Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mary Reilly

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin is not a detective novel in the traditional sense. But there is plenty of mystery swirling about this mesmerizing story told from the point of view of the housemaid to Dr. Henry Jekyll, Victorian England's most infamous case of split personality.

And if there's mystery in the telling, Mary Reilly means there to be. She tells her strange tale in a series of journal entries, the first of which recounts, at her master's bidding, the unnerving story of how she acquired a series of animal bites over her neck and hands.

"I've read your story," Dr. Jekyll tells her, after she has delivered it to him by means of deceiving the ever-watchful butler, Mr. Poole. (The jealousies, obligations and psychology of 'place' depicted below-stairs are only a few of the many deftly portrayed aspects in this psychologically astute novel.)    

"'Like many a good storyteller,' he went on, 'you raise more questions in your tale than you answer.'"

Indeed, that quality -- the ability to withhold -- is perhaps the chief delight of Mary's story.

Now, one might wonder: weren't most parlourmaids in Victorian England illiterate? Not so, as Mary's journals plainly prove. She was educated at a school for the poor -- one funded, as it turns out, by her now benefactor, now tormentor, Dr. Jekyll -- and took easily to her studies. Her methods of observation are by turns lyrical and blunt. Her voice is unforgettable: 
"'He were a big enough rat, that's true, sir,' I said, 'though I never saw him. He was heavy as a dog.'
   He made a sound I thought was a laugh so I looked up and found I was right, for he had still the traces of a smile about his mouth, though it was a quick one and gone already. Still his eyes smiled at me, but not with malice, so I felt bold to speak.
   'Have I said something funny, sir?' I asked.
'Not what you said, Mary, but how you said it. You have a frank manner that is not without charm.'"
Although it seems to take Mary Reilly the greater portion of this narrative to fully understand what her master is about, Miss Lemon felt not the least bit of impatience. Letting the fascinating story unfold in its own time was gratification enough. She is sure her readers will feel the same.


  1. Lovely review - isn't it nice when you feel you don't have to hurry a book, andjust sit back and let it unfold. Lovely. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Hannah -- Yes, Miss Lemon hates to feel she must race through a book, particularly if it is to find out whodunit! And she does appreciate your kind feedback. Keep up the lovely blogging.

  3. I read this one a long time ago, but it was a hit with me. I tend to like the classics told from another character's point of view when it is well done, and this one definitely is.

  4. Seana, it certainly surprised in a good way. Have you ever read Valerie Martin's Property? It's another unputdownable tale about Manon Gaudet's complicated relationship with her slave, set in antebellum Louisiana. Also highly recommended.

  5. I haven't but I'll put it on the list. I tried another of hers, I think, but it wasn't so good, or at least it was too different from Mary Reilly. But Property sounds good.