Jekyll, Hyde and me // Fine novel gives a servant's version of Stevenson's famous tale

Published March 25, 1990|Updated July 6, 2006

MARY REILLYBy Valerie Martin

Doubleday, $18.95

Reviewed by Pauline Mayer

Welcome once again to the fog-shrouded London mansion of that upright and philanthropic scientist, Dr. Henry Jekyll. This time, in Valerie Martin's fine novel, we get an Upstairs/Downstairs perspective _ with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde retold by Mary Reilly, a young maid-servant in the Jekyll household.

The Robert Louis Stevenson classic concerns, of course, the eminent Dr. Jekyll, who concocts a drug that will give him the physical aspect of his heinous alter ego. Although Dr. Jekyll has the antidote, which will change him back to his own benign form, the evil persona, Henry Hyde, triumphs and eventually destroys the good doctor and himself.

Stevenson is clearly telling us that good and evil can coexist in all of us, that if one gives the devil an inch he's apt to take a foot, and that the repression of natural instincts can create its own devils. It is this last concept that Valerie Martin particularly explores in Mary Reilly.

Stevenson's plot unfolds through the perceptions of Dr. Jekyll's lawyer, Mr. Utterson, and a medical associate, Dr. Lanyon; neither of these proper gentlemen can relate to the horror. Mary Reilly, in Martin's novel, has no such problem. She has known evil. She begins her journal with a harrowing account, written at Dr. Jekyll's request, of how she acquired the scars on her hands and neck: When she was 10 her drunken father locked her in a cupboard with a rat.

Like Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson in Stevenson's novel, Mary Reilly slowly comes to learn the truth about Dr. Jekyll's ape-like new "assistant," Mr. Hyde, and his relationship to her kindly "Master." But Mary, unlike Lanyon and Utterson, is not merely disturbed by the knowledge. For better or for worse, she is liberated by it. The familiar Jekyll/Hyde story serves as counterpoint to the main theme, the gradual self-discovery of Mary Reilly.

Totally self-effacing, Mary has no ambition other than to serve, which she does with dignity and pride. It doesn't cross her mind that she might better herself, and she is touchingly grateful for the kindness shown to her by Master. Jekyll himself is touched by her history of abuse, and impressed by her natural wisdom. He likes to talk to her. He comes close to confiding in her.

Mary responds to Jekyll's interest, first with gratitude, then with filial devotion, then with feelings that she cannot understand or name. Her great fear is that the sadistic Mr. Hyde may harm her Master _ particularly after Dr. Jekyll sends her on an errand to a slum boarding house where Mary sees the bloody aftermath of one of Hyde's rampages.

The slum itself stands in sharp contrast to the rigid respectability of Dr. Jekyll's household, where the servants all know their place in the hierarchy. AsDr. Jekyll weakens in his struggle against Mr. Hyde, the servants (all wonderfully drawn) begin to share

Mary's sense of dread.

Determined to help her beloved Master, Mary unwittingly forgets her place. As a result, she finds herself, for a brief but terrifying interlude, at the mercy of the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Only with Hyde's suicide does Mary learn the truth about her Master's dual nature _ and about her own.

In Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin has created an original and appealing heroine, a stunning mood-piece, and, best of all, a riveting psychological thriller.

Pauline Mayer is a writer living in Los Angeles.