The Fiction of Valerie Martin: An Introduction by Veronica Makowsky
In The Fiction of Valerie Martin: An Introduction, Veronica Makowsky uses the apt metaphor of Henry James's "figure in the carpet" for teasing out the themes and designs that characterize Valerie Martin's many and various works of fiction.1 What her works have in common is an overarching theme: "the human imagination and its varied uses for good or ill: to create, to palliate, to deny, to evade, to destroy" (p. 22). This theme spans Martin's accomplishments in the genres of Southern literature, postmoernism, [End Page 228] and gothic literature, a diversity that is partly why, as Makowsky points out, this prolific and gifted novelist is not better known. She is hard to categorize. Unlike her friend and fellow novelist Margaret Atwood, Martin has not attracted a wide readership or public adoration, despite the popularity of her gothic novel Mary Reilly (1990), which was adapted into a 1996 film starring Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, and Glenn Close.
Like the novelist Shirley Jackson, whose gothic tales are early feminist domestic exposés, Martin slips between genres. Sometimes she employs postmodern allusion and parody—her Italian Fever (1999) parodies Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817), which also parodies gothic fiction—yet, as Makowsky notes, "most of her fiction is gothic in the largest sense of that term" (p. 20). By locating her within this literary genre and by noting the presence of nineteenth century American literary masters that infuse much of Martin's work, Makowsky is able to contextualize two of her signature concerns: female masochism and the transformative uses of imagination.
However, an important element that unites Martin's various works of fiction across genres is her concern with "women who have been marginalized by many different ideologies, all of which assert patriarchy, from Christianity to science to the arts," and the degree to which her protagonists "disturbingly internalize patriarchy," particularly in works such as A Recent Martyr (1987) and Mary Reilly (pp. 19, 21). Indeed, Martin's early exploration of female masochism is present but modulated in her most recent novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2014), which Makowsky praises as a "mature masterwork" emblematic of Martin's recurrent themes. (p. 220). Like Mary Reilly, the novel is set in the Victorian age; it is deeply researched and based on the true account of the Mary Celeste, a ship found adrift and abandoned with no clue as to what happened to its full list of passengers and crew. The doomed ship and the ghosts of its lost passengers become, among other things, a metaphor for the ways in which humans comfort themselves in an effort to come to terms with the mer incognito—the unknown depths—of their own psyches, from the Victorian fondness for séances to the artist's quest for meaning. Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle appears as a character, as an artist who cannot plumb those depths because of his desire to "please his audience," his need to support his distressed family, and "the limits he places on his own imagination for fear of what he might find" (p. 235). Yet the methods of his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, Makowsky points out, sought to reconcile the opposing studies of science and spiritualism. If Holmes at times succeeded, recognizing the role of intuition and imagination in the methodical solving of crimes, Doyle fell short of the mark in his own fiction, for the reasons stated above. Doyle represents for Martin, as Makowsky perceives, a failure to realize fully the empathic and transformational uses of imagination. [End Page 229]
Doyle, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, William James, and even Edgar Allan Poe hover above and permeate this novel, but it is Henry James with whom Makowsky draws the closest parallel in her exploration and appreciation of Martin's oevre. As Makowsky explains, "Martin's artistic values are closer to those of Henry James than they are to those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. … [she] places human beings before money, fame, or even art" (p. 238). In Martin's fiction, that often takes the form of female friendships and compassion, "a great imagination … manifests itself in empathy" (p. 251).
Therein may lie the puzzling lack of wide recognition for Martin's ten novels and four collections of short stories. Unlike Doyle, for example, she has not followed her audience but has let her deep exploration of the uses of imagination take her to various worlds, challenging the kind of audience, for example, enjoyed by Atwood. Makowsky's book is an excellent and necessary introduction to Martin's fictional universes—one that goes far in illuminating both the novelist's themes and the influences of nineteenth century, (mostly) American writers on her craft and art.
1. In Henry James's story "The Figure in the Carpet," a fictional author claims that there is a "particular thing I've written my books most for," which the narrator describes as a "primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet"; see James, "The Figure in the Carpet," in Henry James' Shorter Masterpieces, ed. Peter Rawlings, vol. 2 (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1984), 54, 62.