But now that I am free, I have no wish to experience any of those things. All that I want is to be of use, to have a purpose. To have something to do that would make a difference. But will I be let? No. My elder sisters and their grand husbands will descend upon Shelby Manor within the week, and a new sentence of lethargy will be levied upon Aunt Mary. Probably joining the horde of nurses, governesses and tutors who are responsible for the welfare of Elizabeth’s and Jane’s children. For naturally Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley enjoy only the delights of children, leaving the miseries of parentage to others. The wives of grand men do not wait for things to happen: they make things happen. Seventeen years ago, Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley were too busy enjoying their marriages to take responsibility for Mama. Mary Bennet, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, Chapter 1
Any Janeite who makes it to the third chapter of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is in my opinion free to think author Colleen McCullough an impudent rapscallion.
I am confident that she will have no problem agreeing with me since she admitted that her motivation in writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice was to stick it to the literati. Since it is doubtful that the good men and women of the arts and letters will read this novel, she is actually thumbing her nose at Jane Austen’s fans and having a jolly time of it. If by some slim chance you are reading this Ms. McCullough, you have far exceeded your objective and should be quite pleased with yourself. I am a Jane Austen fan, and I am not amused.
What about Mary?
When the news hit the blogosphere last spring that the best selling author of The Thorn Birds and The Masters of Rome Series Colleen McCullough was writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice inspired by Mary Bennet, I was both astonished and intrigued. I had secretly adored Mary, the middle Bennet daughter who only had eight passages of dialogue in the original novel, but made a lasting impact with her pious pontifications and deafeningly out of tune song stylings. Her older sisters may have been mortified by her exhibitions, but I just laughed out loud and wished for more. Well Janeites, be very careful what you wish for, cuz it could very well land at your local bookstore.
In which Mary gets a makeover!
You can blame it all of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Many people over the years have credited it for the ignition of Austenmania, fueling many movies and a cottage industry of sequel writers. While most viewers ogle over Colin Firth as the wet shirt Darcy, McCullough was intrigued by the Bennet’s sanctimonious middle daughter Mary and how Austen unsympathetically portrayed her. Inspired to give Mary a new chance, McCullough starts the story seventeen years after the close of Pride and Prejudice with the death of Mrs. Bennet freeing Mary from her role as parental caretaker. Bookish, pious and socially awkward Mary gets a makeover, a social cause, and a romantic adventure.
In which Mary is emancipated, gets ideas, and into trouble!
So, Mary is now thirty eight years old, unmarried, gets a makeover and is quite attractive. Freed from her daughterly duties of caretaker and police woman to Mrs. Bennet, the new and improved Mary Bennet has independent plans for her life that do not meet the approval of her dictorial brother-in-law Fitzwilliam Darcy. Inspired by the writing in the newspaper of a social activist, she is determined to write a book about the plight of the poor and sets off on an adventure of discovery to research the conditions of the working classes in Northern England. Sheltered and naïve, she gets into all sorts of trouble including being manhandled in a coach, robbed and beaten by a Highwayman, and abducted and imprisoned by a religious cult. Yes, a religious cult!
In which we witness the defamation of beloved characters!
Not everything for all four other Bennet daughters has improved as agreeably over the years. Elizabeth’s loveless marriage is a sham, Jane is a baby factory neglected by her absenting husband who is off attending to his slave plantations in Jamaica, and Lydia is a drunken whore whose unfaithful lout of a husband Captain George Wickham is sent to America and dies. Only Kitty unexpectedly hits pay dirt and marries an elderly peer who promptly dies and leaves her a pile of dough and social clout. Since her story is too happy, we do not hear much of her. The real pinnacle of exasperation for me came with McCullough’s handling of Mr. Darcy who immediately regrets marrying Elizabeth, resents being burdened with her ‘below his station’ family, and now acts far snootier and more puffed up than we were subjected to when we first met him at the Meryton Assembly in the original novel. Ambitious, scheming and underhanded, this Darcy has gone Gothic villain on us and it is not pretty. This caustic rendering of Darcy alone will catapult many a book across living rooms and bedrooms across America.
In which dubious, dastardly and devious characters dapple the plot!
In addition to resurrecting Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst as the devious duo bent on tormenting the Darcy’s to the end of their days, we are introduced to sympathetic new characters in Charles Darcy the young heir to Pemberley who is an incredible disappointment to his father but the darling of his mother and aunt Mary, and Angus Sinclair the wealthy newspaper owner and editor who is sweet on the violet eyed and ginger haired Mary Bennet because she reminds him of her sister Elizabeth who he has admired for years. They are two positive allies for Mary and her cause of independence and come to her aid more than once. Of course there is an abundance of villains (besides the dastardly Darcy) who dapple the story with challenges for our heroine which border on a Perils of Pauline melodrama; the most imposing of which is Darcy’s hired henchman Ned Skinner whose idolistic attachment to Darcy is rather more like Frankenstein’s assistant Igor than a paid thug. Other daunting characters that make Charles Dickens imaginings look lighthearted are a woman beating cutthroat Highwayman named Captain Thunder and a cave dwelling body snatching religious cultist Father Dominus. Could this cavalcade of characters possibly be any father from the witty, honorable, and propitious populous penned by the gently reproving Jane Austen? No!
In which a wild ride screeches to a hault!
Even though I did not agree with the direction that McCullough chose to take her sequel, her skill at story telling is amazing and a galaxy beyond fan fiction with flair. Her dialogue is crisp and succinct, her historical references well researched, and her descriptions of late Georgian life accurate and realistic. With so much talent and international renown, one wonders out loud whatever was she thinking? If you can get past the first three chapters and totally suspend your disbelief, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is a wild ride that screeches to a halt with one repugnant last line which I leave readers to experience for themselves.
2½ out of 5 Regency stars
The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet
By Colleen McCullough
Simon & Schuster, New York (2008)
Hardcover (352) pages