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I intended quickly skim reading Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin for two reasons; because I have just bought the new Philippa Gregory novel, The Other Queen, and couldn't wait to get my teeth into that, and also because the book looked so incredibly boring based on the cover and blurb on the back.
How wrong I was, from around the 10th page I was absolutely hooked and found it hard to put Mary Reilly down at the end of the evening. It's a relatively short book at 237 pages and I read the whole thing within three days, as a fairly slow reader I was surprised with the speed I got through the story and found that hours had passed in a blur while I sat reading.
Mary Reilly is, as the title would suggest, an account of a period in the life of a young maid called Mary Reilly. She has been taken into service by Dr Jekyll (yes, THE Dr Jekyll) and this is her telling of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story. The tale begins when she is suddenly noticed by her employer and he starts to ask questions about her childhood and confides pieces of information about himself to her. This kind of familiarity between a simple maid and her Master was largely unheard of in those days of the 19th century and while Mary feels awkward at first, as the story goes on she begins to feel a sense of friendship towards the man who basically owns her.
I think most of us will know the basic bones of the Jekyll & Hyde story, but as this is told through the eyes of a third person you need to dismiss all your knowledge of the Classic and realise that Mary actually believes Mr Hyde is a colleague of Dr Jekyll and certainly not the same person. Mary cannot understand why this unsavoury man is given free rein in Dr Jekyll's beautiful house, she senses a danger about him which is not imagined as there is definitely something evil in the tension whenever he is alone with Mary. Although Mary thinks Mr Hyde is a separate person entirely, she knows there is something strange about him and perhaps picks up on the 'supernatural' existence of this man.
The first few pages of the novel are taken with a brief prologue where Mary is particularly badly treated by her father, during the course of this she is badly bitten by a rat and has borne the scars into her womanhood. At first I wasn't sure where this fitted in the book, but I quickly realised this is designed to create a feeling of sympathy towards her in the first instance which I guarantee will grow into a deep respect as you continue reading about Mary's ordeal with Mr Hyde.
Mary Reilly herself is a lovely character. She is in her early twenties and suffered during her childhood from a brutal and sadistic father, she is a lower class woman but is completely happy with her lot in life. Having worked in service from her mid teens, she bears no grudge towards her mother who allowed the abuse to continue but continues to fear her father and his memory. I loved the simplistic view Mary had on the strange situation she found herself in with Dr Jekyll; she thought he needed to confide in someone who would give him a blunt and honest reaction, but I interpreted it as Jekyll had to find some constant in his life during his terrifying personal experiments and he chose Mary to latch onto.
This was quite unnerving to read actually, Jekyll would ask his questions or make a statement about Marys life and either prolong their exchange or suddenly would become angry and send her away. Was it at these times that Mr Hyde was making an unnoticed appearance? Or was it simply an elderly man who had performed just one experiment too many and was now scared out of his wits? I'm not sure, but there was much more than an employer/maid relationship within the pages of this book.
Dr Jekyll changes noticeably during the course of the story. Mary is a maid with a difference, she is literate and keeps a journal of her experiences when she notices the sudden minor shift in their relationship, I know what she sees frightens her but I don't believe she really understands why. Although she's a very simple character, she also has a complexity of character which gives her the strength to remain in her role as maid and confidant to her Master. As the tale begins it's obvious to the reader that Dr Jekyll has already begun his experiments into split personalities, but Mary doesn't know this and simply sees him as an over-worked gentleman who is kind in his manner but rather unapproachable. The truth is he is a man worried by his actions, but he has dug himself into such a deep hole that he can't turn back and Mr Hyde is now too strong for the frail Jekyll to control.
The book is beautifully narrated by Mary and I warmed to this style straight away, which is unusual for me as I am not really a fan of stories written in the first person. In this instance however the book could simply not have been written any other way as it's Mary's mind we are getting into so her thoughts and opinions are extremely important to the story, without a first person narration we would not have been able to understand why she took certain actions and when she decided to stay quiet. The book is deliberately badly written for the simple reason that this was how a literate maid would have written in these times, and in this 'bad writing' Valerie Martin has proved herself to be a master storyteller with a clear picture of her main character at the forefront of every word. Dialect and expressions of the period pepper the text, and this adds to the charm of Mary's tale and makes it seem more realistic.
As you can probably tell I absolutely loved every single word in this book, there is no finer example of not judging a book by its cover. The singular reason I even picked this book up was because my sister had left a bag of books destined for the charity shop in my living room and this was the one I put my hand on on my way out of the door before a long journey. Absolutely zero consideration went into choosing Mary Reilly, but what a wonderful gem of a book I have discovered. I was intrigued and gripped from the very beginning, I felt a warmth to the main character that I have not felt for a long time and really found myself becoming immersed in the story to the point of trying to second guess Mr Hyde and also suspecting ulterior motives whenever Dr Jekyll spoke to Mary.
I would completely recommend this to anyone, it can be taken as a light read but the story is strong enough to allow the reader to take as little or as much as they like from it. If you know the original Jekyll & Hyde story, as I do, you'll pick up on more of the references but if you haven't read it then this is a perfectly acceptable stand alone book with everything well explained and understandable.
You can buy a copy of Mary Reilly from Amazon for £5.59 which is excellent value for such a riveting and exciting read, alternatively check Ebay where they are selling for around £2.50 delivered and this is an absolute bargain. I'm sure you'll love this novel, I'll stick my neck out and say it's one of the best books I've read in the last ten years and am so glad I didn't rush through it as originally planned!
This is a fabulous story about one of Dr Jekyll's domestic staff - Mary Reilly. It cleverly weaves in extracts from Robert Louis Stevenson's `Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. The length may seem short but Valerie Martin packs a lot into this story. All of the characters are wonderful and with Martin's eye for detail the imagery brings the household to life.
I haven't read the original story, but know of the plot and I found it entertaining and enthralling to read about it from one of the original characters. It's a bit like looking at a painting and wondering about what really when on behind the story. Even the way in which writers of the time would put lines after the initial for street names etc has been adopted by Martin, giving it a authentic feel time wise.
The ending makes you reflect on what life genuinely must've been like for domestic staff at that time and I would certainly go on to read the original classic itself plus more by the author herself. Several pleasant hours whiled away with this book. It felt authentic of it's time even by the layout and chapter dividings, let alone everything else the author succeeded with.