Mary Reilly follows the titular character in her role as a housemaid to the enigmatic Dr. Jekyll in a retelling of the tale the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Her given status as a servant would say a lot about her; she is subservient, loyal, and caring for her master. But it would seem that Valerie Martin takes that to a different extent. When she writes in her afterward, Martin had this to say:
“I have also taken great liberties with Mary’s punctuation and spelling. She rarely used punctuation at all and her method of capitalizing proper names was erratic, though it is interesting to note that she always failed to capitalize the world ‘i’ and never failed to capitalize the word ‘Master.’”
The word “master” is interesting. In servitude, it’s much more common for a servant to call their master “sir” or “madam.” So why the word “master”? The word carries a certain connotation to it, not unlike the slave trade in the past. “Master” implies that the relationship between the servant and their employer is much more than respectful – it is a command of respect. Mary’s relationship with Dr. Jekyll would place her in this context. She sees him as a powerful force within her life – someone who has given her so much life and so much to look forward to professionally and relationally. So when she refers to Dr. Jekyll, she would call him “master” according to Martin; she believes that his role in her life is that powerful.
But what of the word “I”? Martin writes that Mary does not refer to herself as the capital “I” but as the lowercase “i.” In a novel where identity plays a major role in the development of the characters, as well as the distinction between the internal good and evil of a person, this is an intriguing question. When we think of the word “I”, we think of who we are. “I did this” or “I did that.” The word “I” allows the person to take ownership of who they are. Mary however, is not written that way. Her word is “i” – it is smaller, subservient, and provides just enough identity for someone else to impose an “I” on to them. In other words, Mary’s usage of “i” keeps her in that servant role while still retaining her own internal identity.
So the question becomes this: why does Mary want to be in a subservient and thankless role? Why does she actively try to suppress her own identity and prop up Dr. Jekyll’s identity as her caretaker? In the last section before she discovers Hyde’s body, Mary narrates this:
“The blackness seemed to press in tight all about me…no sooner was I up than I felt a movement at my shoulder, so that I gasped, whirling around where I stood…but it was my own reflection I found gazing back at me…”
This passage shows us that there is darkness within Mary, and that her reflection as she explains is just as tortured and manic as Jekyll’s. The difference is that while Jekyll obviously lets his dark side loose, Mary decides to suppress it. This could be why she allows for the social and professional hierarchy to solidify: so that it gives her a reason to keep the darkness in. It terrifies her, as it did in the chapter, but she realizes the truth about Jekyll and about herself as well. For “if we cast our shadows, are they not always a part of us?” In the mind of Valerie Martin, the answer seems to be “yes.”