Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary Reilly, #metoo, and monstrous culture

Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly retells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde from the point of view of a maid working in Henry Jekyll's household. Martin's novel adds a heightened awareness of social class to the well-known story; Mary Reilly is attracted to her employer, but her frequent fretting over appearing "dirty" in front of him due to the nature of her work--carting coal inside the house, cleaning the grates of fireplaces, etc.--is an internalized reification of how the difference in their class status makes her feelings toward Jekyll mere fantasy.

Current events have a curious way of teaching you a new way to talk about a text or of lending a new lens through which to find unconsidered meanings in literature. I added this text to my syllabus months ago; at that time I had no idea that when it came time to re-read and teach it we'd be in the midst of Harvey Weinstein's long-time-coming downfall, the #metoo movement, and an absolutely insane Senate race in Alabama. Those events throw the emergent themes of Mary Reilly into sharp relief; the book's focus on the social meaning and personal politics of class difference give way to a realization that class, wealth, and power don't determine a man's goodness. Class in the novel functions as a mask, and the act of ripping it away gestures toward how women have to learn to distrust men as a necessary survival mechanism. Although a man might seem like a nice gentleman on an exterior level (like Jekyll), you can never truly know if they are actually secretly a monster (like Hyde) on the inside without sacrificing personal safety for the proximity necessary to verify that a man's internal nature matches the presented external promise. Good behavior in normal social circumstances and the social capital of respectability are no indication of the potentially horrific inner workings of a hidden and damaging second self, and they are certainly no guarantee against being blindsided with violation and violence.

The horror in Mary Reilly comes upon the reader in the specific form of dread. As readers, we're likely to already understand the gist of the Jekyll and Hyde story--good doctor takes experimental potion, becomes altered into a terrible brute--even if we haven't read Stevenson's novel. Our rough knowledge of the plot opens the door to dread, the slowest, most persistent and engulfing form of fear, because we perceive something important in advance of Martin's protagonist. As Mary kneels before Henry Jekyll's bed, smelling his sheets and actively fantasizing about Jekyll as the beneficent patriarchal alternative to both her abusive working-class father and the monstrous, ambiguously situated Hyde, we know something that she tragically does not; worse yet, we can infer that this is something Mary will be forced to learn before the novel's end: all the men in her life have the potential to be monsters, and she has been equipped with precious few tools that enable her to recognize them as such.

Mary Reilly's story--that is, the bulk of the novel--comes to us in the form of a found journal. The story we read is the record of her life, but the record has been blotted by another's hand. As the novel's afterword makes clear, the book's anonymous male editor neither credits nor fully believes Mary's first-hand experience of finding a monster lurking beneath the facade of an established and respected man. Sounds familiar.