The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough – A Review

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough (2008)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
ISBN: 978-1416596486

24 thoughts on “The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough – A Review

  1. I’m always envious of writers who are way more talented at Regency fiction than I am, and I admit it. It’s sad when it goes to waste on a storyline like that.

    What kind of religious cult are we talking about?

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  2. Definitely a disappointment to Austen fans. It’s too bad too as The Thorn Birds just had it’s 25th yr anniversary and a different storyline true to the original P&P would have probably brought the author a new and younger generation of fans.

    This time… not so much.

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  3. I am so very glad you wrote this post, thank you! I had read the book (very hard too do but I was determined to see out the ending) and I was so angry at some parts, and disgusted at Colleen McCullough ( who is like me, an Australian).
    I could tell reading it that she thought it was all some sort of a joke, making Darcy (I grimaced every time she called him Fitz) to be the world’s biggest and most arrogant bastard!

    I guess for me the part where she writes Lizzie snapping at Jane and calling her names and storming out – I thought that was ridiculous and I was so furious at this author!. Lizzie had the greatest fondness for her elder sister and I felt sad that Jane Austen’s wonderful characters had been made a mockery of by one very bored, and elderly writer who did it all for her own amusement.

    Anyway. I have the book, I have read the book and my opinion was that the story line was well written Colleen certainly does know her historical facts. But the subject matter – urgh! Frustrating and insulting.

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  4. And Mr. Philips’ poor clerk is left to languish in bachelor solitude, without his wife, the star of Meryton society. Brings a tear to the eye, it does. And there’s even a poor Derbyshire clergyman with no Kitty to keep his house.

    violet eyed and ginger haired Mary Bennet

    Violet eyed? Are you sure that’s not Mary Sue Bennet? But then she would be Titian-haired, of course. Or have ravishing auburn tresses.

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  5. What, no lesbian cross-dresser trying to tempt Mary Bennet into a life of man-hating perversion? How’d she ever leave that out!

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  6. really????? I was thinking about reading that one too! good thing I read your review, otherwise i probabaly would have done considerable harm to that book! who would have the nerve to do that to jane austen’s characters?

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  7. Marsha, thanks for dropping by. The religious cult are The Children of Jesus (literally children) who live entirely in caves and are lead by their prophet Father Dominus. Mary is abducted and then imprisioned by them. Since you are a writer, I will let your imagination visualize that one. Too weird. At this point in the story, I really knew what McCullough’s objective was. She was making fun of all the creative fan fiction, recent sequels and Jane Austen enthusiasts. I am just dumbfounded that an author of this renown and talent would even bother.

    Cheers, LA

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  8. It could very well be (and this is pure speculation on my part) that Simon & Schuster said, “Hey, let’s get in on this Austen sequel action. Oh look, Sourcebooks and Ulysses bought everything. Damn. All right, let’s call one of our historical fiction authors and ask them if they want to write an Austen book for a considerable advance. Clearly it doesn’t matter what the sequel’s actually about.”

    And, being a writer, she said yes. Because when a publishing company calls and says, “We’ll give money to write a book; how about it?” you say YES. That’s why I’m writing some tie-in books to the TV show Greek, which I don’t even watch, next year.

    Happy New Year!

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  9. Hi Laurel Ann! Thanks so much for this fabulously funny review! I am all hysterics! I too have the book sitting on my TBR pile and as my blog co-hort Kelly had the same response that you did, it keeps getting bumped to the bottom! [or should I perhaps just scuttle it across the room?] There is some talk on the Austen listservs that perhaps McCulllough was TRYING to write a satire about gothics and fan fiction and the like… it that a possibility? or it is just TOO bloody awful? [and one should just re-read Northanger Abbey for the perfect satire anyway, and far more enjoyable!]… I am astonished that you gave it 2 1/2 stars out of Five!…. but I do think you should post your review on Amazon for all to enjoy….it is most assuredly far better than the book!

    Happy New Year, Laurel Ann, and thanks for all that you do!

    Best,
    Deb

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  10. …”Captain Thunder”? Anyway, I’ve never heard of Colleen McCullough before this book was published. I had read an online interview a couple months ago regarding the book. Methinks she’s her own biggest fan…

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  11. Thanks for the fantastic review. As I live in Australia I had access to this book earlier in the year and took it on as a challenge! I quite enjoyed the book once I (as you say) suspended my belief and I actually thought of it more as a completely separate book from P&P – that’s the only way I could read it!

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  12. Thank you for your review! I’m very glad I won’t be buying this book. I don’t like this kind of stories even without Austen’s characters in them.

    Happy New Year!

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  13. oh Dear this sounds worse than Emma Tennants books.!
    I wish a clever writer (beyond fan fiction level) could write a good sequel without “murdering” the austen characters. !
    What Collen McCullough seems to have done to Darcys character seems terrible. he seems cruel and he is not even that in the beginning of PP. to make Mary a social crusader seems a bit far fetched in PP she is a moral prig and admiring mr collins!!) but I suppose I have to at least read the book to make further comments about it !!
    maybe it will reach a library in sweden some time

    Anna-Karin S

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  15. Great review–you were kinder than I was, and I was trying to be kind! I think the single worst character in the book was Ned, and how the characters reacted to him in the end. When you think about what he did and how they responded to him ultimately, it makes me shake my head in wonder.

    So glad I found your blog–I love reading your reviews.

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  16. Hello Laurel-Ann, great review of a grotty book.

    Living in Australia, I could not miss Ms McCullough’s promotional interviews – punctuated by loud laughter and coarse jokes about Darcy and Elizabeth- and some rather unnecesary sniping at Jane Austen herself.

    I drew the same conclusion as your correspondent- Marsha Altmann that the “famous author” of Thorn Birds had received “an offer too good to refuse” and decided, in a lean year- to get on the Austen sequel Bandwagon- with a completely unjustifiable transmogrification of Jane Austen’s Classic.

    To take established characters out of a classic novel and twist and distort them beyond recognition, as she does, for no good reason ( except commercial ones) is unworthy of anyone who presumes to call themselves a writer. There sould be a law against it.

    It’s an utterly reprehensible attempt to cash in on the reputation and hard work of a writer who can no longer respond to defend her work- because if she could – Mc Cullough’s reputation would have been mincemeat!

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  17. I really hated this book. I finished it–but skipped the entire middle section. Truly, I could not put myself through the disgusting enterprise of reading the entire thing. I was repulsed (on so many levels) by this sequel. How dare McCullough borrow characters from a beloved novel and then treat them so shabbily? She did not attempt in the smallest possible way to be faithful to Jane Austen’s renderings. The way she portrayed Darcy was such a perversion I continually found myself wondering what Miss Austen would think. (I think I exclaimed, “Jane would roll over in her grave!” at least a dozen times).

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  18. Well…. I consider myself an Austen fan and I think the Independence of Mary Bennet was GREAT! It is not at all unlikely that the stubbornness, pride, prejudice and miscommunication between Darcy and Elizabeth would raise it’s ugly head again at a later point in their relationship. It is also not unlikely that their views of the world would have changed over time – especially during that point in history when many views of the world were beginning to change. Is Colleen McCullough poking a little fun? Absolutely! If there is one thing that Jane Austen was able to do in spades it was see the ridiculous side of her existence. She used humour to make her own life more bearable. I think she is applauding this sequel in her afterlife. Certainly there are parts of the novel that are jarring and over the top. That’s what makes it so much fun. Have all of your relationships stayed exactly what you wanted them to be for the whole time you were in them?

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