Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 horror novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
, Valerie Martin’s historical novel Mary Reilly
(1990) parallels many of the events in the earlier book. Valerie’s novel was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1990 and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1991. In 1996 it was made into a motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
Mary Reilly, a housemaid, works for Dr. Jekyll. Mentioned only once in Stevenson’s book, the housemaid remains nameless. However, Martin uses her to explore the strange and mysterious happenings in Jekyll’s home. The book is framed as a series of journal entries written by Mary about her time working for Jekyll. Though she is from a very poor background, Mary is intelligent and sensitive. She is devoted to her employer whom she credits with rescuing her from abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father.
Much of the novel is taken up with Mary’s day-to-day tasks around Jekyll’s large and comfortable house. In addition to Mary, there are five other servants who help with upkeep, including another maid named Annie. Mary and Annie share a bed in the servants’ quarters and become close friends. The two maids spend their days cooking, cleaning, serving meals, doing laundry, and completing a variety of other chores. The reader is told that they work up to sixteen hours a day and receive only half a day off each week. There is little chance for advancement and Mary does not have much of a life outside of working and sleeping. However, Mary is grateful for her job, especially since Jekyll lives by himself and Mary does not have to look after any children.
When Jekyll notices scars on Mary’s hands that look like bite marks, he asks her to write an account of how she got them. Mary writes the story of how, when she was a child, her father tortured her with a live rat that bit her until she lost consciousness. Impressed by Mary’s writing, Jekyll begins to take more of an interest in her. He treats her kindly, making some efforts to get to know her as a person. As their relationship develops, some of the other servants, especially the head of the household, Poole, become jealous.
As they become closer, Mary begins to worry about some of the curious things she has noticed about Jekyll. He keeps very strange hours and works obsessively on a project in his laboratory, driving himself to illness. Shortly afterward, she begins to hear strange noises and footsteps coming from the laboratory that indicate Jekyll has transformed into his evil alter ego, Mr. Hyde.
The more Jekyll’s experiment progresses, the more he turns to Mary as a confidant. Mary finds herself drawn to Jekyll because she senses that they are both prone to depression. One day, Jekyll sends Mary to a brothel run by Mrs. Farraday to deliver a letter arranging accommodations for Mr. Hyde. Mary does not understand how Jekyll can know an evil person like Mr. Hyde. She begins to wonder what other secrets he might be keeping.
Eventually, Mary meets Mr. Hyde in the house. Though she doesn’t recognize him, he treats her with familiarity, as if they know each other. Mary doesn’t dare mention Hyde to Jekyll. However, she feels a deepening unease and seems to detect a deepening fear in Jekyll as well. Soon after, Hyde murders Sir Danvers Carew. Around the same time, Mary’s mother dies, providing a contrast between the funerals of the wealthy and the poor.
Now that it is common knowledge that Hyde is a murderer, Jekyll cannot have anything more to do with him. He continues to feel Hyde’s presence in the house, a fear which he confesses to Mary who is the only person he feels close to. Mary vows not to leave Jekyll and to help him through his fears.
Jekyll transforms into Hyde once more, this time without wanting to. He threatens Mary, acting violently towards her, but Mary refuses to flee. She stays in the house out of devotion to Jekyll. Before Hyde can kill Mary, Jekyll regains control long enough to allow her to escape. Jekyll then commits suicide, as depicted in Stevenson’s novel. After his death, Mary reaffirms her devotion to him in spite of everything that he has done.
The book ends with an epilogue in which a fictional narrator describes how Mary’s journals were found after Jekyll’s death and subsequently prepared for publication. This further links Mary Reilly
to Stevenson’s novel which was also presented as a series of journal entries and public papers.