Alexandra have a lesbian relationship? Did Alexandra stab one of Diana's lovers in a motel, or is Banjo, the black family retainer, lying? Why does Banjo keep altering the maze he has cut in the woods? Why does Diana—or is it Alexandra?—kick Claude in the ribs when he collapses with fever in the maze?
Diana plays the piano, and Alexandra sings in Italian, though she is supposed to be nearly illiterate. Claude says: "My heart was lifted by the sight of them, all lost in the music, intent, transported by their friendship, their beauty, and their power. They were not ordinary women. No, I thought then, they are mad and cruel and wear their freedom like a mantle …"
It is Claude, not Alexandra, who helps Diana deliver her baby—something has to be found for him to do. After the baby is born, they share a blood bond—the sort of tie one finds only in Southern novels—and live inscrutably forever after.
I enjoyed Miss Martin's first novel, Set in Motion, and I hope she can recover from Alexandra. It would not surprise me to learn that Alexandra was conceived, or perhaps even written, before the other book. If that's the case, then Miss Martin will have safely put this sort of thing behind her.
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SOURCE: "The Ephemeral Triangle," in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1979, pp. 10, 15.
[Du Plessix Gray is an American novelist, journalist, critic, and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she praises Alexandra's evocation of place, but faults Martin's characterizations and the credibility of the story line in "this bizarre neo-Gothic psychological thriller."]
The principal characters of this eerie, occasionally compelling novel [Alexandra] are a 49-year-old government clerk, self-defined as "poverty-stricken, dull and thin," who lives in a Gogolian morass of bureaucratic tedium in New Orleans; a nubile woman bartender skilled in the art of knife-throwing; and her closest friend, a seductive six-foot-two heiress who dabbles in classical piano and lives on her secluded estate in the bayou country. Claude, the clerk and first-person narrator, reaches such a paradisiacal state of multiorgasmic bliss upon his first encounter with the bartender, Alexandra, that he is instantly ready to follow her to the ends of the world. Which is precisely what she asks him to do. Alexandra has agreed to join her friend, Diana, during her confinement on the family estate (where she is expecting an illegitimate child) and she decides to bring Claude along.
There is an Amazonian streak throughout this bizarre neo-Gothic psychological thriller. Diana has suggested that Alexandra bring along "an unassuming man" if she cares to, "a man or a manual, whichever comes easiest." The plot thereafter centers on the triangular relationship of the two singularly strong-willed women (between whom a lesbian relationship is hinted) and the indolent clerk who becomes their bayou gigolo.
Valerie Martin's finest attribute in this novel is her skill in creating psychological atmosphere through a detailed depiction of place. Her description of the oppressive, subtropical Louisiana landscape is continuously suggestive of the dark currents of violence and unsolved crime that have washed over this triad's communal life since a man was mysteriously murdered in the close vicinity of Diana's estate a decade ago. On one of his long solitary walks Claude learns from an aged handyman that the victim (to whom Claude is said to bear a striking resemblance) was murdered jointly by Diana and Alexandra after having served a stint as their lover. Claude returns to his Amazons troubled by this revelation and lapses into a mysterious illness symbolic of the diseased relationships that abound on the estate.
There is a pleasurable element of unpredictability in Miss Martin's narrative line—if not in her prose. Claude eventually finds himself stranded alone with Diana and it is he, instead of Alexandra, who is called upon to deliver her child. A shift of allegiances occurs: Claude promptly develops strong paternal feelings for Diana's baby and is bound to Diana by the experience they have shared. Alexandra, who feels her sexual addiction is becoming a threat to her independence, is jealous of both her lovers and walks out on them, reversing the Abandoned Woman denouement traditional to the Gothic genre. Claude sulks mournfully at Diana's side, too lethargic to return to his former New Orleans life. Alexandra's departure plunges him into despair: "My sweet true love, my cruel mistress … heartless and undefeated mistress of how many pathetic hearts," he laments.
As these mawkish lines reveal, Miss Martin has trouble making her narrator's voice credible. It becomes extremely difficult for the reader to know whether the frequent silliness of the novel's prose style is parodic or not. Is its fractured night-school English meant to express Claude's pedestrian, pretentious nature? Or are its numerous unfelicities simply indicative of the author's uneven command of her prose? This is a text in which hearts beat in throats, blood rushes to heads, open lips reveal "a moist nacreous line of teeth." Abundant depictions of the sexual act (another subversion of Gothic—and how offensively macho they are!) lapse into equally embarrassing clichés.
Beyond creating a mood of neo-Gothic suspense, Miss Martin is aiming to depict the aimlessness of contemporary homme moyen sensuel. But it is an extremely difficult task to sustain a credible first-person narrative about someone as nondescript as Claude, a man whose identity is further blurred by a lecherous sensuality. The interior monologues of bachelor clerks have been the material of some of our greatest fiction—Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, Sartre's Nausea and much of Beckett, among others that come to mind. But considerable resources of irony, and a sense of the Absurd, are needed to make such heroes bearable. They are a serious gamble for the beginning novelist. Notwithstanding Miss Martin's gift for atmosphere and dialogue, her talents are not yet up to the task of giving the faceless a face. Although her women are on occasion effectively portrayed, her male narrator remains a caricature.
Alexandra reflects a narrative talent that hovers between the eclectic sensibilities of current popular fiction and something better.
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SOURCE: "Bloody Bayou," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4011, February 8, 1980, p. 146.
[In the following favorable review, Salmans analyzes plot and characterization in Alexandra.]
Moss-hung, hot and steamy, the bayou country of Louisiana is popular territory among mystery writers as a setting for sinister intrigues, dark secrets, unsolved murders. These are the basic ingredients of New Orleans writer Valerie Martin's second novel, Alexandra, but any resemblance that the book bears to conventional thrillers is purely superficial. A remarkably accomplished novelist, Martin has seamlessly woven the elements into a complex story about two women, a man and their curious triangular relationship.
The story is told by the man, Claude, a middle-aged bachelor who falls suddenly and willingly under the spell of Alexandra, or Alex, as she is called—a handsome, strong-willed young woman with the rather bizarre hobby of knife-throwing. At Alex's urging he resigns his dead-end job, leaves his few friends and follows her to the bayou home of her childhood friend Diana, who is sequestered there while awaiting the birth of her illegitimate child. After years of solitary and fairly slovenly bedsitter life, Claude steps into paradise; in the midst of the bayous are a mansion and grounds, including a maze that has been hacked out of the undergrowth. But even before he crosses the threshold, it has become apparent that Claude, for reasons unknown, is being led into a trap.
Fragments of the two women's past gradually surface, contradictory and alarming. Claude learns that he bears an uncanny resemblance to a man over whom, as girls, Diana and Alex had fought. The man, who proved to be a despicable character, is dead—or is he? An alleged eyewitness says that he bled to death in a motel room, from a two-inch knife-wound that was inflicted by Alex. Is this the terrible secret that unites Diana and Alex in a fierce love-hate relationship—or, as a midnight encounter glimpsed by Claude might indicate—is there also a sexual bond between the two?
Although he is assailed by unanswered questions, Claude slowly seems to be mastering the situation. Determined to break through Alex's reserve, he embarks on an "invasion of her senses" and, by gaining control of her sexuality, he believes he is winning control of her mind. Even as he succeeds in making himself necessary to Alex, Claude—in a superbly written scene—helps Diana deliver her own baby. Lover, midwife, nurse, Claude appears to have become indispensable, the lynch-pin of this peculiar household.
In fact, Claude has merely been trapped in its psychological web, more ensnaring than even the physical maze that adjoins the house. Alex predictably rebels at her reduction to a sexual dependent and asserts her autonomy by returning, alone, to New Orleans. For Claude, however, there is no going back; in seeking to capture the elusive, aloof Alex, he has himself been caught. He resigns himself to becoming a sort of retainer to Diana and her son, and the sacrifice at which Alex jokingly hinted at the start of the novel has finally been achieved. Too late, he asks himself, "Wasn't there another story I didn't know a thing about?" To the end of her weird, utterly engrossing, brilliantly told novel, Martin gives nothing away.
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SOURCE: "Fever in New Orleans," in The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p. 37.
[Banks is an American novelist, editor, critic, and educator. In the following review, she favorably assesses A Recent Martyr.]
This is a striking book, one with as much depth as the reader dares to plumb. A Recent Martyr, written by Valerie Martin—the author of the novels Set in Motion and Alexandra—details the torrid and extraordinary sadomasochistic affair between Emma and Pascal. Through it, Emma tells us, she is "to discover the sweet and unexpected horror of [her] own nature." When Emma's husband discovers the affair, he wonders why she would choose a man as dangerous as Pascal. The fact is, Emma does not so much choose as succumb. She describes her attraction to him as "an onslaught of high fever," and it is at least that.
More danger still is posed by Claire, whom Emma and Pascal, through different avenues, are preordained to meet. Claire says that she aspires to sainthood, and her religious fervor even frightens nuns. Emma sees the young woman's innocence as a sure threat, and indeed it maddens and intrigues Pascal. Still, Claire has no need of him. She scourges herself instead. As Emma says, "Self-inflicted pain has a calming effect; it clears the head, diminishes one's fascination with the ego, and, most important, gives one the sense of having taken some real action against the everyday foolishness of the body." It is Emma whom Claire wishes to save—Emma, who admits to being "more than half in love with death"; Emma, who believes "that longing was everything, longing is all we are."
The setting, a modern-day New Orleans beset by plague and other ills, is not believable but apt; in fact, New Orleans is perhaps the only American city in which this tale might have taken place. Emma's description of New Orleans might well be used to describe this novel's heady allure: "the attraction of decay, of vicious, florid, natural cycles that roll over the senses with their lushness."
There is much in A Recent Martyr that, in another author's hands, might be overwrought—extremes of horror, for instance, or carnality, or even virtue. We are told these things, however, in Emma's voice, always steady, clear, elegant and direct. This places all that the novel contains—the heavily symbolic, the wildly coincidental, the lurid, the hideous—in high relief. More: it is cleansing.
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SOURCE: A review of The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories, in The New York Times, January 13, 1988, p. C20.
[In the following review, Kakutani gives a favorable assessment of The Consolation of Nature, concluding that Martin's best work in the short story genre is Gothic in nature and rivals the work of Edgar Allan Poe.]
In one of the stories in Valerie Martin's new collection [The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories], a couple put their ailing pet snakes into wooden crates in the back seat of their car, in order to take them to see the vet. The car suddenly spins off the road, and when the police arrive on the scene, they find the boxes have been smashed. While lying in the hospital, recovering, Eva is told the snakes have disappeared, and, "as she lay beneath the onslaught of another shot of morphine, became convinced that they had escaped into her imagination. There they lay, cold-blooded and dangerous, dying from lack of nourishment and beautiful in their indifference to death."
This passage bears all of Ms. Martin's trademarks: a preoccupation with the dark underside of life, a taste for disturbing, even macabre imagery, and a tendency to use that imagery to delineate turning points in people's lives—the moment when innocence is replaced by an acute awareness of death and pain.
In "Death Goes to a Party," a woman named Atala loses her faith in her own magical powers (she believes she has X-ray eyes that enable her to "penetrate the deepest mysteries of the human heart with a glance") when she goes to a costume party and meets a wolf-man, who turns out to be interested in more than a simple romantic dalliance. In "The Way of the World," an 11-year-old girl, traveling alone on a train, meets a sad-faced older woman, who she imagines is running away from a man; and in the encounter, the child experiences, for the first time, "the sharp, cold, unexpected finger of reality" that points to grown-up grief and hurt. And in the title story, another young girl, perched on the precipice of adolescence, learns about the meaning of safety after her family does battle with a large rat that's invaded their peaceful house.
Given the prevalence these days of stories about domestic life, rendered in naturalistic detail and cool, even minimalistic prose, Ms. Martin's tales may remind the reader of certain stories by Steven Millhauser (In the Penny Arcade), for both writers' work stands as anomalous excursions into an unseen realm, where strange and magical events are documented in rich, even meretricious language. In this volume, the ordinary routines of ordinary life are abruptly interrupted by the supernatural: a Halloween mask refuses to come off; animals, "lost and unknown, past and future," find a peaceable kingdom where "nothing dies, yet the seasons change and the planet teems with life," and a mermaid with cold, pale eyes and fishlike teeth lures a fisherman to his death, leaving him castrated in the sand. For Ms. Martin's characters, these events may very well be dreams or hallucinations, but even that possibility does not erase their enduring power to disturb.
Whereas Mr. Millhauser's stories usually leave the reader with a renewed sense of wonder and an appreciation of the imagination's power, Ms. Martin's tend to be darker and more perverse. As in her much praised novel A Recent Martyr, there is an almost sadomasochistic fascination with pain and blood and death. The heroine of "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied" hires men to withdraw blood from her arm with a syringe—it is the only way, she says, that she is able to achieve a feeling of serenity. And the need for solitude compels the heroine of "The Parallel World" to go to similar extremes: she has isolated herself in the country, where she spends all day lying quietly in the grass, allowing insects to violate her body.
Curiously enough, many of these stories focus upon the "parallel world" of animals—creatures that seem to possess, for Ms. Martin's heroines, a secret and mysterious power. In some cases, a snake or a rat symbolizes their own initiation into knowledge and suffering: in other cases, an animal's death seems to represent a projection of their own wishes or fears. One woman finds a dead cat (its head has become stuck in an empty salmon can) on her patio the morning after she's sustained a devastating rejection from a young man ("The Freeze"). Another finds herself stuck with her husband's pet dog after he runs off with another woman; instead of pursuing her fantasy of killing her husband, she has the dog put to sleep ("Spats").
This story, like the other weaker samples in this volume, has the contrived air of a poor Twilight Zone episode. The parallels between the woman's husband and his dog are drawn so broadly, the ending so portentously foreshadowed, that the reader anticipates the melodramatic ending, and as a result experiences neither suspense nor surprise. The predatory mermaid story ("Sea Lovers") pivots on a single gruesome scene, seemingly created for pure shock value, and "The Cat in the Attic" similarly revolves around an ugly death. What's more, the subject of death often elicits a noxious, fulsome quality in Ms. Martin's prose. For instance, she writes: "It must be quite thrilling, really, to know oneself at last held in his cold, hollow eyes. Who else can love as death loves; who craves as death craves?"
Still, Ms. Martin possesses a sure storytelling gift, a gift for catching and holding the reader's attention, combined with a more idiosyncratic ability to transform a myriad of specific details into larger, symbolic shapes. In fact, her best stories recall those by Edgar Allan Poe. It's not just the gothic subject matter or the tightly designed plots. It's her ability to take that material and communicate extreme states of mind—to make it yield startling psychological truths that resonate in the mind.
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SOURCE: "Date with a Wolf Man," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1988, p. 22.
[Johnson is an American novelist, educator, critic, nonfiction writer, cartoonist, short story writer, and scriptwriter. In the following mixed review, he provides a thematic analysis of the short stories collected in The Consolation of Nature.]
The novelist Valerie Martin's first story collection, The Consolation of Nature, is a book with an eschatological message. "Death is not the end of life but the enemy of life," she writes in the book's last story, "Elegy for Dead Animals." This is not a story at all but the author's brief essay on her lifelong identification with animals and plants, and on such subject as "our tenacity to life, our terror of death." These concerns loosely bind her other stories, a couple of which occasionally generate suspense and capture the terror of nature and the nearly paralyzing humiliation of love's rejection, when Ms. Martin's lectures on life do not intrude.
Though Ms. Martin's prose is timid and safe in most of these stories, her better passages carry a reader into worlds that give us glimpses of the fantastic. "Sea Lovers" vividly dramatizes the evening that a mermaid, first portrayed as baffled by human beings, then as monstrous—an erotic death figure—washes ashore and murders a fisherman. Similarly, another creature of the wild and harbinger of decay shatters the fragility of civilization in the title story: a young girl watches the war between her parents and a rat that, almost supernatural in its ability to avoid capture, has placed their house under siege.
"The Freeze" explores the loneliness of a 40-year-old teacher named Anne, "a woman who, half a century ago, would have been a statistical failure," and Aaron, an idealistic college student almost 20 years her junior. Anne, increasingly drawn to him, prepares herself to seduce him at a party thrown by one of their friends, only to have Aaron avoid her kiss as if declining a second helping of dessert.
"'No,' he said. 'No, thank you.'
"She dropped back on her heels.
"'I'm really flattered,' he said. 'I really am.'"
What eventually scuttles this otherwise emotionally honest story is non sequitur. Rejected, feeling "this must be what death is like," Anne finds her problem's resolution, not by exploring the social world where it begins, but by discovering a dead cat on her patio and realizing that death's presence everywhere trivializes her earlier heartbreak, a conclusion that comes from the author, not her characters.
Two ideas are constantly at odds in this collection—first, a dissatisfaction with social life, revealed in one story's title, "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," where a widow left unmoored by her husband's death in a car accident finds momentary solace from grief in a church; and second, a desire to disappear into nature, or "The Parallel World."
This story pushes the longing for wilderness into a comic-book style metamorphosis as its protagonist, in a romantic moment of racial stereotyping, remembers
when she was in an audience at a poetry reading. The poet was a Nigerian…. He read a poem about a train trip. He was a prince … and he had ridden the train from the deep heart of the jungle, his father's village, to the city where he was to go to school. He described … how he stood at the open window, breathing in the still heat of the jungle, when he saw the angry flock of birds … shouting to the half-civilized travelers, of whom the poet was one, "Come back to the animal kingdom. Come back to the animal kingdom."
And so she does, studying the "parallel world" of insects, wondering, "Are we animals, or are we something else?"—until, in a dream, she "finds, beneath her eyelids, two wide, cold, black discs where her eyes should be, two insect eyes, many-faceted and terrifying."
In another story, "The Way of the World," a young girl traveling alone by train shares her lunch with a fascinating woman who "gave off an air of fatigue, of hopelessness, looking vacantly into space. I thought she was the most exhausted person I had ever seen." Unfortunately, we learn nothing more about this interesting woman or her specific impact on the youthful protagonist.
Even less satisfying is "Death Goes to a Party," in which a vain young woman, Atala, goes to a masquerade dressed as death, meets a mysterious stranger outfitted as a wolf man and winds up in bed with him. Predictably, she discovers that "the rough hair that covered the wolf-man's head grew straight out of the skin on his neck." These same slips into cliche also spoil "The Cat in the Attic," a love-triangle involving a businessman, his young employee and a cocaine-addicted wife who loves only her cat, Gino.
Ms. Martin transcends non sequitur in only two stories—the haunting "Sea Lovers," which counts as a durable contribution to the field of horror and erotic fantasy, and in "Spats." Here, the hurt of betrayal for Lydia, a singer, and her mounting hatred for her unfaithful husband are presented with camera-lens clarity. "When Ivan confessed that he was in love with another woman, Lydia thought she could ride it out…. Now she has only one hope to hold on to: he has left the dogs with her and this must mean he will be coming back."
But Ivan does not return, thereby leaving Lydia to care for two hounds that are representative of their failed relationship: "Gretta eats quickly, swallowing one big bite after another, for she knows she has only the time it takes Spats to finish his meal before he will push her away from hers." Seeing Ivan's selfishness in Spats, Lydia doesn't take long to think, "she could kill him. It is certainly in her power. No one would do anything about it, and it would hurt Ivan as nothing else could."
In The Consolation of Nature, Valerie Martin lays emotion bare as deftly as a surgeon when she stays close to her characters. When she slips into meditations on nature, however, readers may not find her stories quite as consoling.
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SOURCE: "Beauty as the Beast," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, p. 9.
[In the following review, Hinerfeld faults Martin's sensationalist writing technique and the serious tone of the short stories found in The Consolation of Nature.]
The Consolation of Nature is a title ironically meant. (It is also cleverly wrought, to sound authentically Romantic.) The principal subject of these freakish short stories is the fatal relation between people and animals. It's nightmare stuff: The rat scrambling in a child's long hair; the mermaid with her prize of fisherman's testicles; the dead cat, head trapped in a salmon can; the mice fed casually to the snake; the vicious dog, put to death. No consolation here.
We wince and turn away; Valerie Martin keeps on staring. Her fascination with the bloody and bizarre is itself fascinating. The genre is neo-Gothic hyperbole of the New Orleans School.
This is the literature of excess, swerving toward violence and despair. It's not easy to control such iridescent prose, such ardent imaginings.
At times, the control is absolute, and the work is beautiful. In "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," a widow realizes that freedom is hers: "She could do as she pleased, if she could ever find anything to please her again." (What does please her is blood-letting. In plain chilling prose, her lover complains, as he prepares a syringe in their hotel bathroom, "Eva … this is so unnecessary.")
Nothing could be simpler or finer than the language in the story, "Sea Lovers." The beached mermaid, "aghast with pain," lies face-down on the sand, her hair spread out on her shoulders.
The fisherman is bent on rescue, but to the mermaid, "He is in his element and she is at his mercy." He thinks her "a woman half devoured by an enormous fish"—until "he … sees the line where the pale skin turns to silver."
The mermaid, "thanks to the sea," is strong. "Her tail is powerful and sinuous; it has come up between his legs like an eel and now the sharp edge of it grazes the inside of his thighs. It cuts him; he can feel the blood gathering at the cuts…." The tide upsets his tackle box, and "all his lures and hooks, all the wiles he used to harvest the sea, bob gaily on the waves."
Just so. But it is difficult to go on being meticulous. Martin's taste is not for refinements of detail. This is Romantic literature, with macabre preoccupations. Grand gestures, though, are risky. And a steady diet of death and the dreadful brings quick surfeit.
The party in "Death Goes to a Party" is a masquerade. (What else?) A beautiful young woman dressed as death brings home a wolf-man. (She has uncanny powers, and should know better.) When, after midnight, they unmask, and her fingers grope at the back of his headpiece for the place where it parts from his neck…. But you've guessed.
Martin, reared in New Orleans, is a lecturer in English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood brought her work to the attention of Houghton Mifflin, which published her third novel, A Recent Martyr, last year.
The Consolation of Nature is chock-full of sensation. What it lacks—entirely—is humor. Laughter is the antidote for fiction like this. One good giggle, and the whole sealed, serious world splits apart.
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SOURCE: "Waiting for the Story to Start," in The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, pp. 1, 36.
[In the following essay, Martin describes her views on writing and the creative process.]
Unlike babies, not all stories come from the same place, and not all people who create stories go about it in the same way. Every writer who has succeeded in bringing a story to life has also managed to kill a few, usually by force. Most of us have lost a few along the way too—stories that started as ideas, stories that came from arguments or from a desire to set the record straight.
Students who want to write stories are often puzzled about how to begin. How do writers get started on a story? they ask. And, once started, how do writers keep their stories alive? Do storytellers have extraordinary lives? Do they write only what they know? It's not difficult to find examples of authors who have addressed these questions. They give their answers in journals, in letters and in essays written to turn a buck on the modern reader's peculiar fascination with writers as people. There are some surprising similarities in the responses they give.
Virginia Woolf, in her diary, described her early work on a book entitled The Moths. (Woolf never wrote a book with this title. The work eventually became The Waves.) She wrote:
Now about this book, The Moths. How am I to begin it? And what is it to be? I feel no great impulse; no fever; only a great pressure of difficulty.
… Every morning I write a little sketch, to amuse myself. I am not saying, I might say, that these sketches have any relevance. I am not trying to tell a story. Yet perhaps it might be done in that way. A mind thinking. They might be islands of light—islands in the stream that I am trying to convey; life itself going on. The current of the moths flying strongly this way. A lamp and a flower pot in the centre. The flower can always be changing.
Joyce Carol Oates spoke of a similar percolating condition in an interview she gave shortly after completing Wonderland: "At times my head seems crowded, there is a kind of pressure inside it, almost a frightening physical sense of confusion, fullness, dizziness. Strange people appear in my thoughts and define themselves slowly to me."
In his essay "The Art of Fiction," Henry James described not his own method of beginning but that of "an English novelist, a woman of genius":
She was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales, of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture, it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience.
Thus James lays to rest the old chestnut "write what you know." The necessary experience can be had in one moment on the right staircase. "Of course all writing is based on personal experience," Margaret Atwood observed in an essay on this subject. "But personal experience is experience—wherever it comes from—that you identify with, imagine if you like, so that it becomes personal to you."
The writer, James concluded, must always be "one on whom nothing is lost." Flannery O'Connor put it a slightly different way: "There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once." To begin, then, young writers must feel the pressure to begin. They must open their eyes to the world and "experience" what's out there.
William Faulkner, in an interview he gave following his last public reading, was asked about the beginning of The Sound and the Fury. "That began as the story of a funeral," he responded. "The first thing I thought of was the picture of the muddy seat of that little girl's drawers climbing the pear tree to look in the parlor window to see what in the world the grown people were doing that the children couldn't see."
Here are John Fowles's published "Notes" on the beginning of The French Lieutenant's Woman; in them he describes not only how he got started but how the story stayed alive for him, almost insisting on being written:
It started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and looks out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still in bed half asleep. It responded to no actual incident in my life (or in art) that I can recall, though I have for many years collected obscure books and forgotten prints, all sorts of flotsam and jetsam from the last two or three centuries, relics of past lives—and I suppose this leaves me with a sort of dense hinterland from which such images percolate down to the coast of consciousness.
These mythopoeic "stills" (they seem almost always static) float into my mind very often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether they really are the door into a new world.
So I ignored this image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming to me. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze and hypothesize why it held some sort of imminent power. It was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay—as I happen to live near one, so near that I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach on the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn't know which.
All of these descriptions have one thing in common: they begin with an image, coming from within or without, strangely persistent in the writer's imagination. This is important. It has to do with the basic necessity of all stories, that quality that makes literature, in my view, the most sublime of the arts: the ability of the story to engage the senses of the reader. This is more than being concrete, though concreteness is essential to create a world. It's the engagement—sudden, unexpected and complete—of our senses that moves us, in reality as well as in fiction. As writers begin, it is this sense of an intrusion of reality that sends them off into fiction in the form of an image that, as Mr. Fowles puts it, is "the door into a new world." "Reality," Gustave Flaubert wrote to his sentimental mistress, Louise Colet, "if we are to reproduce it well, must enter us until we almost scream."
The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality. No writer has put this more succinctly than Joseph Conrad, who described his purpose as always "to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe." This is a definition of purpose I think few writers would dispute. It's a laudable goal, rendering justice, and should be distinguished from passing judgment, which is not the fiction writer's province.
A second requirement of the developing story is a sense of free play. Most of us can claim to have been visited by an image like John Fowles's woman on the quay, but few of us have any idea how to make her turn her face to us so we can make out more about her. It won't work to try to force her, if you want to know someone, in life or in art, you always have to wait. In his "Notes," Mr. Fowles makes this observation about his steadfast lady, who has by this time, through his patience, revealed to him her face, her name, her situation, but not her soul:
I was stuck this morning to find a good answer from Sarah at the climax of a scene. Characters sometimes reject all the possibilities one offers. They say, in effect: I would never say or do a thing like that. But they don't say what they would say; and one has to proceed negatively, by a very tedious coaxing kind of trial and error. After an hour over this one wretched sentence, I realized that she had in fact been telling me what to do: silence from her was better than any line she might have said.
Joyce Carol Oates has described this same obstinacy of the developing character. "My 'characters' really dictate themselves to me," she reports. "I can not force them into situations they haven't themselves willed." Perhaps Faulkner explained the writer's relationship with his character most directly in his answer to a naïve question about whether, when his characters got into some sort of trouble, he didn't feel tempted to help them out. "I don't have time," he replied. "By that time I'm running along behind them with a pencil trying to put down what they say and do."
This element of surprise is the most difficult for critics and students to understand. Their notion is that writers have set out to create something "meaningful," and that to do so they must lace the work with clues to its meaning, usually symbols that have to do with colors or nature, the location of a river or a train track. Many students want to believe that writing is a kind of craft, a superior form of cooking or tapestry weaving, in which the writer is in total control from start to finish. No amount of denial is sufficient to obviate this notion. The teacher's impassioned cry, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," falls on deaf ears.
Margaret Atwood goes so far as to call this element of surprise the pivot upon which the question of "art" turns. "Nevertheless," she declares, "art happens. It happens when you have the craft and the vocation and are waiting for something else, something extra, or maybe not waiting; in any case it happens. It's the extra rabbit coming out of the hat, the one you didn't put there."
I think the resistance to this notion of surprise is caused by the fact that good stories just don't seem to be accidental. They look meaningful; they contain symbolic patterns; you can take them apart and find pieces that fit right back together again. They are organic, like flowers; they have an internal and external structure. In fact, like the hands that deal them out, they show their cards now and then; they appear to have a subconscious as well as a conscious level.
This analogy to our thinking may explain why stories are so important to us and why they appear to be so meaningful. Stories think, and they do it the same way we do. They talk straight sometimes, right to the heart, but they have always a deep, symbolic understanding of reality that can dictate what happens on the conscious level. They speak to us, as dreams speak to us, in a language that is at once highly symbolic and childishly literal. They mirror our consciousness exactly because they are composed through a process both conscious and subconscious.
The mirror the contemporary story often holds up to the reader reflects a world that is so vapid, so devoid of hope or humanity that the writer may be reduced to presenting it as if it were a stack of obscene snap-shots; there's just no point in trying to say much about such pictures. This "reality" looks like a nightmare from which no amount of screaming can wake us. Yet we continue to need, read and pay people to write stories. In a world where the ultimate power to destroy all human life lies in the hands of people we can neither admire nor trust, and with the certain knowledge that this extraordinary power is held by people we may even despise, one must assume that the average person is making up stories all the time. Otherwise we would simply go mad from anxiety.
Teaching people to write stories requires, first of all, that for a limited period of time they will be forced to open their eyes and ears, to take off the blinders and let the images pour in—a necessary first step toward taking life seriously and even, I suspect, a good way to start taking responsibility for themselves and for the world they can finally see.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2384
SOURCE: "Masochists, Martyrs (and Mermaids) in the Fictions of Valerie Martin," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 455-50.
[In the following, Fischer analyzes Martin's focus on personal freedom and masochism in her novel A Recent Martyr and her short story collections.]
Valerie Martin is a major writer on the verge of being famous. Last spring, readers responded to her latest novel, A Recent Martyr, by reminding themselves of her two earlier novels, Set in Motion and Alexandra (1978, 1979). This winter the publication of The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories will send them in search of her first collection, Love (1977). Someone will recognize an important canon in formation and write a first article. Others will respond. Collectively, we shall embark on the necessary task of learning what Martin has to tell us.
A good guess at Martin's abiding topic might be freedom, freedom not so much from the will of others, but the interior freedom necessary to will one's own good. Martin's characters regularly lack that freedom. They are compulsives. The protagonist of her first novel, Set in Motion, speaks for most of Martin's characters when she observes at the close of the book, "I don't know what I'm doing…. I make mistakes. I keep making the same mistakes." Her lover's reply, "Honey, everybody does that," and the readiness with which we agree with that reply suggests the importance of Martin's theme. Odd as her characters are, they are of us. Through them, we recover ourselves: strange, new, frightening, and at risk.
Characteristically, Martin writes about women who are masochists. In "Surface Calm," collected in Love, Ellen, a woman of early middle-age, discovers in her closet a light, tarnished, gold chain with square, jagged links. Ellen's husband is out of town on business; it is the first separation in their marriage. Vacantly, she wraps the chain tightly about her waist, and day by day she tightens it, drawing reassurance from her pain. She pricks her hands with a sewing needle, absently slices her fingers with a kitchen knife. By the time of her husband's return, she has bound herself in hemp rope and barbed wire. In his care, she recovers, and both nearly forget the episode. One day he fails to come home for lunch. With her fingers Ellen strips the thorns from a rose bush, "pressing them between her palms until her hands stung and burned and bled warmly and she found herself laughing and crying in alternate bursts of fear and pleasure, anger and relief."
"Surface Calm" is almost clinical. One might write the etiology of its protagonist's syndrome. Masochism appears frequently to be the product of a particular kind of mothering. Children whose mothers are alternately negligent and indulgent are inclined to develop highly idealized views of them. This idealization seems to be a defense against the unbearably frightening knowledge that the child is helpless and its mother is undependable. To maintain the idealization, the child interprets maternal negligence as justifiable punishment. Punishment becomes the guarantor that the child is loved, not abandoned. In "Surface Calm" Ellen displays transference behavior. She deals with her loving but absent husband as a child does with an indulgent, negligent mother. She punishes herself as proof of her own guilt and of his love.
This etiology is useful. It illuminates the "fear and pleasure, anger and relief" that close the story. It also radiates beyond the story. Martin's fictions repeatedly present mother-daughter relationships. These are intense but disturbed. Usually fathers are negligible or simply missing. Mothers divide their time between a compellingly erotic heterosexual relationship and the company of their only daughters. The relationship between Emma and her daughter, Christine, in A Recent Martyr suggests a pattern. In a revelatory moment, Emma remarks that "my interludes with my daughter were filled with warmth and mutual regard. Her tiny life revolved around mine. She wanted my happiness. There were times when I thought she would have fought for my happiness, so nearly did she equate it with her own." This is potentially dangerous idealization. Emma herself is a masochist, and so, too, might her daughter be; for the unreasoned self-abnegation Christine accepts as the price of love can become the root of self-hatred. From it can grow the consuming anxiety Martin portrays in "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," and the fury of the protagonist of "The Cat in the Attic" "who, because she knew herself so well, could only scorn any man who was mad enough to love her" (both stories appear in The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories).
But even an early Martin story like "Surface Calm" resists a ruthless application of clinical hypotheses. The etiology I summarized can help us understand why, during her long distance conversation with her husband, Ellen suddenly remembers "running to meet him at the door of her mother's house, years ago." Similarly, such an etiology can "explain" why Ellen, though she has no children, thinks a checkout girl scowls at her "as if she were a negligent mother," and why, after her husband's return, she must convince herself "again and again, by recalling a nod, a smile, a half-conscious caress, that he loved her to the exclusion of all else and that he thought her the perfect wife." But such an etiology cannot explain why Ellen, tormented, "felt better as soon as she was in the car and made the stops and turns that led to the grocery store as if she were a horse whose life was one routine." It cannot explain why, unlike her husband, she has no work to go to, no business trip to take. It cannot explain a society that regards her vacant life as normal. And it cannot explain why, though her husband is horrified by her self-flagellation, "though he was convinced that she was mad," he still wished to make love to her, and does so. To explain these elements of "Surface Calm" one must expand one's notion of masochism well beyond reductive clinical etiologies.
Martin's later fiction is yet more demanding. Take an instance I have already raised: the relationship in A Recent Martyr between Emma and her daughter, Christine. In an important way, the reading of that relationship that I have suggested is malapropos as well as correct. Emma's words constitute an echo, or, if one prefers, a trace of Martin's abiding engagement with the masochistic. In the context of A Recent Martyr, however, the words do not foretell a masochistic outcome for Christine but report instead that she is weathering well a difficult time. Because such cross-grain traces occur frequently in Martin's fiction, they generate an interpretive crux. A determined deconstructor would read them against the flow of Martin's fiction. I prefer to hold them in reserve until the flow, the point of her stories and novels, absorbs them.
Freedom is the point of A Recent Martyr. Even its narrative mode is liberating. The novel is told partly in first person by one of its three principal characters, Emma. But, partly, it is narrated by an omniscient voice whose sensibilities remain Emma's. As one moves between these modes, new shadings appear. Traditional categories dissolve. Mind is privileged. Bodies, and our everyday doings, dramatize a world essentially psychological and cosmic. In that world prophetic sight seems possible; Claire, the novel's second principal character, possesses it. Saints, supernature, and salvation seem possible, too.
Claire wants to become a saint. She knows, and spells out for us, what her ambition demands: "It requires the total surrender of my will and finally, ultimately, the wholesale destruction of my ego." This ambition sounds masochistic, all the more so because Claire flagellates herself as part of her religious discipline. No doubt Wilhelm Stekel, author of the classic but now dated text on masochism, Sadism and Masochism, would classify Claire as a masochist. For him, the "legend of Christ" itself is exemplary of the masochistic project. But Stekel is wrong, I think. Masochism is a defence of the ego, not a willing surrender of it. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not, Martin understands this difference. In any case, she shows it to us by contrasting Claire with Emma.
Freud labelled Emma's sort of masochism "sexual masochism." She experiences sexually-toned pain as foreplay, a prelude to coital orgasm. Her lover, Pascal, the third principal character in A Recent Martyr, is a deadly complement to her psychic economy. He is passionate, solicitous, and unfaithful on principle. Emma idolizes him—literally. At first unconsciously, she teaches him through her sexual responses to cause her pain. As she does so, she feels herself, rightly, helpless in her affair. Hers is the subrational recapitulation of an infantile response to fear and self-hatred. Pascal's escalating violence toward her at once makes her worthy of his love and proves he loves her. If he killed her, consuming her utterly in consummation and making her his, that would be the best proof of all.
Christians are as apt to confuse masochistic behavior with Christian sacrifice as psychiatrists are to confound Christianity in masochism. A Recent Martyr repeatedly tempts us into one or the other blunder, or both at once. Arguably, Martin herself participates in the confusion as she intuits her way through her text. But the close of her book clarifies. Emma, who sought a consummation that would mark the triumph only of her infantile will, repents. "Repentance" is the word she uses, and it is at once Christian and psychologically appropriate. "I have read," Emma says, "that repentance is the act by which we put the past behind us, and if that is true … I repented of ever having loved, touched, wanted Pascal. I repented myself of it all. All I wanted was to be free of this passion." At the end of A Recent Martyr, Emma is at last free of compulsion.
Claire, who is instrumental in Emma's repentance, is dead, a victim of the very death for which Emma had compulsively lusted. That death overtakes her as she returns to the convent in Lacombe, Louisiana, from which she had been sent to New Orleans for a year's test of her vocation. In New Orleans she met and befriended Emma, met and endured Pascal, labored to sustain strangers through an outbreak of bubonic plague, and learned to surrender herself. Her experience of Pascal is crucial to her growth. His sexual interest in her forces her to assert a belief that she had not known that she held: "Human love is hell. I want nothing to do with it." This assertion initiates in her a spiritual impasse from which she emerges only when she understands that Christianity cannot "give Eros poison to drink" without poisoning itself. A religion of love and voluntary submission cannot subsist with hatred and compulsion. Learning this, Claire is again free to pray.
More radically, at her death, Claire also becomes the book's recent martyr. A martyr is, above all else, a voluntary witness to Christian truth. But a martyr is not a masochist. Claire fights with all her strength against the two men who rape, throttle, and stab her to death. She dies, unsought, the death that, through her, Emma found the strength to renounce. In the economy of Martin's book, Claire's death is Christ-like, exculpatory, and it illuminates the passage from Blaise Pascal's Pensées that serves as the book's epigraph.
That we are in ourselves hateful, reason alone will convince us; and yet there is no religion but the Christian which teaches us to hate ourselves; wherefore no other religion can be entertained by those who know themselves to be worthy of nothing but hatred.
In Martin's view, I think, we truly are fallen and hateful, and a price must be paid to free us from darkness. But, once bought, our freedom entails knowing, as masochists do not, that we cannot—and need not—pay that price ourselves.
Each of the ten stories that comprise The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories is about darkness in and outside us, psychological and cosmic, the enemy and the intimate of life. This darkness is protean. In this collection, some of its shapes are familiar. In the title story, a rat, escaped, one imagines, from the plague-bearing horde of them in A Recent Martyr, appears in a familial kitchen to be vanquished by love as well as by an ax. In "The Way of the World" a child, preoccupied by masochistic fantasy "because the reality of her complete powerlessness was too painful to bear," experiences an important, perhaps a salvatory moment, in nurturing an adult "more delicately situated" even than she. Experienced Martinists will enjoy these known materials deployed new ways.
But, for me, the best delights in The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories are tales wholly new. To be sure, even in an early story like "Messengers" (collected in Love) Martin proved herself open to that quality in the numinous that we experience as simultaneously alien and yet of us. But nothing in Martin's earlier work prepares one for the aggressiveness of stories like "Death Goes to a Party," or "Parallel Worlds," or, my favorite, "The Sea Lovers." In these stories Martin hunts the thing itself: a huge purposiveness that, through us and around us, works toward its own ends, annihilating in its progress our most primitive polarities: pain and pleasure, love and hate, life and death. Probably these stories could have been written only by someone sensitized to masochistic transgressiveness—to the ways in us that pain can modulate to pleasure and thoughts of sex can summon thoughts of death. But these stories allegorize more than ourselves. They point out as well as in.
On a beach, a mermaid, driven, by a brush with death, to reproduce herself, thrashes with a man in instinctive homicidal frenzy. With her tail she emasculates him. With clawlike hands, she throttles him. She places his bloody testicles in a shallow depression in which, unconscious of the significance of her action, she has laid her eggs. Seconds later, she, and her embryonic daughter or daughters, reenter the sea. Along the shore, human lovers walk. Some long to couple at the water's edge. Others, more daring, embrace in the depths and drown.
No brief review can unpack Martin's "The Sea Lovers." I look forward to essays that shall.
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SOURCE: "Spirit and Belief," in The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 3, September, 1988, pp. 68-72.
[Morris is an American editor and critic who frequently writes about John Gardner. In the following excerpt, he comments on Martin's focus on relationships and death in The Consolation of Nature.]
The relationships drawn in Valerie Martin's The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories seem streaked with terror and fear. Love often warps into perversity, into its wolfish, angry shape; lovers become victims, prey and predator. In "Death Goes to a Party," this love-sinister is clearly prefigured in a fantastic love-masquerade encounter between Wolf and Death:
Then he lifted his face over hers and she saw that what she sought could not be found. His teeth were bared and he salivated so heavily that his mouth was frothy. His eyes were terrible—cold, uncanny, and mad with a kind of lust Atala had never seen before…. Then all her silly wiles, all her delusions of feminine intuition, all her strategies, her powers of observation, all the frivolous superstition on which she had relied in the past were nothing to her, and she was stripped to the bone by what she understood to be her predicament.
Women, suggests Martin, live with this inherent fear, with this acknowledged sense of the male's animal nature. Even as girls, these women move through age with a particularly acute consciousness of the ambivalence of things, and of the paradoxical weakness-within-strength of the male sex. Martin figures this relationship both realistically ("The Consolation of Nature") and fantastically ("The Sea Lovers"), and in all cases neither male nor female emerge from these relationships with any real sense of happiness—only with the intense need for personal survival. Martin's women are often spiritually unsatisfied; in "The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied," a woman named Eva is left widowed by an auto accident, and she sinks into a soulless and literally bloodless existence—she finds that her indifference can be relieved by having her blood regularly drawn—that turns her lovers into instruments, cardboard cut-outs:
It was true that she was never satisfied, but it was not because she expected that she might be. In fact she believed that as far as men were concerned, she never would be. Her interest in her companion was superficial at best, and what she required of him was so insignificant that her failures were always the result of requiring too little, so little that it was insulting.
Eva resembles the snakes once cared for by her late husband, a zoologist: "There they lay, cold-blooded and dangerous, dying from a lack of nourishment and beautiful in their indifference to death."
Martin studies death, comments on death in most of these stories, introducing death in many guises. Death is often imagined in the form of dead animals—cats, rats—and in "Elegy for Dead Animals" and "The Freeze," Martin dramatically shows death's vigorous delight in surprise. Death comes most often as shock, and it is that shock that quickens the human consciousness, that matures the consciousness of the child, that darkens the consciousness of the adult. Our consolation comes in dreams, in the occasional lapse from consciousness:
As a child I conceived the dream of the animal life. In this dream no animals ever die. Nothing dies, yet the seasons change and the planet teems with life. All the animals, lost and unknown, past and future, lift their eyes in the vast stillness of a starry night … all gaze together for a moment at the starry dome, and they hear the earth as it whirls softly in the black stillness of the universe, and for that one moment there is no death on earth, no death possible, not even in dreams.
Our consolation comes in the resourcefulness of the human spirit and in the frank recognition of our human nature.
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SOURCE: "In Time of Plague," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4465, October 28, 1988, p. 1211.
[In the following review, Kaveney provides a mixed appraisal of A Recent Martyr.]
Comparisons between Sacred and Profane Love are unfashionable in an agnostic world; but Valerie Martin's novel of plague and self-sacrifice in some near-future New Orleans ambiguously reinstates them, in order to do some serious semi-feminist thinking about the possibilities for self-development offered by the cloistered life, and the self-abasement involved in the pursuit of sensually based erotic relationships. Emma and Pascal flirt with the violence of knives in their affair, but with no knife as real as that which martyrs their acquaintance, Claire.
Pascal is an attractive, idle sensualist whose only real commitment is to opposing his father's fervent Catholicism; "Non serviam" has become less a principle than an excuse for drifting. Emma is bored with a worthless job and ripe for the plucking. Their relationship progressively skirts sado-masochism in ways that she fails to take her share of responsibility for. Both become friends—and in Pascal the impulse to friendship is, always, heavily modified by lust and proselytizing—with Claire, a postulant nun ordered to test her vocation by living in the world. Claire, a potential saint, is not likeable; Martin seems to endorse her choice of absolute self-realization, but does not disguise the priggishness and lack of empathy for other choices that is part of the package.
What takes this situation away from the banalities of drawing-room polemic (where choice has to do with whether Claire is allowed to enjoy her hosts' embarrassment when she insists on continuing a self-imposed fast in the middle of a formal dinner party) is the arrival of plague. This is a very literary plague; the arrival of rats is less a statement about public health in the real New Orleans than an announcement that Martin is entering into a debate with Camus, about choices. (Claire's influence and death, and the work of nursing the plague-struck, seem to make Emma give up her affair; in fact Emma makes the decision and all Claire does is help to confirm it.) Similarly, Pascal's name has resonance in a novel in which the characters believe themselves to be debating the virtues of faith; and Emma's, in a novel about adultery and novelettish passion, misdirects us to look for her unreliability as narrator in areas where it is absent.
Martin celebrates the affair powerfully; what is going on, at one level, is having one's cake and eating it too, which is the essence of sentimental bad faith, as well as of that duplicity which is part of post-modern fiction. This is an open-ended novel pretending to be a closed one; its narrator, Emma, shifts from the erotic to the philosophic to the hagiographic and back. A Recent Martyr is about technique, but its own technique is so accomplished and confident that its games-playing will not involve most readers. It can be taken with enjoyment as the book it affects to be, one in which the God of the Copybook Headings is alive and well; it is only on close examination that its clear statements, like the foundations of the city in which it is set, start to crumble.
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SOURCE: "Dr. Jekyll's Housekeeper," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 21, 1990, pp. 1, 10.
[In the following laudatory review, Freeman compares Mary Reilly to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), asserting that Martin's novel should be read as a "companion piece" to the latter.]
A "fine bogy tale," frightening and vivid, was once dreamed by a husband who, crying out in his sleep, was awakened by his startled wife. Instead of feeling relieved at escaping the nightmare, he felt irritated that she had interrupted such an exciting story. Nevertheless, the dream survived, was eventually embellished by the dreamer (who also was a writer) and turned into a work of fiction.
The husband was Robert Louis Stevenson; the tale became Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a classic story with the power of myth whose very title has become synonymous with the concept of man's duality and those who lead double lives.
The Calvinist message in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Jenni Calder has pointed out in her introduction to a Penguin edition of the tale, was clear: Beware hidden sins! Avoid tampering with nature! The devil may not be as easy to recognize as we think, and the capacity for evil is within us all. Evil, in fact, is potentially more powerful than good: After all, in the end, it's the heinous Henry Hyde, sharing Jekyll's body, who destroys the well-meaning doctor.
There is another, subtler interpretation of the Dr. Jekyll myth, however, which Calder also points out. The "morality" of so-called respectable people is in fact a terrible burden, a prison that confines the natural spirit of humanity in an intolerable way. Dr. Jekyll, in becoming Mr. Hyde, is liberating himself from Victorian hypocrisy, though the result is, unfortunately, ultimately monstrous.
Now, just over 100 years after the original publication of Stevenson's story, comes a powerful and moving novel based on the same tale but this time told from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll's housemaid, Mary Reilly.
The first thing that must be said about Mary Reilly—whose author, Valerie Martin, has published five previous books—is that it's a brilliant piece of work, a whopping good story so perfectly realized that it stands out for its honesty and beauty. Mary Reilly is a character of great kindness and goodness. Her perceptions of human nature ring with simple truth. She has the tender sadness of the servant who never imagines the possibility of marriage or any other form of escape from her life of constant and lowly laboring, and yet she never complains. For Mary, it's enough to serve her "master" well.
Work is Mary's raison d'être. She toils to make a pretty little garden out of a dirt patch in the back yard. The smallest crumbs of praise or attention tossed in her direction by the kindly Dr. Jekyll fill her with a grateful happiness. She is obsessed with the importance of fulfilling her role with dignity, always remembering her "place." In the moments when she reflects upon her life, there is a terrible, heart-rending sadness to her self-effacement. And yet, she seems so wise in her naiveté, a fact that does not escape Dr. Jekyll, who gradually opens up to her and comes to rely on her for secret help, although she remains confused about his "experiments" until the truth is finally revealed.
In the opening pages of Mary Reilly, Mary is recounting for Dr. Jekyll the story of how she came to have such terrible scars on her neck and hands. The master has asked her to write down the story, sensing it would be too difficult to tell face to face, and thus Mary begins keeping a journal. The story of the scars is a chilling, startling beginning to the book, an incident so horrifying it has the power to lodge permanently in memory.
We learn that as a child Mary was abused by her drunken, lowlife father. His cruelty, his "evil" nature, suggests Dr. Jekyll's experiments with Hyde. One of the most interesting exchanges in the book occurs when Dr. Jekyll questions Mary on the subject of "good," a brief dialogue reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw. Mary is on her knees (a position we find her in repeatedly throughout the book, and one loaded with innuendo) cleaning the claw-legged table; Dr. Jekyll has just come home from a meeting with officials of a slum school he endows, angry because he's been told it's not worth it to try and educate the poor.
"I'm not so naive as to think we can solve the world's problems by having a school," he says, "but surely we've an obligation to relieve suffering when we can. And ignorance is suffering … any school, simply by existing, must be a force for the good." But Mary can't agree with that.
"I was thinking that there can never be such a thing as a force for the good, sir," she says, "and there's the pity of it." Force and good are words in opposition. "The two words won't go together, as force can never do aught but evil," Mary says. Doing good is very different from being good—the latter of course being the more unforced. She herself "only thinks of doing what I must do to stay as I am."
"Which is good," master says, as if to pay her a compliment. "No, sir," she replies. "Which is safe."
Martin has picked up and carried forward Stevenson's ideas quite brilliantly: It is because Jekyll has tried so hard to be good that his goodness is not natural; it is affected, untrue. The greater his attempts to force goodness, the greater the monstrosity of the "Hyde" that emerges.
"Was Stevenson suggesting that it was dangerous to suppress certain elements of human nature?" asked Calder in her essay.
I think he was, and I think there is a great deal of psychological truth in what he is saying. He had experienced directly the iron grip of Calvinism and of bourgeois morality on human behavior, and he had recognized that it could be destructive, destructive because it affirmed that good for the Majority was something external, artificial, not intrinsic to human nature: Men could not be good unless they were told how to be good.
Stevenson himself recognized a rather different kind of morality, a morality that came from within, that depended on a sensitive understanding of human relationships and responsibilities, that was flexible, individual, spontaneous.
Consider, in light of these words, the activities of the Moral Majority and the current efforts of certain segments of our society to dictate the behavior of others; the debate over abortion; the struggle to keep artistic expression free of legislative control, and our National Endowment for the Arts, an institution of worth and integrity, and one can appreciate the extraordinary timeliness of this tale.
"We all feel something is amiss," Mary writes toward the end of her story, meaning the servants of the house who can no longer ignore the menace in their midst. "It is like a fog rising up from the carpets, standing in every turning of the staircase. We carry on with our duties as best we can, for how can we do otherwise? But I think there is not an easy heart in this house."
What a fine book Mary Reilly is. It deserves to become a companion of its inspiration. In fact, the works fit together like two hands whose fingers are intertwined. Part of the amazing skill of Valerie Martin is how she takes details from Stevenson's story and recasts them on the page: She fills in the blanks; she tells you the "other" side.
The same players move across the stage. But Mary, who was mentioned only once in the original Dr. Jekyll and then never by name, is now the perfect, most empathetic observer of the tragically fatal events that end with a housemaid nestled on the floor against her dead "gentle Master," whispering to him, "This is a cruel trick."
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SOURCE: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Observed by the Maid," in The New York Times, January 26, 1990, p. C28.
[In the following unfavorable review, Kakutani faults Mary Reilly as merely a rewrite of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).]
Written in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains both a classic in the literature of the double or doppelganger and a period piece of Victoriana, reflecting the social hypocrisies of that era. As readers will readily recall, the Stevenson book recounts the story of one Dr. Henry Jekyll, a socially prominent physician, who develops a drug that transforms him into his evil alter ego, an apelike creature named Edward Hyde. Although he also creates an antidote that will restore him to his respectable daylight existence as Dr. Jekyll, the demonic self grows stronger and stronger, eventually taking over possession of his body. Not only does the novel reflect the Victorian era's troubled reaction to Darwin's theories of evolution, but it also presages Freud's revelations about the conflicting forces of id and superego within the human psyche.
An obsession with the conflict between good and evil, reason and irrationality; a melodramatic use of horror; a preoccupation with man's bestial impulses and the natural dangers that lurk around the edges of our fragile civilization—each of these aspects of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can also be found in the work of Valerie Martin, a writer who has specialized in creating modern tales of gothic suspense (The Consolation of Nature). Now, in her latest book, Mary Reilly, she proposes to retell Stevenson's famous story from the point of view of one of Dr. Jekyll's maidservants.
The result is not unlike one of those glossy remakes of a Hollywood classic: a slick, highly professional rendition of a familiar tale that manages to entertain and amuse, without really adding anything appreciably new to the original story.
Whereas Stevenson's original tale was largely told from the point of view of two pillars of the Victorian establishment (namely, Dr. Jekyll's colleague Dr. Lanyon and his lawyer, Mr. Utterson, two men of reason, unable to assimilate fully the horrors of the story), Ms. Martin's novel is narrated by one Mary Reilly, a young woman who works as a maid in Dr. Jekyll's house. Mary, who was beaten and tortured by her father, is herself well acquainted with the dark side of human nature—her father's beatings have left her "with this sadness which has been hard to bear"—and her narration presumably puts a kind of moral frame around the adventures of Dr. Jekyll.
When Mary first begins writing in her journals, Dr. Jekyll—or "Master," as she refers to him—appears as an upstanding gentleman and sympathetic employer: he generously gives money and time to the poor, he enjoys the respect of his colleagues within the scientific community and he takes a paternal interest in Mary's welfare, encouraging her to tell him about her dreadful childhood. Despite the difference in their social stations, she begins to feel a special kind of spiritual kinship with him, as though they understood the same things about the world.
Writing in brisk, only slightly mannered prose, Mary sets down a vivid portrait of life—upstairs and downstairs—at the Jekyll mansion. The reader gets to know her immediate boss, the priggish butler Mr. Poole, who is constantly galling the other servants with his snippy, superior airs; another maid named Annie, a nearly comatose girl who seems to do little but sleep, and Mrs. Kent, the kindly, maternal cook. As Mary describes the daily chores each of them must carry out, the reader comes to see the household as a microcosm of Victorian society, in which everyone and everything has its place, in which routine and hierarchy insure at least the illusion of order.
It soon becomes evident, however, that something is terribly amiss. Dr. Jekyll starts spending more and more time in his laboratory, and his comings and goings become increasingly irregular. He sends Mary on a secret mission that involves a visit to the proprietress of a seedy boarding house; and he informs the household staff that he has hired a new assistant—the sinister Mr. Hyde, whom he says is to have the complete run of the mansion.
When Mary first meets Mr. Hyde, she is both fascinated and appalled:
The back of his hand is covered with black hair, the fingers blunt, so although, like the rest of him, it is small for a man's, still there is something brutish about it. I found I did not like to look at his hand any better than I liked to see the rest of him, yet there was something that seemed to hold me still and make me stare, as a rabbit will stare stunned by a torch light.
Carefully reorchestrating the events described in Stevenson's original story, Ms. Martin shows the reader Dr. Jekyll's rapid decline (and Mr. Hyde's equally rapid ascent)—as seen through Mary's horrified eyes. There's no real suspense, of course—most readers will know all along just who Mr. Hyde is, as well as the inevitable outcome of the story—but the plot gives Ms. Martin a chance to display her sure storytelling talents, her authoritative narrative command.
In the end, the conceit of her retelling—that is, making Mary Reilly the narrator—never really pays off. Mary's identification with Dr. Jekyll turns out to be little more than a red herring; and the consequences of her erotic attraction to him are similarly left dangling. As a result, the reader ends up with the feeling that Ms. Martin undertook the writing of Mary Reilly less as a means of reinventing a classic for her own ends than as a simple exercise in rewriting. Though diverting enough for the reader, it ultimately feels like an unnecessary project.
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SOURCE: "The Woman Who Loved Dr. Jekyll," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1990, p. 7.
[An American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter, Crowley is best known for The Deep (1975) and his work in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. In the following favorable review, he briefly describes plot, theme, and characterization in Mary Reilly.]
It has been noted that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as empty of female presences as a London club. The lawyer Utterson and the young businessman Enfield who between them tell the story, Dr. Jekyll himself, even the butler Poole, are all bachelors. Hyde's sins may involve women, but unlike Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stevenson forbore to name them or to describe them except in horrid generalities.
Now [in Mary Reilly] Valerie Martin has had the terrific idea of retelling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of someone who might well have been a witness to the events, but who was invisible to the original teller—doubly invisible, for Mary Reilly is not only a woman but a servant. The idea is such a natural that as soon as the reader gets it he seems almost to have thought it up himself, and to be able to imagine in delight all that will follow. It is to Valerie Martin's credit that what does follow is seldom quite predictable.
Stevenson's story, like Mary Shelley's story of Frankenstein and the stories of Sherlock Holmes, has come to belong not to its author but to all of us, a fable of emerging scientific rationalism as necessary to our moral education as Prometheus or Pygmalion once were. That by chemical treatment we can precipitate out the evil nature within our ordinary law-abiding well-meaning natures, and thus perhaps rid ourselves of it; that in attempting to do so a heroic overreaching scientist becomes not free of but enslaved to his own worse self—if Stevenson had not first distilled the story, someone else would have had to.
In Ms. Martin's novel, Mary Reilly, housemaid in Dr. Jekyll's well-run London house, is not drawn to the oppositions that tempt and destroy her "Master" (as she always names him). She has suffered from uncontrolled demonic sadism: her father, through the agency of no more sophisticated a chemical than gin, tortured her unforgivably when she was a child, and she doesn't forgive or forget. But she has a sense of the unalterability of what is, and the strength to find a way to live, and even to love, despite it. Unable to grasp the cause, she can still experience vividly the human cost of Jekyll's experiment.
Ms. Martin's greatest triumph in her sidelong retelling is that she makes Mary Reilly and her life belowstairs so convincing. The novel is told in the first person; Mary Reilly has been given a little education at a school in which Dr. Jekyll once took a philanthropic interest (Mary doesn't tell him how poor a place it was), and she fills her penny notebooks late at night while the house is asleep.
Her voice, without being pedantically authentic, is entirely genuine. She is trying to make an herb garden in the dark yard that separates the comfortable house from the dark laboratory:
I set to work with Cook's direction, and heavy work it was, as the ground was so hard it come up in great clods. Cook said first those ugly bushes mun go and they gave me a fair struggle, though they hardly looked alive, and I thought how all plants do struggle and seem to be longing to flourish no matter how badly they are treated or on what hard, unprofitable soil they fall, so I began to feel a little sad for the poor bushes, but Cook said they'd be the death of our herbs so up they mun come.
(Mary already feels the difficulty involved in weeding out the strong evil to let the delicate good flourish. It takes art to allow so stark a symbol to spring up in a book, and to have it do work, without seeming to have been planted. Stevenson was himself a master of it.)
Mary is committed to service, in all of its meanings; she is as loyal to her house and as proud of it, as acutely concerned for its honor, as a junior officer in a crack regiment. She is clear-eyed about her position and her prospects, but never bitter. She is largely unnoticed by the people upstairs but, though they exclude her, she includes them, and sees them more clearly than they see themselves. The only person who sees as clearly as she does is Mr. Edward Hyde.
The story, seen from the servants' hall, is of a natural order overturned. Dr. Jekyll is a good man and a good master; his house is well run and stable, as many houses are not. The first sign of trouble is that the master on whom they all depend, whose well-being they all identify with their own, seems intent on ruining his health with poor diet, late nights and overwork. They sense but cannot formulate the connection between this weakness of their master's and the sudden parasitic appearance of Edward Hyde, who the servants are shocked to learn has been given "the freedom of the house." Hyde's worst characteristic, as they see it, is that though he pretends to authority, he is not a gentleman: Jekyll's subjection to him is a breach in nature.
Ms. Martin abjures the most lurid temptations her scheme might have suggested to her. Mary Reilly's contacts with her master and his other self are few; her life is filled not with drama but with work—cleaning grates, hauling coal, beating carpets and draperies, helping the cook. Every slight advance in intimacy she makes with Dr. Jekyll, every brief glimpse she has of the wrongness at the household's heart, she hoards up to wring its meaning out. The narrowness of her view of Jekyll and his danger is overcome by the intensity of her vision. Her troubled master answers her straightforward human concern for him with distracted gestures of casual kindness. But they are enough for Mary; her concern transmutes to a love willing to risk anything, yet still not strong enough to save him.
The greatest artistic difficulty Ms. Martin faced is one she inherited from Stevenson's original. We often forget that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a mystery story; only in the last pages do we learn the secret of Jekyll's relation to Hyde. Even in the original, the mystery is not well sustained, and it is now patent to every reader; the longeurs in Mary Reilly are all due to what we know and Mary tries fruitlessly to discover. Conversely, the most genuinely suspenseful moments (and the strongest writing) come when the terrible father from whom Mary long ago escaped is glimpsed again. He may appear before her, like a Hyde of her own, and we don't know what will happen.
Mary Reilly is an achievement—creativity skating exhilaratingly on thin ice. It shares with some of Ms. Martin's earlier work (along with an apparent obsession with rats) a compulsion to bring together ordinary people with others who are wholly good (as in A Recent Martyr) or wholly evil. The radical indefinability of the key terms suggests a difficulty with such a schema, and it was a difficulty for Stevenson as well. I think Valerie Martin's treatment of his story actually succeeds in ways Stevenson himself could not have brought off and might well have admired.
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SOURCE: "Solitude, Work, Humility," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4548, June 1, 1990, p. 586.
[Showalter is an American educator, editor, and critic who frequently writes on feminist issues and concerns. In the following mixed review, she discusses Martin's focus on gender differences and Victorian society in Mary Reilly.]
When Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde was first published in 1886, its original readers were struck by the maleness of the story: all the characters (except for the young thug, Hyde) are middle-aged bachelors whose sole emotional relationships are with each other. As one of Stevenson's female reviewers observed, "no woman's name occurs in the book, no romance is even suggested in it". Dramatists who have adapted Stevenson's novel for the stage or screen since Thomas Sullivan's first successful melodrama in 1887 have invariably added female characters, usually a "good" woman (a virginal débutante) and a "bad" woman (a barmaid or prostitute), to supply the missing romantic and feminine element. Several women writers, including Susan Sontag and Fay Weldon, have recently been drawn to re-imagine the story of Jekyll and Hyde, and explore the gender-subtexts of literary myths, the sexual implications of divided selves, and the ambiguities of multiple narratives. Emma Tennant's brilliant feminist version, Two Women of London (1989), made Ms Jekyll a glamorous Notting Hill art dealer and her alter ego Mrs Hyde a desperate welfare mother. Now [with the publication of Mary Reilly] the American novelist Valerie Martin retells Stevenson's story from the viewpoint of a female character mentioned but unnamed in the original, a young housemaid who is crying when the door to Jekyll's laboratory is broken down.
Written in the form of a journal, Mary Reilly's story is both an original interpretation of Jekyll's tragedy from downstairs, and a moving account of a heroine with subtle correspondences to Jekyll across the divisions of sex and class. Mary is the victim of physical abuse by an alcoholic father, and bears scars on her neck and hands from one terrible experience when he locked her in a cupboard with a rat. Abused children, some psychiatrists now claim, may escape their traumatic memories by developing split or multiple personalities; and thus Mary's past gives her a potential connection to Jekyll's experiments. Indeed, Mary Reilly has a lot more to escape than Henry Jekyll. But rather than seeking to express her rage, Mary has embraced solitude, work and humility, accepting the servant's role in which she finds security, and finding solace in writing a journal.
Noticed by Dr Jekyll, who asks about her scars, encourages her reading and writing and sometimes engages her in metaphysical conversations, Mary feels an intuitive empathy with her brooding Master: "We are both souls who know this sadness and darkness inside." Even when he sends her on unpleasant errands to Soho brothels, and commands her and the other servants to obey his ruffian "assistant", Edward Hyde, Mary remains faithful. Martin has drawn for period detail on accounts of Victorian domestic servants, and the portrait of Mary seems inspired in particular by the diary of Hannah Cullwick, whose secret liaison with her master, Arthur Munby, depended on the fetishization of her servility and dirtiness. Always black with coal-dust and garden soil, Mary yearns "across the dirt" for her pale, mysterious and silver-haired Master, both fantasy father and fantasy lover.
But if this Jekyll reminds us of Edward Rochester, and if Hyde, who at one point bites her on the shoulder, seems like Bertha Mason, Mary is no rebellious Jane Eyre. Her internalization of the class system and her sexual repression make her an uncomprehending witness to Hyde's crimes and to Jekyll's longing to change his proper place; rather, she sees Jekyll as "like me, not touched by need for something more". Martin ends with an afterword by an anonymous "editor", like the postscript to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, describing how Mary Reilly's journals were found in Berkshire, and promising another volume if "the text here presented creates, as I hope it will, an active interest in this serious and strangely eloquent young woman". But despite Martin's imaginative feat in giving Mary a convincing language and voice, the interest of the story lies less in Mary herself than in her obsession with Jekyll. In this sense [Mary Reilly], with its many scenes of creeping around the mansion and laboratory by night, remains more in the realm of female Gothic romance than of feminist psychological exploration.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1732
SOURCE: "The Housemaid's Tale," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1990, pp. 34-5.
[In the following mixed review, Graff discusses Mary Reilly's focus on Victorian society and feminist concerns.]
Whose history counts? That's the familiar feminist question Valerie Martin explores with Mary Reilly, a novel about an earnest, solitary young woman "in service" in the household of Dr. Jekyll. The novel proposes that the Edward Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale was not the infamous gentleman-scientist's most significant shadow. That honor belongs, rather, to his housemaid Mary, whose diaries record experiences with Dickensian sewers of poverty and reveal the consequences of the good Victorian gentleman's privileges and preoccupations.
The novel's grabber opening shoves us immediately into the tiny cupboard where the child Mary's drunken father brutalized her. Seeing life through Mary's eyes, we understand that, unlike Jekyll, she has no need to dabble in chemical sorcery to see how man (I use the word intentionally) might behave if freed from the rules that define civilized behavior. Mary's unwilling forays into London's grimmer streets illuminate her relief at life as a well-fed, appreciated domestic, and her resulting scheme of values.
Sweeping the floor with tea leaves, scrubbing down the flagstones with her skirts tied up, hauling coal down into and up from the basement, industriously digging an herb garden: all this labor offers freedom both from the misery of poverty and from the mean-spirited idleness she has observed in the lives of "ladies."
The plot draws Mary, a kind of household detective, closer and closer to her adored "Master"—and to the dangers of his secret. Fueling this plot is Martin's sensitive depiction of the influences on Mary's character. We understand why this intelligent and morally alert young woman, deprived by poverty and by abuse, would respond with such excitement and devotion to her adored "Master's" interest in her. And when curiosity and disturbed concern drive her to investigate inexplicable events, we turn the pages quickly, gripped by the risks we readers know and Mary does not.
Unfortunately, while the book finely sketches Mary's character and temperament, poses interesting questions and offers a perspective on life "downstairs," it is not entirely successful. To begin with, it lacks the richness and startling accuracy of sensory detail that can bring a time and place to life. And, unfortunately, much of the time it lacks forward motion. Whenever Mary directly confronts evil—in the person of her abusive father, or face-to-face with the taunting and barely restrained violence of Edward Hyde—the action is powerful. But too much time is spent establishing the servants' daily lives and building to Hyde's first appearance. Too much time is spent watching Mary puzzle over Jekyll's behavior, trying to make sense of contradictions that the reader easily resolves. And too little time is spent on Mary's own conflicts.
This last point is particularly serious because the premises and actions of Robert Louis Stevenson's original tale are not always clear enough to make Martin's novel as effective as it should be. Mary and "Master" have conversations that frustrated and tantalized me, making me suspect I was missing something. Only after I went back to the original did I understand how Martin was arguing with Stevenson's class- and gender-biased assumptions. For instance, when Mary unhappily runs an errand for Jekyll/Hyde that takes her into the "wicked" part of town, where people know "no rules or manners need ever be applied and so act exactly as they feel," the feminist who has read both books can see Martin objecting to Jekyll's characterization of his youthful excesses merely as "undignified pleasures."
But though these scenes show the human consequences of the prostitution that propped up the lives of middle-class male Victorians, or show that underclass life is more cheaply valued than that of a Member of Parliament, that is not enough to move the drama forward. If Mary's life is to be both its own novel and truly the shadow-side of Jekyll's, we need to see her conflicts and faultlines, as she is forced into her own painful choices. Why does Martin keep the sexual tension between Mary and "Master," the obvious consequence of the adoration of a bright young woman for her kind patron, unexplored? Surely the explosive consequences of facing such a choice would dramatize the inequality of the domestic's position, and would test the conflicts among Mary's values: devotion versus security, affection versus respectability, trust of the master versus memories of brutality.
Nor does Mary's brutal childhood, so passionately rendered in the opening scene, become a fully realized theme, as the reader would expect. We are obviously meant to feel that Mary has surmounted that background when she is able to hold her ground with the sneering, threatening Hyde. But why not show her grappling with her past, instead of vaguely invoking it as explanation for moods we never see?
When Mary learns that her mother has died, after years of rooming in a slimy alley where she worked ceaselessly as a seamstress to stay out of debt, she is granted the day off to walk across London, arrange for her mother's burial and walk back. From the other servants' reactions, it is clear that a whole day off for grief proves "Master's" generosity. Of course, the twentieth-century reader cannot help but feel the injustice of this meager day off as compared with Jekyll's own uncircumscribed freedom. But if Mary were struggling to reconcile her past and present, if she were in conflict about how to behave when her father makes a brief off-stage appearance, this foray could be integral to the action, not just a politically interesting tangent.
It is not enough to sketch the life taking place "downstairs" as affected by the moral battle raging "upstairs." Nor is it enough to portray Mary's internal attempts to make sense of Jekyll's behavior. We need to see the battle of right and wrong taking place in Mary's heart and soul.
Reading Mary Reilly inevitably recalls Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel about Bertha Rochester. Wide Sargasso Sea is a brilliant evocation of a world and life independent of Jane Eyre; where the two books do dovetail, Brontë's novel is permanently seared by Rhys' vision of the corruption seething in the lives of the subjects of the Empire. The comparison is unfortunate for Martin's novel, which lacks that independent force.
Nevertheless, Mary Reilly is a rewarding summer evening's read. The last third is quite thrillingly dramatic. Mary herself is well worth meeting, and Martin offers enough ideas to munch on for a few hours. And there's a bonus: a delightful afterword that mimics the writings that accompany the scholarly publication of obscure documents, and explores the factual and philosophical questions raised by the novel. Feminists who teach political science or history might want to assign the paperback, when it appears, for glimpses of the lives of nineteenth-century servants and for an opening into a discussion about whose history makes history—or literature.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6256
SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 1-17.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in early 1992, Martin discusses her novels—particularly Mary Reilly—the major themes of her work, her reception among critics, and her aims as a writer.]
Valerie Martin's disturbing personal vision has, over the past fifteen years, continually returned to the city of her youth, testing the limits of the gothic form within a New Orleans of the imagination. The locale of her earlier novels, Set in Motion (1978), Alexandra (1979), and A Recent Martyr (1987), and her collections of short stories, Love (1977) and The Consolation of Nature (1988), New Orleans is revisited once more in a work in progress tentatively titled "The Great Divorce." Martin's most recent novel, Mary Reilly (1989), a vivid retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of Jekyll's maid, therefore provides an uncharacteristic setting for her fiction. But the detailed portrayal of a startling psychological state of mind in precise prose; the taste for macabre imagery; the masochistic fascination with pain and death; the dislocative narrative strategies that evoke the classic gothic while claiming a stylistic affinity with postmodern fiction; the calculated revision of a precursor text; and even the obsession with rats conspire to make Mary Reilly a quintessential Martin novel.
While genuinely bemused by the sometimes hostile reaction of feminist readers to the subject matter of her novels, not least the graphic detail of the sadomasochistic love triangle which structures A Recent Martyr's meditation on loves sacred and profane, Martin obviously also enjoys notoriety after a decade of neglect. Once told that her vision was too personal to find an audience, she is amused that the foreign rights to Mary Reilly were sold on the strength of the first thirty-five pages of manuscript and the movie rights to Warner Brothers with only sixty-five more, and she is excited by the artistic and financial freedom ("I can quit teaching now") that the novel's popular success has given her.
This interview took place on January 20, 1992, in Martin's office at the University of Massachusetts, where she taught creative writing and literature. We concluded the interview in a nearby lounge which, in the winter twilight, we discovered had no working lamps. As Martin gradually became to me only a disembodied voice in the darkness, speaking softly, as so many of her first-person narrators do, of longing and masochism, of love and the promise of death, the situation seemed more than appropriate.
[Smith]: Mary Reilly has been called a classic breakthrough book. How do you account for that commercial "breakthrough"?
[Martin]: I attribute that to the simplicity of the thematic material and its connection to a popular horror story. I know the publishing company was enthusiastic because they could see the possibility of a double market—the literary and the horror. They assumed that the link to the well-known tale would make it possible for them to find a bigger audience.
So you don't consider Mary Reilly a great advance over your previous fiction?
Well, in some ways it isn't. It wasn't as difficult to write as A Recent Martyr. That was the most technically challenging novel that I've written. The first-person narrator writing her thoughts down is a really simple way to proceed, and once I found Mary's voice, complications didn't arise because it was so strong and so clear that it carried the whole story. And the subject matter was much less complicated, with less possibility for subtlety, than things I've tried before. I've tried to write about mysticism. That's a much more difficult subject than what I'll call the good and evil that coexist in folks. So Mary Reilly was really a different thing for me to do; I'd written stories that were influenced by, or in some sense imitative of, other writers, but I'd never tried to do a book that comments on a book, or a book that exists within another. So I'd have to say that it was different as opposed to a great advance.
Do you feel that your earlier work was perhaps underrated by comparison?
My earlier work wasn't underrated. I've always gotten a lot of reviews and a lot of good reviews. The difficult period was when I lost an editor after Alexandra and then didn't publish anything for eight years. Even then, I wasn't underrated. I was perceived as someone who didn't have a market. The rejections I got during those years were very encouraging; they just despaired of finding an audience for the work. But no one ever said that what I was writing was just junk. A Recent Martyr didn't get a bad review. I don't feel that I've been unfairly reviewed.
So where does Mary Reilly stand in the Martin canon?
In some ways, it's a culmination of the earlier books. I'd certainly wrestled with the subject matter before. It's a streamlining of sorts because my usual triangle of characters reappears in a simplified form. Two of them are in one person. But it's probably more important as a connector. I think that every writer has books that are really connectors—books between that lead to the next one. Mary Reilly is the connector to the novel that I'm working on now, which is—I hope—going to be the bigger book. Certainly, sizewise, it's the biggest book I've written.
Where did the idea for Mary Reilly come from? Did it develop from the photograph of the Victorian maid that's on the frontispiece?
No. The photograph came long after I had begun the book. I'd probably written about sixty or seventy pages before I found it. The idea just came from my affection for the Stevenson book. It struck me as a funny idea. But when I mentioned it to my agent, as a joke, she was excited. Agents don't usually get excited by ideas much. Then when I wrote a Guggenheim proposal for the project and sent it to her, just to show her what I was thinking about, she told me that if I could send her twenty-five pages she wanted to show it to a publishing house. That made me think it was a good idea. Once I got started on it I saw that it was a really good idea.
It's dedicated to "two seafarers." Stevenson and your father?
Yeah, my father was a sea captain. He died about six months before I started the book. He was always interested in my success and was very happy about the books that were published while he was alive. He would have been really happy to see this book.
He wanted to be a writer too?
Yes, he did, but he was a journalist and then the war came. He couldn't take criticism at all. He wrote some stories when he was younger and sent them out, and one came back with some suggestions for changes and he was just outraged. He encouraged me even though I think he thought it was hopeless. I remember he once made the remark, after a few books were published, that he did think they were very good for women's fiction. That pretty much did me in. I think he was in some ways afraid for me because a writing career was such a long shot. One that he'd never take. He was amazed at how much rejection I could take. If you want to be a writer you have to develop an appetite for rejection.
There's no author's photograph on the paperback of Mary Reilly or on the reprints of the earlier novels. Is that deliberate?
My first book had no picture at my request, and if I could never have any photograph of myself anywhere I would. Trying to connect the writer's face and life to the work just leads to a lot of hopeless speculation. A writer wants the work to stand alone. Of course, I must confess to great delight in looking at photographs of Stevenson while I was working on Mary Reilly. He always looked so bemused, such a natural. I like knowing about writers myself, but I guess, probably because of the kind of writing that I do, I'm afraid to have people trying to connect my life to the work because my life isn't that closely connected to it, except that it has been the main obsession of my life.
You write about obsessive, compulsive characters. Are you an obsessive person?
I think so. When someone asked Ray Carver why his characters were always so obsessive he said that it simplified the writing in two ways. First, the character has only one thing in mind most of the time which is useful. Second, the writer is already an obsessive and therefore familiar with the mindset. That's so true. It's impossible for me to stop writing. I certainly should have quit. I've thought about it but couldn't do it. And the students that I've had over the years, the ones that actually become writers, really just think of the rest of life as something you do to support writing. I can't take vacations. To me the idea of a vacation is an absurdity. A vacation is just when you write.
What about vocation? Is writing a vocation too, a religious vocation of sorts? In the past you've quoted Flannery O'Connor on this with approbation.
I think in a way it is. That's what they used to tell us about a vocation in Catholic school. That it was something you either had or couldn't have. I don't think it's necessarily confined to religion and writing though. Some people have a vocation for banking.
Is there a sense in which you consider Clare, the mystic of A Recent Martyr, as an alternative writer of sorts, a type of surrogate writer?
Insofar as she cannot not be what she is. That's what bothers Pascal about her. She can't be dissuaded from her faith. She doesn't go around thinking "well should I or shouldn't I?" I've known a lot of writers who have crises of faith fairly regularly, every three or four months or so—"I'm going to give it all up, I'm not a writer." I have not myself ever had to deal with that. I have felt I should give it all up, if I had any sense, and go find something I can make a living at, but I never have thought that I would. And that's also true of most of the writers I know. Someone like Margaret Atwood. There wasn't any time that she wasn't going to be a writer. She certainly couldn't stop. She'd write on a wall. She'd sure find a way.
A Recent Martyr is dedicated to M. A.
Yes, that's Margaret Atwood. Because that book had been sitting around for eight years, and then she took it to her editor and said "publish this," and it was.
Would you agree that, in general, there's a certain hostility to religion in your work, particularly in A Recent Martyr?
I don't think so. There's a certain hostility to religion in my life. Actually, I think that Catholicism can bring out the best in some people. I still read some of the mystics and honestly believe that there's no faking going on, that this is genuine conviction and a real experience of the best that an individual can be.
Well, Theresa of Avila and Francis of Assisi. I went to Italy and crawled in all the places Francis crawled in. He walked up these huge mountains barefoot and didn't eat for ten days. No wonder he had visions. Who wouldn't? All I did was walk through the parking lot to a little cave and I was dizzy. There are others that I've read about. I've read several biographies of Joan of Arc. The women mystics I like. But particularly Theresa of Avila. She was a good, no, a great writer. She writes about the mystical experience in a way that I don't think anyone else has. I certainly don't have mystical experiences and don't want to have them. But I believe that she had them.
Some of the publication interviews concerning Mary Reilly mentioned your "reserved self-possession" and how that contrasts with the subject matter of your fiction. There was the suggestion that you were yourself something of a Jekyll and Hyde figure.
Oh sure, that's always going to happen. I heard an interview with Martin Amis recently, and no one's nastier in his writing than he is, and the interviewer seemed so shocked that he's such a pleasant and amiable fellow. Who's to say why that happens? I don't think that being reserved and self-possessed—whatever that is—would exclude me from being able to write about dark and erotic matters. In fact, I think it could be quite useful. That doesn't seem like a real conflict to me. Now, Stephen King, he looks like he could write scary stuff. I guess some readers expect that I must be a strange person somehow. But I don't think my dreams are any stranger … well, some of my dreams probably are stranger than most people's, but I don't think I have to be strange to write strange things. The disturbing element of my writing is there because it's functional. It's necessary. To write as though the unconscious world were not always present and always dark to me would be a lie. Then again, in my personal life I don't sit around playing with rats.
Doesn't the writer who transforms that unconscious world—all too consciously—into a text have to be a Jekyll and Hyde character?
Well, you should see me at night. I don't think that I am a Jekyll and Hyde character. I certainly have a dark side, but I don't have any desire to go out and wreak havoc, which is what Hyde is up to. But I do think that for many writers the hypocrisy of society is hard to bear. In a sense, they would like to bring it down. I think that Stevenson was certainly affected by that; he left the Victorian Calvinist world he grew up in and never went back. So if a sociopathic desire to bring it all down equals Hyde, the dark side, I would own to that. I certainly want my readers to see that this is not a good world. That this is a hypocritical world. So there's a certain amount of anger that gets taken care of by writing stories. That doesn't translate into a desire to blow up buildings though.
You said that the disturbing elements of your fiction were functional. It strikes me that there is a major contrast between your subject matter and the simplicity of your style.
Definitely. I try to write about startling things in a way that it's hard to turn away from. To do that I have to have a pretty clean style. It's important to me not to be just writing about chilly things in order to make everybody's hair stand on end. I have something in mind beyond that, and that's why I have a style that's pretty flat and unremarkable. As soon as you say the word "rat" everybody gets anxious anyway. But a rat is actually a fairly ordinary creature. So I try to keep my eye on both those things at once—the frightening part which is the baggage that the rat carries and the actual reality of the rat. In fact, the book I'm working on now is really about that. It's about the difference between romanticism and realism which is, I think, what all my books have been about.
I know the new book is a return to New Orleans for you. Is it finished?
Well, I'm about halfway through it—a little more than halfway.
Does it have a title?
It's called "The Great Divorce." I suppose the central narrative is about a female veterinarian. She's married to a guy who writes books about Louisiana history, sort of stories of the Old South. He's modeled on a guy named Lyle Saxon who used to write stories about Louisiana. They're about to get divorced—that's the first divorce. But the veterinarian also thinks that the nonrelationship between man and nature is really the Great Divorce. There are a number of different stories, lots of stories.
So it's formally gothic? There are stories within stories?
Yes. In his researches the historian discovers the old story of a woman who was executed for murdering her husband. She was called the Catwoman of St. Francisville because she claimed to have turned into a leopard and the husband was found with his throat ripped out. No one believed her. So that story is recounted within the main narrative. Another story involves the young woman who's the keeper of the cat house at the New Orleans zoo and how she identifies with, or is empowered by, a particular animal. All these stories go back and forth. It's coming together.
Sounds like it's less conservative than Mary Reilly. Is it as disturbing as your early fiction?
Oh sure, there are bloody scenes. And lots of sex.
There wasn't any pressure on you to continue writing in the Mary Reilly vein?
My editor is not someone who gives me that kind of problem. She's been very encouraging and would never try to get me to write a sequel or something of that nature. One writer she works with who should give you some idea of the range she allows is Ian McEwan. He can be the most delicate of writers or—horror show.
You write about animals often. I read that the original title of The Consolation of Nature was "Dead Animal Stories," that you had to be dissuaded from calling it that. Writing about a zoo seems a logical step for you. Does it have to do with your interest in the nature of romanticism?
Not so much the nature of romanticism as the romanticism of nature. The ways in which we refuse to see the world as a real world, insist on romanticizing it, and by romanticizing it connect it to ourselves in fake ways. There's this stupid myth of how there was a time when we used to live happily with nature. This produces people who believe that it's natural for their dog to be a vegetarian. I looked in my dog's mouth the other day—rippers, rippers, rippers. There are no chewing teeth. This is obviously not an animal who's designed to be a vegetarian. This vision of nature comes to us directly from the romantics. It's a nature that never did exist. Blake talked about the tiger, and now, when we see a tiger, it really is this fabulous mythological thing connected to all human experience. It's not connected to the world of struggle and survival that is tigerdom. The fact that tigers will only exist in our imagination in a hundred years or so seems to me a great tragedy. Fear of nature is the motivation for everything.
Everything. Look at the football field out there. To me, that's fear of nature. This is my obsession. When I taught literature courses I'd move from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century and talk about the relationship between literature and gardens. I've always been fascinated by gardening because of its ambiguity; it's both a love of nature—you have to know a lot about nature to be able to garden—and a desire to control it, to make it less of a threat. My characters have wanted gardens recently.
So the new book is an exploration of the troubled relationship between man and nature?
No, it shows how there is no magical relationship between man and nature. But I'm also working out another related conflict I have always felt in my own work between the gothic and what, for want of a better word, I'll call realism. I've always been attracted to the gothic. I like the darkness of it and the potential for dredging images out of the unconscious. But I've always wanted my fiction to be realistic. For example, I really like the idea of a book about a romantic woman narrated from the point of view of a realist, both sensibilities playing off one another. Madame Bovary is the perfect model. I guess there's been no writer more important to me than Flaubert. Mary Reilly was pretty much straightforward gothic. I want to complicate that.
Gothic is the term most often applied to your work. There's been some discussion recently of a new contemporary gothic. In fact, there was an anthology of stories published recently under that title. I think Patrick McGrath edited it. Do you consider yourself part of that movement? You were noticeable by your absence in that collection.
I got a copy of the book in the mail. I had problems with the definition of gothic in McGrath's introduction. Certainly, the gothic doesn't just have to do with things that are festering and rotting, and that seems to be the definition of gothic pervasive in the collection. It has more to do with the replaying of unconscious desires that are pretty dark, with psychological states, and with the possibility of inversion. It's a form to experiment with. Alexandra was supposed to be a reverse gothic where the male goes away to the strange house with the women. Usually the role of the woman in gothic is just run and shout, run and shout. It was rather different in that book. I was playing a little game which I thought was highly amusing.
Mary Reilly will make a great gothic movie. Who's directing it?
I think it's going to be Tim Burton. I saw Batman. I think he could do a very nice job. He chose it himself, so he has some personal interest in it. I hear it's coming along.
In an ideal world who directs a Valerie Martin novel?
I've always thought Ken Russell should direct A Recent Martyr. It's right up both his alleys—sex and religion. I think he could have a lot of fun with the rat scenes. But I don't write books in order for people to make movies. I write books because I like books better than movies.
Did you ever try to write screenplays yourself?
I tried to write a screenplay for an unpublished novel called "The Perfect Waitress." I wrote maybe forty pages, but I don't know why I wanted to do it except I thought it would make a nice movie and nothing else was happening. I gave it up. I don't think I have the kind of visual sense that you need to write screenplays.
Your M.F.A. degree was in playwriting, so I assume you must have written a number of plays at some point.
Plays are very hard. I probably wrote five plays before I started stories, and it was good for me to do that because I learned how to write dialogue. But I think my plays could be charitably described as closet dramas. That is, they should be put in closets. They're awful.
Were your novels written chronologically as published?
Yes, they really are chronological. Set in Motion I wrote probably in 1974, and while it was about to be published I started on Alexandra and finished it about a year later. And then I wrote A Recent Martyr. Then I started writing the stories that wound up being The Consolation of Nature. I also wrote two novels that will never be published.
All your published novels are first-person narratives. Why is that?
Are they? A Recent Martyr works like a third-person. I like first-person novels. That's how I simplify things. The reader is immediately engaged by the character. My characters are often outsiders, so it's difficult to get at them with a third-person voice. They really do need to speak for themselves. I never want to put them in the position of having to be defended. I'd rather have them defend themselves.
They also tend to be unreliable narrators.
Oh sure, that's the other pleasure of the first person. You know people lie when they talk about themselves.
Is that true of you in the interview situation?
Well, for me to sit here and talk to you about what I'm doing is so completely different from what I'm doing. It's not that I have an interview persona; it's just that I can't talk about my work in a way that I can see as revealing. I want to say, Go read it. I'd much rather write books than talk about them. Part of the obligation of a fiction writer, for me, is to go ahead and be responsible when people draw conclusions other than the kind you expected from your work.
Don't you ever have the urge to correct an interpretation?
Sometimes. When someone says that all my female characters are pathetic that hurts me a little because I see that as a misreading. But I also believe that anyone who reads my work attentively will realize what a shallow interpretation that is.
Your earlier fiction was very much concerned with the problems of storytelling—how one character's narrative could be appropriated by another. Your recent work seems more concerned with the revision of other writers: Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Mary Reilly, Camus's The Plague and Flaubert's Madame Bovary in A Recent Martyr, Joyce's "The Dead" in The Consolation of Nature. Is there a pattern of re-vision here, a feminist agenda?
Those are all books written by men, so I suppose there's no way I can do what I do without applying what you might call a feminist agenda. I don't think I have a feminist agenda. I have certainly experienced what most women have experienced, which is that most of the literature I was taught in school was written by men. A lot of it is about women. Like most women what I was forced to do was identify with male characters. You can't identify with the women in such stories. They're either not there or they're insipid. So you just can't be bothered with them. And for me the experience of reading, especially as a child, was finding people that I could say, well, I'm like that, I understand that, I see why he's like that. When I read The Stranger I felt I recognized someone who was like me. The fact that they were all men, of course, was a problem. Mind you, when I see some women in literature—Emma Bovary is a good example—I think I'm like that too; she's not very nice, she's not very bright, but I certainly can identify with her unhappiness at the world she lives in.
I'm interested in the fact that your work has been attacked by feminist critics.
Many feminists find my work objectionable. They see in it this woman-as-victim theme. I don't, for the life of me, know what that means. But it seems to be offensive to them. But, you know, I get it all the time. I've even had it from my editor on the new book, who's already worried that the women characters are—in her words—two losers. But I don't think she's seen enough of the book to see what I'm up to. There's this absurd notion that what writers, especially women writers, should be writing about is strong women doing well, and this way we'll correct the horrors of the last two thousand years. I just think it's baloney. There may be some strong women doing well out there, but they're certainly a minority, and most of them are doing as poorly as they were ever doing. I don't want to lie about it. There is a power struggle going on in the world. Not just between men and women but between classes. I'm interested in power struggles everywhere, and not just some narrow political agenda.
So you would deny that there is a feminist agenda in your fiction?
Far be it from me to say I have a feminist agenda when I'm told that I'm an outrage to the feminist cause. Actually, Mary Reilly did just win a prize that I'm going to receive at the Susan B. Anthony Hall. So I think I'm being rehabilitated. Of course, I've also been accused of writing a feminist revision of Stevenson. What can I say? I can't win. I'm not going to say I'm not a feminist. I'm not going to say I am a feminist. I'm not an -ist of any kind. It seems to me important that a writer shouldn't be. I'm not even a humanist. I just try to be an observant and accurate describer of reality as I see it, which may be different from what other people see.
Your stories are about relationships of power, erotic power. "Sex … is a great leveler, the action by which some of us most clearly define our own character." Do you believe that?
One of my characters says that. I wouldn't say that. I don't know what she means. When I was younger these questions seemed to come up more, kind of like the sex itself. It's so tiring to think about that kind of thing all the time.
Yet it seems to me that a lot of what Helene says in Set in Motion, about the "power of weakness" and the "power of fear," for example, has recurred in your fiction ever since. That first novel really set in motion the direction of your subsequent writing. You've been revisiting the same themes ever since.
I have no idea where the thematic material that came up while I was working on that novel came from, although I would agree that it has furnished me with material for years to come. I'm not sure what the power of weakness is. People respond negatively to the passivity of that character. I have never felt that being active was necessarily a good thing. There's a consensus in this culture that it's good to be active, bad to be passive. Always, across the board. Consequently, a passive character is felt to be somehow lacking something. I've never bought the idea that passivity is negative. Those who don't try to influence others can have a certain power that others don't. In themselves. I've been more influenced by ideas from Eastern culture about what a strong person is. The power in that character is that the men in her life see her as passive and frightened and are drawn to her, and that gives her a kind of power.
And the "power of fear"?
I don't know what the power of fear means either. I don't like to be afraid. I don't like horror movies or horror stories. It always strikes me as really odd when people find my books scary. I don't find them at all scary. I have a great time writing those supposedly scary scenes. But look, if my goal was simply to make some point about power and sexuality, I wouldn't be writing novels.
As far as I understand it, the feminist objection to your female characters is that their passivity and fear slides into a disturbing masochism. You are certainly interested in masochistic relationships. I've always felt that sadomasochism is, for you, a figure of the power hierarchy more generally established in relationships, and that it can be destabilizing, subversive. There's almost the sense that masochism is empowering, and that's obviously going to produce an ambiguous reaction in readers.
Masochism is never empowering for my characters. The question is what you can do to confront male aggression, that male desire to control things, to see things in a hierarchical way. You can either fight it and try to get the control yourself, or you can say, "Have control. Control me as much as you want. And see what good it does." And I think my characters try to keep something of themselves inside this masquerade, this front they put up, that can't be gotten at. Their strength is that they can't be driven to aggression. I never see my women as victims. I always see them as the strongest people in the books. Helene may be running all the time, but she's the only character with any sense of liberty, any sense of personal identity. Emma is in a masochistic relationship. But she also leaves it of her own free will and feels pretty good about it. It's possible to oversimplify those characters. I'm going to fall back on the Madonna defense for my work.
The Madonna defense?
You know, Madonna's often accused of being a masochist, of wanting to be victimized. Her response is, I do this because I want to. You look at what Madonna is. Is that woman a victim? I say no. I don't think she's a victim of the culture, I don't think she's a victim of men, I think she does what she wants to do. And that's fine.
Does this notion of passivity, of waiting, relate to the writing process itself? I assume that a writer has to be in complete control of her material, but in your New York Times essay ["Waiting for the Story to Start,"7 Feb. 1988] you said that, for you, writing is more than merely a craft and that stories mirror our consciousness exactly because they are composed through a process both conscious and unconscious. Presumably the unconscious process is something over which you have no control.
One thing I try to put across when I teach writing is to get the student to stop trying to control everything. Some people I know do always stop at a place where they know where they're going to go next day. I sometimes stop at the bottom of the page because I've reached the bottom of the page and just walk away. It's very frustrating never knowing what I'm going to do next. You just have to let it happen. Writing is partly letting the unconscious bubble up. Is that an old-fashioned view? I really do believe writing is largely an unconscious process.
Give me an example of how your fiction has surprised you.
The garden in Mary Reilly is a perfect example. It was a surprise I knew I'd better get. I was just writing her diary every day and thinking about the layout of the house. It came to me one day while I was writing that Mary would like to have some flowers. I realized she was going to have that garden, but I didn't know why. And it bothered me. I can remember writing in my journal one day, "what am I going to do with this garden?" You know, it was like Chekhov's gun. And I spent a lot of time waiting to find out what. It seems surprising to me that I didn't put it in there consciously—it's such an obvious symbol—but I really didn't. Then at the end when I didn't know what to do, I had Hyde standing in the garden, and he says he should be buried in it. Eureka. I didn't know Hyde too well—he was the one who was most mysterious—so whenever he said anything it was always a surprise to me. I was very grateful to him for the suggestion because then I could scrap this damn garden and not have to talk about it anymore. There have been quite a few surprises in the new work too. I can't always make a character do what I want.
But writing can't be a completely unconscious process.
Of course, a novel is also a daily grind; it's all too conscious in that sense. Obviously, I knew where I was going in Mary Reilly because so much was already given. I often walked Mary into situations where I knew what was going on, and the reader knew what was going on, but because she is who she is she doesn't. I sometimes felt frustrated and sorry for her. I'd be thinking, "you stupid girl, won't you ever see what's happening?"
Do you think about how the reader will respond to what you're writing?
Only in the sense that when it looks like things are becoming really clear in the narrative, and I get down to two options, I try to create a third. I don't like to gratify the reader's desire for satisfaction at the plot level. The reader is craven and greedy and should be discouraged.
That's interesting. You write about frustrated desire and also try to re-create the feeling in the reader.
I'll have to think about that.
Here's a quotation from your fiction that I find resonant: "It seemed to me that longing was everything." Longing is the essential quality of your work for me. Is that fair? Is longing everything, and, if so, longing for what?
Doesn't that character go on to say "a world that never could have existed"? Isn't "longing" a great word? It's really a much better word than "desire." It catches the dull aching. Frequently in my books there's an erotic longing. But I've come to believe that it's really a longing to be a part of nature. It's a lie, because we never lived in harmony with nature ever. We long to return to a world that never existed. That's what I write about.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3837
SOURCE: "The Strange Case of Mary Reilly," in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 39-47.
[In the following essay. Roberts examines Mary Reilly as a psychological novel relating the process of individuation as well as the effects of child abuse on individual development.]
While works based on literary classics receive some scholarly attention and interest, they tend not to achieve lasting fame unless they present independent vision and worlds of their own. Fielding's Shamela comes right to mind, with his hilarious satire of Richardson's moral view, epistolary style, and psychological focus in Pamela, as does Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where he replaces Shakespeare's Elizabethan order and individualism in Hamlet with the modern, existential attitude toward the human condition. Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (1990) tells the story of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) from the experience of the maid who, in Stevenson's novella, stands "huddled together like a flock of sheep" with the other servants in the Jekyll household. Terrified as to what has become of their master, it is she who breaks into "hysterical whimpering" and weeps so loudly that the butler has to reprimand her in front of the others.
Readers familiar with the actual novella, or even with just the well-known myth of the doctor-turned-monster, experience the real pleasure of knowing more than Mary does and of sensing the irony of her limited vision. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Mary Reilly is a blend of genres: detective fiction or mystery, Gothic, and science fiction. However, in shifting the narration from Stevenson's omniscient voice centered on Utterson, as both friend of Hyde concerned for his welfare and detective attempting to solve a fascinating mystery, to the first-person Mary, as confidante and servant of Hyde writing down her thoughts and reactions in her diaries, Martin's Mary Reilly goes well beyond a work totally dependent upon another. This novel is Mary's story; it builds a complicated psychological portrait of a woman abused as a child and self-taught to survive in a world where no one really cares about her. Witnessing the horror of Jekyll's gradual loss of control to Hyde provides not an end in itself but the reason for Mary's search into her own identity, a search she completes at the end of the novel. From the very beginning, when Mary initiates her writing in response to Dr. Jekyll's request that she tell him how she received her scars, to the end, when she lies down with her dead master, this larger focus places the novel not only in the traditions of mystery and Gothic fictions but also in the epistolary, self-examining genre of the psychological novel begun by Pamela. Mary writes in her diaries not simply to narrate the inside gossip about Dr. Jekyll, but to set the record straight on her father's cruelty. Her scars are physical, psychological, and permanent. Like Dickens's Esther Summerson, Mary's self-awareness involves coming to terms with her own past, understanding her relationships with her father and mother, and going on with her life.
Within Mary's experience, the specific characters and plot details of Stevenson's story centering around the mystery of Hyde's identity, his evil nature, and the extent of his connection with Dr. Jekyll are recreated here with varying shifts of emphasis. For example, the servants are more developed and Utterson and Lanyon less so than in Stevenson because the downstairs world is more appropriately Mary's. The defensive and dictatorial butler Poole, the kind and motherly Cook, and Mary's overworked and exhausted roommate Annie are the ones who respond to Jekyll's bizarre behavior and Hyde's insidious intrusion into the household. Important clues to the mystery are also included for the pleasure of the reader who is especially familiar with Stevenson's novella: the will leaving everything to Hyde, Jekyll's spending so much time in the laboratory, the moving of the cheval glass to the lab, the clothes that seem too big for Hyde, the peculiar similarity of Jekyll's and Hyde's handwritings, the strangeness of footstep treads, the foggy atmosphere and violent Soho settings, and Jekyll's pressing need for chemicals. It is Poole rather than Lanyon who cannot believe what he is being asked to do, and Mary rather than Utterson who reacts with disbelief to the revelation that Jekyll is Hyde.
The servants' comments and Mary's efforts to figure out what is going on in the house add to the mystery and create a delicious irony for the reader. Playing with Stevenson's pun on "Hyde," Martin has Mary tell Dr. Jekyll "'I've nothing to hide'" when he asks her to explain her scars. Wondering why her master needs so much secrecy, Mary is positively dumbfounded first when she delivers a letter to Mrs. Farraday in Soho and later when the angry Madam shows her a bloody scene that her master must somehow have been involved in. This irony is particularly sharp in her conversations with Jekyll, who makes cryptic comments and gestures that Mary does not understand. Having asked Mary earlier if she were ever afraid of herself, Jekyll assures her that the awful Hyde is gone for good, but he examines his own hand very carefully, much to Mary's bewilderment. The reader knows, of course, that he looks for signs of transformation. When Mary sees Jekyll looking so pale and ill, she tells him that "'a cup of tea will bring you right'"; Jekyll replies, "'I wish that were true.'" Clearly struggling to fight off Hyde's taking over at one point, Jekyll says, "'I did it,'" and another time he warns, "'He is impatient,'" meaning Hyde. Mary still does not understand. This irony is enhanced by surmises of the other servants like Bradshaw, who thinks perhaps Jekyll is sending Poole out so much for chemicals because "'he is working at something to make himself well,'" and Cook, who comments after Carew's murder on how fortunate they all are to be so safe in the Jekyll household. Certainly the Stevenson story helps to provide the suspense and ironic impact of Mary Reilly, but Martin is doing more than entertaining us with another mystery.
Acknowledging the elements of detective fiction in Jekyll and Hyde, especially the mysterious questions and delayed answers, the concealed facts, the plot generated from a will, the protagonist inquirer, and the false clues, critic Gordon Hirsch concludes that Jekyll and Hyde is more a Gothic than detective novel because "the rationalist, bourgeois assumptions of the genre are challenged by the Romantic gothic attitudes that are inscribed in its origins. The psychological focus and epistemological skepticism of the gothic deconstructs the detective genre as Stevenson explores it" ["Frankenstein, Detective Fiction, and Jekyll and Hyde," in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after One Hundred Years, edited by William Veeder and Gordon Hirsch, 1988]. Hirsch argues that Hyde's uncanny impact on others has a supernatural rather than ordinary criminal force and that the reticent Utterson, who stops short of seriously following up clues because he fears some sort of scandal involving his friend Dr. Jekyll, is in the wrong book. The effect, according to Hirsch, is to satirize "the ratiocinative methods and formal structure of detective fiction, along with the self-contented, repressive modes favored by this society." In Mary Reilly the detective elements are more predominant than in Jekyll and Hyde, but the actual apprehension of the criminal and resolution of the crime fall off at the end similarly, though for different reasons. Here the detective elements are not deconstructed by the Gothic, but rather by the more compelling psychology afforded by the female perspective in Mary's replacement of Utterson. The effect is not to satirize Victorian values but to minimize the significance of the supernatural mystery and emphasize the more realistic social and psychological conflicts of Mary.
Many critics studying Jekyll and Hyde comment on the male-dominated world with its aura of homosexuality created by the vague references to the indiscretions of Jekyll's bachelor friends. Jerrold E. Hogle connects this maleness of Stevenson's world with a larger indictment of patriarchal Victorian society: "Power has been culturally set up as a legitimized object of exclusively male desire, then men have been urged to pursue that end in conflict with virtually every other male, yet all this while they have been asked to adjust their self-images to hide the fact that this very rivalry is the real foundation of the social order" ["The Struggle for Dichotomy: Abjection in Jekyll and His Interpreters," in Veeder and Hirsch's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after One Hundred Years]. In pursing his attack on the repressive nature of Victorian respectability, Stevenson chooses male characters in professions representing power—the lawyers and doctors—and portrays the "disintegration of self into Gothic nothingness" [The Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy, 1985]. In Jekyll's self-destruction, Stevenson does not offer any positive outcome for the repression he criticizes. No character is significantly changed or matured by Jekyll's death. In other words, the socio-psychological conflict is articulated but left unresolved by the supernatural elements of the Gothic.
In Martin's book it is the female gender that dominates; the language and emotions associated with this perspective through Mary's experience reveal the limitations of a patriarchal society. Mary hates the laboratory with its "evil-looking table," as she sees it as a place of science that is killing her master. When he asks her to clean it for him, in anticipation of his living in the lab for some time to struggle with Hyde, Mary does her best but still finds that the sparkling bottles and strange tubes give off a light that is not pleasing. Her pleasure in polishing the laughing babies on the fireplace fender comments ironically on the unnaturalness of Jekyll's experiments, as does the recurrent imagery of the garden associated with the loving and nurturing characteristic of the females in the novel. Mary tells us that working in the garden is her refuge, the only thing that lifts her spirits. Noting how bulbs store up food and wait for the proper time to push up, she comments on "How odd it is that plants can have what we so often do without—good sense and judgment." Since we later see Hyde standing right on her crocus, the counterpoint thrust of the women's garden project is evident. In reporting her progress on the garden to Jekyll, she asks him why the weeds seem so much stronger than the plants they wish to grow. When Jekyll asks what she thinks, Mary replies, "'I have thought on it, sir…. And it seems, being wild, they have a greater will to life.'" Jekyll gives her a "ghastly smile" and repeats her idea as if it were "some profound truth he'd just received from an opening in the sky." Even among the servants, Cook's and Annie's female natures prevail over Poole's male stuffiness and inflated sense of power. Poole reflects the general absence of emotion and caring that are perhaps best developed in Mary's own life and in her relationships with her parents.
In Jekyll and Hyde, Poole wonders why the voice in the laboratory does not sound like Jekyll's; he asks why Jekyll cries out "like a rat." In the opening chapter of Mary Reilly, Mary narrates a grisly incident of her father's abuse when he locked her in a small closet and then stuffed in a hopsack bag containing a large rat:
I screamed. I felt the first bite at my ankle and I screamed for all I was worth, but after that I felt very little and only screamed because I could not stop screaming. Once it was out of the sack the creature was everywhere at once, crazy to get at me or away from me, I couldn't tell which, and it could move about freely as I could not. I scraped and tore my arms against the walls, trying to protect myself with my hands and that is why, as you observed, many of the scars is on my hands.
Writing this awful story because Jekyll has shown an interest in her that no one else ever has, Mary associates her own anguish and suffering at the hands of her father with Jekyll's at the mercy of Hyde: "And this is truly something I see in Master and why I think he mun see in me, and why he has wanted to look into my history, because we are both souls who knew this sadness and darkness inside and we have both of us learned to wait." In a conversation with Jekyll, Mary states her belief that alcohol brought on her father's cruelty, as if "'the cruel man was always inside him and the drinking brought him out'"; Jekyll knowingly adds, "'Or let him out.'" Mary's associating Hyde's cruelty with her father's is further portrayed in her noticing that the strange, halting footsteps she hears sound like her father's. She mixes up her fear of Hyde at the moment with that of her father in the past: "Wave after wave of fear flowed over me and it was strange, for I knew he [Hyde] was gone and I had nothing more to fear. But I was crouched on the floor, quivering, trying to make myself small and cursing the tears in my eyes."
Later she is unable to avoid Hyde, whom she confronts as the enemy or abuser of her master. Asking for some pity and actually admitting that he is her master, Hyde takes her to the theater of his laboratory, presumably to speak with Jekyll:
I stood still while he wound his hand tight through my hair. His other hand came around my throat and in a moment he had unfastened my cloak and pulled it back over one shoulder. I could not move for he had one hand at my throat and the other holding my head down, pulling my hair so tight I thought it would come out. He bent over my shoulder, pushing the sleeve of my shift aside with his mouth. Then I heard him draw in his breath so sharp it made a sound like a groan, and in the next second I felt his teeth sink into my shoulder, just at my neck, not hard at first but then very hard, so that I cried out.
Somehow her pleas get through Hyde to Jekyll, and he releases her. This is clearly a Gothic scene, but unlike the monster scenes in Jekyll and Hyde, the psychological truth has powerful credibility here because Mary's confrontation with sadistic cruelty (which she still thinks is not her master's) has been prepared for since the very first description of the rat biting her in the closet. This realism is also apparent in the other key scenes that Martin takes from Stevenson's book and develops for Mary in her own transformation from unawareness to self-understanding.
Her experience reflects a kind of therapy for victims of child abuse. According to [Blair and Rita Justice in their 1976] The Abusing Family, the abused child lacks a sense of self or individuation, and the process to define self involves going back to the family and exploring the roots of emotional ties with family members. Initiated by her writing down the scene of abuse in her past, Mary's self-examination continues in epistolary form as she not only describes the Jekyll-and-Hyde events but tries to understand the sources of her own personality traits and her relationship to Jekyll. Like Richardson's Pamela, Mary reads and writes well; she also analyzes conversations and events in an effort to make sense of them, or as she writes, to "make the darkness come clear by setting it down on my page." Since Mary has described her own life as having a cloud hanging over it and memories of her father as causing moments of blackness to rise up inside of her, her writing becomes a necessary substitute for more conventional sources of comfort: "I wish I was one who could find solace in prayer, but I am not. To put things down, that is my way." Putting things down becomes finally a way of preserving the truth, as she learns the sources of her own problems in discovering those of Jekyll: "Will I ever be myself so muddled that I will soften the long horror that was my childhood and tell myself perhaps it was not so bad? Let this book serve as my memory."
The tour de force of Martin's novel is this simultaneous recording of the mysteries of Jekyll and Hyde with Mary's reflections on her personal conflicts. At twenty-two, she has been in service since she was twelve. Proud, independent, careful to know her place, and full of common sense, she is used to hard work and enjoys it. Throughout the novel we see her scrubbing floors, cleaning out fireplaces, polishing furniture, and doing laundry. Taking heart at the simplest of things, like sunlight coming through the window panes, Mary is nonetheless a somber young woman who has accepted the sadness and darkness of her life, at least until "there's some merciful release." Accustomed to her loneliness and giving up entirely on the usual expectations of marriage and children of her own, she demonstrates [what Ruth Inglis terms in her 1978 Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Children] the "prevasive lack of joy, an apparent absence of any pleasure in life" characteristic of victims of child abuse.
Mary's relationship with Jekyll begins with his concern for her, and as she learns to know him better she is drawn to the same joylessness or grim preoccupation he manifests that she has within herself. Through much of the novel she vacillates between loving him as a man (at one point she wants a lock of his hair to keep close to her) and feeling the undying loyalty of a devoted servant for a master. Desperately trying to get him out of the laboratory and therefore away from what she assumes to be the debilitating influence of Hyde, Mary does not yet realize that Jekyll's horrors are within, as are her own. Jekyll's calling her "child" anticipates her final relationship with Jekyll and explains her bizarre behavior at the end of the novel.
When the dead Hyde has finally been discovered in the laboratory, Mary is determined to get to the bottom of what has happened. Seeing the body and remembering some of Jekyll's comments about shadows we cast being part of ourselves, Mary finally realizes the truth, as if "some wicked puzzle" has fallen into place before her eyes. She speculates, "How could one man be two—one kind, gentle, generous, the other with no care but his own pleasure and no pleasure but the suffering of his fellows?" Her final gesture, to lie down beside him and cover both of them with her own cloak, is an act of transcendence from her scarring, from her own incapacity to reach out for loving relationships, and from the social barriers that separate her from Jekyll: "'But you said you no longer care for the world's opinion,… nor will I.'" It is an act of protection and love, a release of emotion that she has been unable to feel until the psychological death of her own father and his impact on her. Unlike Jekyll's death in Stevenson's novel which conveys anticlimatically the disastrous results of the repressive personality, Mary's involvement with Jekyll internalizes the issue of repression and suggests realistic ways of dealing with it. This greater psychological depth is apparent in even the most familiar elements of the Jekyll-and-Hyde mystery that become part of Mary's process of self-definition.
Two cases in point are the cheval glass and the journeys. In Jekyll and Hyde the presence of the cheval glass in Jekyll's laboratory is a major question that mystifies Utterson. After he reads Jekyll's manuscript, of course, he sees that Jekyll moved the mirror in order to observe his own transformations. In Mary Reilly much is also made of moving the mirror, but as Mary cleans the laboratory she sees her own reflection in the glass, with an expression that seems to chide her for being foolishly afraid. Later, when she goes to see Hyde's body in a scene reminiscent of her terror in the closet, she has a similar experience: "I felt a movement at my shoulder, so that I gasped, whirling around where I stood, for he was standing just behind me. But it was my own reflection I found gazing back at me, open-mouthed, from the cheval glass, my hair standing out wild around my face, my eyes filled with terror while the match flared a little, then faded." Coming right before Mary's discovery of Hyde's true identity as Jekyll, the mirror scenes suggest her own self-revelation instead of just becoming a clue in the mystery.
This is also true of the trips she makes to Soho, which are not only signs of Jekyll's degradation as Hyde, but journeys into her own miserable past: "I stopped to look back at the child and saw myself in her hopeful, sad little face." These errands for Jekyll are also paralleled by a trip to the East End to bury her mother. Thinking about her mother's hard life, Mary is determined to bury her well. In Soho she learns that her father had been coming to see her mother during her illness. Angry at first, she assumes that her mother did not send him away out of fear. When Mr. Haffinger tells her that her father, too, was near death, she believes that her mother never managed to get free of him, that "he hunted her down and she was too weak herself to do aught but his will, as it always was between them, only now his will was that he should be forgiven." In the chapter that follows, Mary goes through a complicated series of questions and responses, feeling guilt, pity, confusion, and concludes: "My fear of him is gone and in its place anger, which fills my head so at times I can scarce find my away about." As Inglis explains, "An abused child is an angry child, not letting anyone off the hook for the injustice he has suffered; not his parents, not society, not himself."
Yet the anger that helps Mary cope with her own pain and continued sadness is only one part of her exploration of these family relationships, an emotional response tied up with her repulsion of Hyde and her love of Jekyll. Accepting and embracing Hyde as a part of Jekyll does not mean that her own past is erased, but that she comes to terms with it as part of herself. As our assumed editor writes at the end, Mary is a "strangely eloquent young woman"; her experience takes the horrors of Jekyll and Hyde to hauntingly new depths, to the highest form of the Gothic, where the impact relies upon the ambiguity and balance of apparently supernatural terrors without and the realistic ones within the human psyche.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
SOURCE: "A Captive Black Leopard from Three Perspectives," in The New York Times, February 18, 1994, p. C28.
[In the following review of The Great Divorce, Kakutani praises the novel's emotional depth and Martin's use of imagery, particularly that of the black leopard.]
The novelist Valerie Martin seems to have a thing for horror movies. She also seems to have a thing for stories about the bestial nature of man. Her last novel, Mary Reilly, was a retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale about a Victorian gentleman in thrall to his ape-like alter ego. Her latest novel, The Great Divorce, turns out to be a kind of improvisation on Cat People, Val Lewton's eerie 1942 movie (remade by Paul Schrader in 1982) about a woman who believes she's possessed by the soul of a panther.
The difference is that while Mary Reilly felt like a gratuitous exercise in rewriting, The Great Divorce succeeds both as an inventive reimagining of Cat People and as an utterly compelling work of fiction on its own.
Three parallel stories are recounted in The Great Divorce, stories that are tied together by the image of a black leopard, a wild creature that has been caught and imprisoned but never really subdued. We see this leopard from the point of view of three women: a modern-day veterinarian at a New Orleans zoo, who regards the cat as a symbol of the vanishing world of nature; an emotionally troubled zookeeper, who sees it as a symbol of her own spiritual imprisonment; and an antebellum heiress, who sees it as a symbol of the freedom she has lost to a domineering husband.
Such a brief summary of The Great Divorce is bound to sound schematic and contrived, but Ms. Martin writes with such confidence and brio that the reader only ponders the novel's curious structure in retrospect. By cutting back and forth cinematically between her three stories, Ms. Martin is able to build a lot of tension and narrative suspense, while also tying her plot lines together through shared motifs and themes.
The main story, the frame story as it were, concerns Ellen Clayton, the New Orleans veterinarian, who is trying to cope with the dissolution of her 20-year marriage. After many desultory affairs, Ellen's husband, Paul, has announced that he's leaving her for good; he's in love with a younger woman. Ellen's first response is anger; "This is how people get murdered, she thought. On quiet mornings, on pleasant, peaceful streets, suddenly shots ring out. She imagined shooting her husband. But then there would be prison; the girls would have no parents; terrible things would happen to her."
Moments later, Ellen feels her rage mutating into grief—"I will never stop loving you," she tells Paul—and later still, she finds it metamorphosing again, into detachment, bitterness and pain. She can feel her love for him "flickering and fading," as "if the lights in the room had been dimmed."
While cheating on his wife, Paul has been researching a book about a 19th-century Creole beauty named Elisabeth Boyer, who was hanged for murdering her husband. Elisabeth, we learn, had been a high-spirited society girl, accustomed to a lively, carefree life. When her marriage to a swaggering brute of a man named Hermann turned into a nightmare, Elisabeth went to a voodoo sorceress for help. Later, after Hermann's violent murder, she would claim that she had been possessed by the spirit of a black leopard, the very animal that seems to have clawed Hermann to death.
A similar fear of possession haunts Camille, an assistant to Ellen Clayton at the New Orleans zoo, a woman who—much like the heroine of Cat People—feels herself turning into a wild beast whenever she finds herself in bed with a man she doesn't love. Her visits to a psychiatrist—who diagnoses a generic "personality disorder"—are ineffectual, and after a disappointing romance with a married man, she sinks deeper and deeper into an alcohol-fueled depression.
Although the stories of Camille, Elisabeth and Ellen seem tangential at first, Ms. Martin orchestrates their confluence with complete assurance and verve, an air of authority that makes even their most implausible adventures feel emotionally vivid and real.
All the themes that have animated Ms. Martin's earlier work—a concern with the dialectic between reason and irrationality, a preoccupation with the loss of innocence, a fascination with the "parallel" world of animals—are present in this novel. The heavy gothicism of her earlier fiction, however, is more muted here. In The Great Divorce, the grand guignol effects Ms. Martin is so fond of are not used merely to shock and disconcert the reader, but are instead used meticulously to illuminate the visceral passions that lurk beneath her characters' mundane domestic problems. In fact, for all its bizarre events, this haunting novel leaves the reader with an appreciation not of Ms. Martin's much-heralded gothic imagination, but of her understanding of ordinary human emotions.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
SOURCE: "Disintegrated Lives," in The New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1994, p. 7.
[Houston is a novelist and educator. In the following mixed review, he discusses the themes, plot, and subplots of The Great Divorce.]
In this, her first novel since her successful Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin has again proved she knows how to keep a story's velocity high and its plot tuning corners smartly. How much of the three intertwined stories in The Great Divorce a reader will happily accept, however, may depend on her or his degree of willingness to suspend disbelief. Those who accept a thing as real in fiction because the author says it is will have no quibbles with the book; crankier readers, who believe a thing ain't so until the writer makes it a convincing fictional probability, may find themselves somewhat less content.
The book's controlling metaphor is provided by the actual divorce of Ellen and Paul. Ellen is the veterinarian for the New Orleans zoo—a false Eden, a doomed ark for vanishing species, as she thinks of it. At the beginning of the novel, she is the wife of Paul, a historian researching the story of the only woman ever executed in Louisiana. Ellen has adapted to Paul's frequent affairs with remarkable equanimity (too remarkable, perhaps), fearing only that one of them will lead him to divorce her. Inevitably, that happens, and Paul and Ellen painfully try to come to terms with their new lives, while Ellen fights a mysterious virus that is killing the zoo's animals.
Interspersed within that story are two others: the history of the antebellum "catwoman" who was hanged for ripping out her overbearing husband's throat, and the sad life of Camille, a young animal keeper at Ellen's zoo who has a very unbalanced relationship with big cats and with men.
Of those three stories, the most affecting and genuine is Paul and Ellen's. What could have become merely domestic melodrama—and at times threatens to—is saved by Ms. Martin's refusal to give in to cliché, or to easy assumptions about divorce, in charting the devastation it imposes on human hearts, and on a family. In one stunningly right scene, for example, Ellen and Paul spend their last, fitful night together weeping even as they make love, saying goodbye to 20 years of their lives in a kind of frenzy of sorrow and desire. In another, some time after the divorce, even as Paul recognizes that he is happy with his new love and that Ellen is lost to him forever, he sits alone in his study with a photograph of Ellen, missing her terribly, understanding finally that he has "torn his life in half."
Ms. Martin's gaze, in other words, is fixed on a tougher reality than a melodramatist's: she looks at a family that isn't dysfunctional, at two people who are neither bored with each other nor with their lives, who still love each other deeply, and sees that divorce can nonetheless happen. And in comprehending how that can be, she leads her reader to comprehend the complex tragedy of it.
Less successful are the subplots. The story of the catwoman, Elisabeth, seems often to owe more to Gothic romance than to what we've come to know as literary Gothic. A beautiful young Creole woman who marries a possessive, cruel, older German, Elisabeth is kept a virtual slave on his plantation. She at first tries to escape with the help of her faithful freedwoman hairdresser in New Orleans, who takes her to a voodoo ceremony that may seem slightly too familiar to aficionados of 1940's zombie movies. As a result, Elisabeth eventually turns into a leopard—or perhaps only thinks she does (Paul posits a disappointingly facile explanation that gets Ms. Martin off the hook). In any event, it's difficult to understand why, in the shadow of the cult-film classic Cat People, a serious writer would attempt to resurrect that particular plot element.
By coincidence, Camille, the zoo keeper, also wants to turn into a leopard, but lives in an era in which such things no longer happen. After a short life during which she seeks out, and rather easily finds, an amazing number of degrading sexual experiences, she comes to a bad end—having found satisfaction in almost turning into a big cat once and actually chomping on a man's cheek. In flashes, Camille does elicit a reader's sympathy, but withal she remains too heavily a victim, too much a symbolic case history. As with Elisabeth, one feels the writer's intent at work, pushing a theme at the expense of probability.
Few readers will dispute a major aspect of the novel's theme—that divorce, from nature and from our own natures, is a central, irreversible attribute of civilization. Nor will they argue with Ellen's conclusion that in such a world, small victories for reconciliation, however futile, are worthy sources of comfort. What they may wish, however, is that Valerie Martin, who did such an admirable job of avoiding melodrama in Ellen and Paul's story, had used a longer pole to keep it at bay in the two lesser tales.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
SOURCE: "An Evolutionary Jungle," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 27, 1994, pp. 2, 11.
[Prose is an American novelist, short story writer, and educator known for fiction in which she blends elements of realism and supernaturalism. In the following review, she positively assesses The Great Divorce.]
Valerie Martin's The Great Divorce is the kind of fiction that can briefly refocus and broaden the scope of what we notice about the world. Not long after finishing the novel, I found myself paying rapt attention to a TV advertisement for a collection of videotapes that seemed made up of scenes of snarling jungle creatures ripping each other to shreds. "Find out why we call them animals," droned the portentous voice-over.
The question of who we are to call them animals, of what distinguishes us from our near neighbors on the evolutionary ladder, is one that has frequently engaged Valerie Martin—in her story collection, The Consolation of Nature, and also in her novels, most recently, Mary Reilly, whose heroine was the servant of the all-too-human Dr. Jekyll and the beastly Mr. Hyde.
In her intellectually ambitious and readable new book, she employs three distinct, interlocking and thematically related narratives as a prism with which to refract and study the laser-thin bands of light and darkness that divide supposedly socialized humans from purely instinctive, ravening beasts. The three plots form a sort of triptych with the central and most fully drawn panel depicting a succession of upheavals in the life of Ellen Clayton, a dedicated veterinarian employed by the New Orleans zoo, with a tolerably troubled marriage and two spirited young daughters. As Ellen struggles to combat a deadly viral infection threatening the zoo population, she fails to notice, until it's too late, that her marriage is in serious jeopardy, and that her daughters are less resilient than she had imagined.
Opening out from this pivotal drama (again, like the panels of a triptych) are two less conventional narratives, both of which concern young women with mysterious and somewhat less than healthy psychic connections to cats—and feline violence. Like Ellen, 19-year-old Camille also works at the zoo; she takes care of the lions, leopards and tigers. Unsurprisingly, Camille feels closer to the animals in her charge than to her nasty, destructive mother and to the disheartening array of men with whom Camille engages in alienated and degrading sex. The third and final story line involves a figure from the last century, Elizabeth Schlaeger, the so-called "catwoman of St. Francisville"—convicted and executed in the 1840s for the murder of her husband. In the course of his historical research, Ellen's husband Paul gradually uncovers the disturbing events of Elizabeth's brief, tragic life and death.
Though the actual weather in the novel is typical of hot, humid New Orleans, we feel somehow that the book's main events are all occurring under darkening thunder-clouds and over the ominous rumble of a violent, gathering storm. This aura of mounting tension helps connect the three interwoven plots, as does the wide-ranging curiosity and considerable intelligence of Ellen, the book's most accessible and sympathetic character.
Ellen's meditations on our progressively attenuated relationship to the natural world provide a unifying philosophic dimension to these cautionary tales of women pushed to the point at which the thin cloak of civilization drops, with dire result, from their shoulders. The Great Divorce of the title does not refer solely to its heroine's unraveling marriage but also to the "breakup between the human species and the rest of nature, which like all divorces was causing pain in many quarters." Some of the most incisive sections of the book concern the evolution—or de-evolution—of our attitude toward wildness and our efforts to keep it at bay:
"How ironic that the only animal capable of appreciating natural beauty is the one bent on destroying it, the one capable of actually creating ugliness."
It's to Valerie Martin's credit that she has been able to write this nervy, risk-taking novel—so fraught with all the trappings of High Gothic heartbreak and violence, with cat women prowling antebellum plantations and the decadent New Orleans art scene—without ever descending into the sort of purple, overwrought heavy-breathing that Anne Rice has unleashed upon the world. The Great Divorce is impressively controlled and restrained, and it seems as if the writer is having fun with amusing (and unattributed) quotes from the cinematic versions of Cat People, the original Jacques Tourneur film and Paul Schrader's more recent homage.
Only near the very end does a hint of murkiness cloud these otherwise clear waters, as Ellen's reflections (and the book's sentence structure) grow more convoluted, until they require more effort to disentangle than, we fear, they may repay.
But these are minor failings in an otherwise fine novel that most often engages our sympathy—as well as our intellect. The Great Divorce provides the immediate pleasures of a literary page-turner, but also has a more lasting influence, an effect that we know has stayed with us as we suddenly sit up to watch the tiger tearing its prey on our flickering TV screen.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
SOURCE: "Finding What's Left," in Hungry Mind Review, No. 30, Summer, 1994, pp. 16, 44.
[Garner is an American critic, nonfiction writer, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of The Great Divorce.]
[Valerie Martin's The Great Divorce] has the kind of sprawling, personality-strewn narrative that you might associate with an Iris Murdoch novel. Four intertwined plots take off at once. Ellen is a veterinarian at a New Orleans zoo, and she's coping with the defection of her husband, Paul, for a younger woman. Paul, a historian, is busy researching a story from the 1800s about a famous "catwoman" who killed her cruel husband. (The catwoman's story is related in copious detail.) And Camille is an unrelated young woman who seems in some way to be a reincarnation of the catwoman; when she's abused by men—which is pretty often—she gets the urge to rip their throats out.
The Great Divorce, then, is really about divorce in two senses—the ruptures between men and women, and the divide that separates humans from animals. Martin has more luck with the former. When The Great Divorce is focused on Ellen's story, the book has a clarity and grace that are quite remarkable. Ellen is bright and deeply independent, but she's unable to get over the loss of her husband. Her story is full of small illuminations about relationships and their aftermath. Her husband will visit for Christmas, Ellen thinks, and "we visit our marriage the way we would visit a zoo…. It will become a living tribute to what's gone, a memento mori."
Martin is also convincing when she writes about the details of Ellen's job at the zoo; there are sections about performing surgery on leopards that will make your hair stand on end. But The Great Divorce derails slightly when Martin is following the book's other plots. She tries too hard to make events fit her thesis—which is that animals and humans are more closely linked than we might imagine. Both the catwoman's story, in which she may or may not have clawed her husband to death, and the story of Camille's brutal passions are the stuff of melodrama. Martin's prose overheats whenever the topic is animals—"the sounds they made seemed to come from a dark continent"—or the beastly urges of humans.
If you could razor out Ellen's chapters and paste them into their own volume, The Great Divorce would be a spare, winning novella.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
SOURCE: "The Great Divide," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 314, August 5, 1994, p. 37.
[In the following, Gold favorably reviews The Great Divorce, describing it as "balanced, truthful, and compelling," and nothing its focus on destruction and conflict.]
The Great Divorce contains numerous references to the destruction humanity has wrought upon the natural world—polluted rivers, urban decay, habitat destruction, endangered species, the "whole aisles of poisonous cleaning products" and "solid walls of meat" in "nightmare" supermarkets, fast-food franchises, and the decimation of rain forests for hamburger culture. It is partly set in a city zoo, where two of the three main characters are employed. Ellen is a vet occupied in trying to curb a mystery virus and Camille is a keeper of the big cats, to whom she feels closer than to any human. Yet despite these and similar themes, the exploration of human/natural relationships remains much more of a sub-plot than in Jon Wynne-Tyson's books.
Primarily, Valerie Martin's is a painful novel about a crisis in human relationships for three women. Elizabeth, whose youthful vitality is sapped by a bullying, power-crazy husband; Ellen, struggling to come to terms with divorce from a philandering husband she loves; and the powerfully sad story of the abused and affection-starved Camille. Their interwoven experiences are told with great skill and depth, though the overall tone is dark and sombre. The author seems to share Ellen's "moral despair" at "how vicious the human animal has always been" and to support the view that it is men who are chiefly responsible. It is they who "rape women, continents, the planet, all in their passion to be pulled by the force between their legs".
It is a tribute to Valerie Martin that, in spite of the overall pessimism, The Great Divorce emerges as a balanced, truthful and compelling book. There is no nihilism here, for beneath the bleakness stirs a tentative hope … that if only we begin to recognise the importance of the link between our own plight and the rest of nature, there might still be some small hope for humanity.