I have mentioned before the prevalence of retellings and reimaginings in current novels. Already this month we have had the retelling of a Greek myth, a retelling of a classic novel and the reimagining of the events surrounding the death of a young woman in Victorian Britain. Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin is another retelling. In this book the author revisits Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and tells it from the point of view of Jekyll’s maid Mary Reilly. This is not an unusual way to retell a story – the best example I can think of is Longbourn by Jo Baker which retells Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants and means that I will never read the original book in the same way again.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a strange book because it is all told via the recollections of an outsider to the house who gathers the second hand stories of participants and onlookers. This makes the story quite remote and I find it an unsatisfying book. I don’t think that you have to have read the source material to enjoy this book, especially as the basic facts of the story are well known even to those who haven’t read the book. I think that you do have to know the secret of who Mr Hyde is, however, to get the most out of the book as part of the enjoyment of reading the story is that you have more knowledge than Mary and can interpret what she experiences differently in the light of that.
In this novel the author tackles the problem of distance by having the book told as diary entries by the maid. This makes it more immediate but the problem is that because the author doesn’t want to have Mary understand what has happened until the very end of the book she can only reveal things in small bits as the story progresses. This means that the plot doesn’t advance quickly and we concentrate on Mary’s life, her family and her past. I enjoyed the depiction of Victorian life from the maid’s point of view and thought that Mary was an excellent character.
This book aims to be gothic or at least to have a strong suspense element. That can only happen if you are immersed on Mary’s life and seeing things from her point of view because the reader already knows what is happening and, if they have read the original book, also knows what the outcome will be. I think that the author does this well and creates a creepy ambiance for the story as well as a sympathetic background for Mary. The opening of the book which tells of an experience of Mary’s is particularly well done although I didn’t think that the story of Mary’s life and what was happening to her always linked together happily.
I am not sure that this book completely succeeds although that may be because of the limitations of the source material. It’s an entertaining enough read with some excellent passages and it is nice to see the retelling of a book which I have not seen done before.