Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly [2 Reviews]

[ Two brief reviews as part of the Readers in Peril II Challenge ]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (Vintage (1991), Paperback, 112 pages)
Mary Reilly - Valerie Martin (
New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990. 263 p.)

This entry will have to serve as two reviews as I have read both Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly as part of the RIP reading challenge. The two are closely related in that Martin's is a sequel to Stevenson's. Stevenson's story of a man who brings evil from within himself to physical being only to discover that he cannot control the evil personified is answered by Martin's tale of a virtuous servant girl in Jekyll's household. Stevenson's novella was written in 1886 and Martin's novel was published in 1990, a hundred years apart and the attitudes in each reflective of the different attitudes of their authors. Stevenson is examining the duality of good and evil in a man living in a relatively repressive society and Martin is examining a certain self-absorption in the Victorian power structure from the perspective of a servant holding no power at all.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so well known that it is rather difficult to find the sense of horror that so titillated Stevenson's readers. We spend no time in the head of Dr. Jekyll until the very end of the story. Instead we hear the story from Mr. Utterson, a respectable elderly lawyer with an understanding of human nature who worries about the activities of his client and good friend, fearing that Jekyll is being black-mailed into allowing the wicked Mr. Hyde to work with him. We learn that Hyde has no conscience, beating a young girl with a cane for merely careening into him by mistake. Only the efforts of passers-by force him into providing some financial recompense to the poor child's parents. We watch Jekyll lose control over Hyde's presence before the close of the novella, with the moral being that pride has brought the good doctor to his downfall. The few minor female characters are never given names; neither are Hyde's victims given identities by Stevenson. The only victim allowed that dignity is a murdered member of parliament who is socially Jekyll's equal. There's little dialogue in the story with only slightly more description included. While I recognize that the story was one of the first of its kind, I didn't find it a very compelling read. It only became compelling to me when I contrasted its message with that of Mary Reilly.

In Mary Reilly, the author uses sparse descriptions to allow our imaginations to set Mary in the filth of London in 1886. She is a housemaid and much time is spent on her knees scrubbing floors and cleaning out chimneys. She has however basic literacy, having been educated in one of the schools for the poor, established with Jekyll's money. Jekyll noting scars on Mary's arms and neck asks for some of her history and we learn that Mary has been abused by an alcoholic father. The narrative frame of the novel is Mary's writing out her story for Jekyll and in subsequent diary entries, what she observes of Jekyll's behavior and its impact on her and the rest of his household.

Martin makes clear that Mary accepts struggle as part of the human condition. Stevenson had stated clearly that Jekyll sees no reason why it should be so difficult to be good and his chemistry experiments arise from his wish to make it simple. If one could let go of one's evil side then one could easily and more readily be good. Mary Reilly recognizes that there is a certain lack of practical realism in Henry Jekyll's approach to the world. Struggle is simply part and parcel of organic life, as symbolized by Mary's on-going attempts to create a garden in the over-grown yard between Jekyll's home and his laboratory, digging out ugly useless bushes and pulling weeds. Jekyll has no idea of whether the school he helped to found is really a useful educational institution; Mary leads us to understand that it was barely tolerable. Jekyll avoids any responsibility for the consequences of Hyde's actions, sending Mary out on errands intended to hush complaints by those who suffer from the evil character.

Reading the two different stories was an interesting exercise as I went between the two books at different points, trying to gauge Martin's written response against Stevenson's nightmare tale. I liked the twentieth century version more than the nineteenth century classic, but that is hardly surprising. Stevenson's original work doesn't give one much with which to identify while reading. Martin's work is above the usual pedestrian sequels to famous classics, written and published for fans who may want to relive the experience of the original. Potential readers should be warned that Mary Reilly isn't a fast paced suspense story. It's almost a feminist meditation instead. But as I say, it was rather stimulating to read the two back to back. You can try it for yourself; Mary Reilly is still in print and available from Amazon and Stevenson's book is widely available, both in print and on the Web.