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

Lydia Bennet’s Story: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Odiwe – A Review

The true misfortune, which besets any young lady who believes herself destined for fortune and favour, is to find that she has been born into an unsuitable family. Lydia Bennet of Longbourn, Hertfordshire, not only believed that her mama and papa had most likely stolen her from noble parents, but also considered it a small miracle that they could have produced between them her own fair self and four comely girls – Jane, Elizabeth, Mary and Kitty – though to tell the truth, she felt herself most blessed in looks. Chapter 1

It was no surprise to me when I discovered that Elizabeth Bennet’s impetuous little sister Lydia had been honored with her own book, Lydia Bennet’s Story, only that it had taken so long for it to arrive on the Janeite bookshelf in the first place. Of all of Jane Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet was one of the most intriguing creatures to recklessly flirt and scandalize a family; and for readers who enjoy a good adventure she is well worth her own treatment. In a bus accident sort of way, I have always longed to know more about her, and now we have been given our chance in this new edition available October 1st from Sourcebooks.

The novel can be categorized as a retelling and a sequel since the story begins about one third of the way into Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as Lydia’s older sisters Elizabeth and Jane are away from the family home of Longbourn respectively visiting the Collins’ at Hunsford and the Gardiner’s in London. The second half of the novel picks up after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice when Lydia and her new husband George Wickham have moved to Newcastle. Interestingly, author Odiwe has chosen to tell the story by excerpts from Lydia’s journal supplemented by a third person narrative which Austen also employed allowing us the benefit of Lydia’s unbridled inner thoughts and a narrative of other characters dialogue and action to support it. A nice touch since both Austen’s and Odiwe’s Lydia are a bit over the top in reaction and interpretation of events, and the narrative gives readers some grounding for her breathless emotions.

And, reactions and emotions are what Lydia Bennet is all about and why I believe many may be intrigued by her. Just based on the fact that she is the youngest of five daughters raised by an indolent father and imprudent mother, one could be inspired to write psychological thesis on all the mitigating factors in her environment that contributed to her personality! However, what Jane Austen introduced Jane Odiwe has cleverly expanded upon picking up the plot and style without missing a beat. Not only are we reminded that thoughtless, wild and outspoken Lydia is “the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous,” we begin to understand (but not always agree) with her reasoning’s and are swept up in the story like a new bonnet bought on impulse. Oh, to be but sixteen again without a care in the world except the latest fashions, local gossip, and which officer to dance with at the next Assembly are a delightful foundation for this excursion into Austenland that is both an amusement and a gentle morality story.

Even though author Odiwe succeeded in delivering a lively rendering of an impertinent young Miss bent on fashion, flirting and marriage, she missed her opportunity of a more expressive title which should have read something like ‘Lydia Bennet’s Romantic and Sometimes Naughty Adventures’! Not only is Miss Lydia a professional flirt approaching Beck Sharpe of Vanity Fair’s territory, she gets to travel to Brighton, London, Newcastle and Bath and have a few escapades along the way. Her determination to follow her latest flirtation George Wickham to Brighton and then infamously elope with him is renowned. Her unchecked impulses continue as the novel progresses through their patched up marriage and her new life in Newcastle where her husband has sadly grown tired of her and moved on to the next romantic tryst. Months pass, and after visits with her sisters Elizabeth at Pemberley and Jane at Netherfield, the reality of her husbands faults and her rash decision to marry him became soberly apparent.

Wednesday, October 27th

I feel so wretched I think I might die. All my hopes of making George love me have been completely dashed. In my heart I known this is not the only time I have been deceived; the rumours I have heard are more than gossip. Misery engulfs me…I had imagined that life would be so perfect with George, but I now know that my marriage is a tarnished as the copper pans in my kitchen.

No, there is only one way to deal with this problem. There is nothing I can do but forgive him. I am far too proud to have anyone catch a sniff of scandal and am determined to carry in as though nothing has happened. After all, surely most me are tempted at one time or another. The risk of sending him running off into his lover’s arms is great, and I do not want that above anything else. My heart might be broken, but it is not irreparable.

And later, her hopes are entirely dissolved.

Monday, May 2

…There are few to whom I would admit these thoughts, and on days like this, when I am consumed with sadness for what might have been, I find it hard to be at peace. For my own sake, I keep up the pretence that I am giddy and lighthearted as ever; I would not give the world the satisfaction of knowing anything else-in my heart, I am still the young girl who believes that perhaps my husband will realize that he has been in love with me all along and cannot do without me. But, I suspect, my longings are in vain.

How it all turns out for the young lady from Longbourn in Hertfordshire, I will not say. However, I will only allude that the concluding adventure of the most determined flirt to ever make her family ridiculous, might make Jane Austen smile. Lydia Bennet’s Story Adventure is rollicking good fun with a surpise twist. Now that my hope of a novel about her has come to fruition, it can only be surpassed by Lydia Bennet the movie. Imagine what folly and fun would ensue. La!

Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Lydia Bennet’s Story, by Jane Odiwe
Sourcebooks, Landmark
Trade paperback, 352 pages
ISBN: 978-1402214752

Giveaway

Leave a comment by October 31st. to qualify in a drawing for a new copy of Lydia Bennet’s Story, by Jane Odiwe. The winner will be announced on November 1st.

Further Reading

  • Review of Lydia Bennet’s Story at Publishers Weekly
  • Review of Lydia Bennet’s Story by Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
  • Review of Lydia Bennet’s Story by Janeite Kelly at Jane Austen in Vermont blog
  • Review of Lydia Bennet’s Story by Ms. Place (Vic) at Jane Austen Today
  • Article by author Jane Odiwe about Lydia Bennet’s Journal at Jane Austen Center online Magazine
  • Interview of Jane Odiwe by Ms. Place (Vic) at Jane Austen’s World
  • Visit author Jane Odiwe’s blog – Jane Austen Sequels by Jane Odiwe
  • Visit Lydia Bennet’s Journal online

Jane Austen’s Lydia Bennet: Her Life Credo

Image of a bonnet from Ackermann\'s Repository, (1817)“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.” Lydia Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39 

Lydia Bennet is the youngest of the five Bennet sisters being but fifteen, but by her impulsive and unguarded manner she is the most commanding of the lot, and she knows it! Jane Austen gently gives clues to the reader to the impending peril she imposes on her family through her willful actions. My first impression of Lydia was that she was a time bomb of misery and dissipation just ticking away. 

As the novel progresses, her actions become more outrageous to the detriment of the family reputation when she elopes, and then does not marry. After her patched up marriage to George Wickham, she returns to her family home at Longborne and receives mixed reactions from her family. Totally oblivious to what all the fuss is about, she saw no fault in her behavior. This passage from chapter 51 is a great clue to the nature of her feelings on her actions. 

Continue reading

Sin & Sensibility: An Almost Austen-less Holiday

Illustration of Vegas Showgirl circa 1950DELIGHTFUL

“They are going to be encamped near Brighton; and I do so want papa to take us all there for the summer! It would be such a delicious scheme, and I dare say would hardly cost anything at all. Mamma would like to go too of all things! Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!”

“Yes,” thought Elizabeth, “that would be a delightful scheme indeed, and completely do for us at once. Good Heaven! Brighton, and a whole campful of soldiers, to us, who have been overset already by one poor regiment of militia, and the monthly balls of Meryton.” Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39

Last Friday as my airplane descended and touched the Las Vegas runway, my thoughts were far from the rain and damp of my Seattle home, and focused on the weekend ahead with friends. No work, no Jane Austen, no reality! I had entered that sacred American fun-town tagged Sin City, where nothing sensible had to happen. I felt like Lydia Bennet entering Brighton without a care in the world, and only enjoyment before me. La!

It has been 20 years since my last visit to the city that never sleeps, and she has had more than a Beverly Hills nip and tuck. Gone are the original casinos; the Flamingo, The Desert Inn and The Dunes, – all blown to bits with true Vegas fanfare. In fact, she is totally unrecognizable to anyone who grew up on snap shots of their parent’s in evening cocktail attire and tales of dinner shows headlining the Rat Pack flanked by showgirls. The city’s re-birth is as amazing as its frenetic pace. There is so much re-building about that the best may be yet to come.

So what does my Vegas weekend have to do with Jane Austen you ask? Nothing … I thought! I had, after all, traveled to a town that is the Gretna Green of North America, where social connections and money can open any door, and young ladies also choose not to wear underwear underneath their frocks! Not much difference you think? Just one lively society transferred to another, right?

If Vegas is the Brighton of its day, I totally understand why Kitty Bennet was so distraught not to be included with her sister Lydia in the invitation by the Forsters to go to Brighton. Vegas is truly a town designed to amaze and delight. Sadly I did not see any officers in uniform, nor did I find any Jane Austen themed slot machines, but that in no way suspended my pleasure.

Iamge of the cover of Mr. Knightley’s Diary, by Amanda GrangeHolidays are never quite long enough, parting from friends is bittersweet, and the trip home always seems to be wrought with flight delays. As I waited at the airport to depart for home I took up my book, Mr. Knightley’s Diary, and commenced reading to pass the time. Just when I thought that four days had transpired Austen-less, who as of late is ‘everywhere’, I hear a woman’s voice asking to beg my pardon! (Oh, H E double hockey sticks I say to myself) I look up and in the row of chairs directly across from me is a lady wildly waving her book and yahoo-ing at me. I recognized the cover. We are reading the same book! We nod in acknowledgement like members in some secret society.

Las Vegas is truly a city of sin and sensibility! 

Happily employed

Illustration by Isabel Bishop, Pride & Prejudice, 1976EMPLOYED 

…as they drew near the appointed inn where Mr. Bennet’s carriage was to meet them, they quickly perceived, in token of the coachman’s punctuality, both Kitty and Lydia looking out of a dining-room upstairs. These two girls had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and dressing a salad and cucumber. The Narrator on Kitty & Lydia Bennet, Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 39

Misses Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and their friend Maria Lucas have traveled by coach from London to Hertfordshire, and arrived punctually at the appointed coaching house to transfer to their father’s carriage. The surprise is their two younger sisters Kitty and Lydia who greet them with an arranged luncheon, which they have ordered but can not pay for because they have spent the cost on amusements and bonnets!

I believe that Jane Austen wanted us to be shocked by such capricious behaviour of the younger Bennet sisters unchecked employ, but honestly, I have always been distracted by the fact that three young unchaperoned Regency ladies are traveling by commercial coach from London, and are met by two even younger ladies who have also arrived without a responsible adult in tow! Where are their relations? Where are their guardians? This seems odd, and I am quite sure that if Lady Catherine heard of it, she would pronounce it as shocking news indeed!

Learn more about traveling by coach during the Regency period in this excellent article by the accomplished fellow Janeite and Regency era authority Ms. Place, at her excellent blog, Jane Austen’s World.      

*Illustration by Isabel Bishop, “Both Kitty and Lydia looking out of a dinning-room up stairs” page 233, Pride & Prejudice, published by E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., New York (1976)