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

Jane Austen Book Sleuth: New Books in the Queue for December 2008

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough (2008)The Austen book sleuth is happy to inform Janeites that Austen inspired books are heading our way in December, so keep your eyes open for these new titles. 

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet: A Novel, by Colleen McCullough. When best selling author of the Thorn Birds and The Masters of Rome Series Colleen McCullough saw the Pride and Prejudice miniseries on television recently she was intrigued by the Bennet’s middle daughter Mary and how Austen unsympathetically portrayed her. Inspired to give Mary a new chance, McCullough starts the story twenty 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. (let’s hope she doesn’t sing) From the advance press when the book was released in Australia in October, we may very well be in for a very bumpy ride. Hardcover, Simon & Schuster (December 30, 2008). ISBN: 978-1416596486 

The Little Book of Jane Austen, by Emily Wollaston. This petite volume offers an introductory biography to the author’s life, her works, the television and movie adaptations, celebrations, and the Jane Austen Society with photos of her homes, countryside and towns she visited, and generally all the highlights to entice the reader to read a book, watch a movie or visit her on the Internet. A great stocking stuffer for the holidays, or a gift to include with one of her novels. Green Umbrella Publishing. ISBN 978-1906229580 

The Later Manuscripts, (The Cambridge Edition of The Works of Jane Austen), edited by Janet Todd. Serious students of Austen will be happy to hear that this new volume brings together for the first time all of the literary manuscripts from Jane Austen’s adult years (with the exception of the canceled chapters from Persuasion) and includes the novella ‘Lady Susan’, the novel fragments of ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon’, poems and charades, and the comic ‘Plan of a Novel’ and various other novelties. I can not deny that it is remarkable to have everything in one place at last, but only deep pockets will be able to acquire this volume at $130.00. Unless I win the lottery, I hope to borrow it from inter-library loan. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-0521843485

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen 9 volume HB set (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen), edited by Janet Todd. Wow, wow and double wow! My hat is off to Janet Todd and Cambridge University for completing nine volumes of scholarship devoted entirely to Jane Austen. This may very well be the mother lode of Austen information compiled by leading scholars available today. The nine volumes include an annotated edition each of the six major novels and Juvenilia, The Later Manuscripts mentioned above, and Jane Austen in Context. Even though Cambridge has reduced the price when you purchase this as a set, it is still a hefty chunk of change at $900.00. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521868402 

Do you remember this passage in Northanger Abbey defending novel reading? 

“And what are you reading, Miss – ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” The Narrator, Chapter 5 

Here’s your chance to find out what Austen was defending with these two reprints of important late eighteenth-century novels that Jane Austen read and influenced her writing reissued by Oxford University Press. 

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, by Frances Burney (2008)Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (Oxford World’s Classics), by Frances Burney. (publishers description) Cecilia is an heiress, but she can only keep her fortune if her husband will consent to take her surname. Fanny Burney’s unusual love story and deft social satire was much admired on its first publication in 1782 for its subtle interweaving of comedy, humanity, and social analysis. Controversial in its time, this eighteenth-century novel seems entirely fresh in relation to late twentieth-century concerns. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0199552382 

Evelina, by Frances Burney (2008)Evelina (Oxford World’s Classics), by Frances Burney. (publishers description) Frances Burney’s first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London. As she describes her heroine’s entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0199536931 

Until next month, happy reading to all,

Laurel Ann

The Austen Tattler: News and Gossip on the Blogosphere

“All that she wants is gossip, and she only likes me now because I supply it.”
Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 31

Austen around the blogosphere for the week of September 28th

A new stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice opened at The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada this week. Austenprose was lucky to snag a review by local Janeite Deborah Jane and you can read all about this stunning adaptation here.

Lost in Austen concluded triumphantly this week with episode four as heroine Amanda Price dashed about from century to century attempting to fix the mixed up plot. Some critics loved it, others did not. You can read about all the deconstruction discussion on AustenBlog, and reviews on Jane Austen’s World, BlogCritics, And Leaves the World, The Journal of the Browncoat Cat, and Austenprose. Now that it is over, I hope that producers out there in TV and movie land will consider another Austen novel re-imagining. It certainly got the media and people discussing and watching our favorite authoresses work, or sort of her work since the plot was not quite what Austen penned.

Inspired by Lost in Austen? One of favorite Austen blogs from down under has some ideas on what producers could do with the plot and characters in Mansfield Park. Too funny!

Austen-esque book reviews for the week, Cassandra & Jane, times two, and three, All Things Austen, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, and The Darcys and the Bingleys. In addition, check out the reports and interviews from Austenesque authors, Rebecca Ann Collins, Jill PitkeathleyJane Odiwe, and the summer 2008 book reviews have been added to JASNA on line.

Author Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) was interviewed about her new Austen inspired book, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, that hit book stores in Australia on October 1st and in the US on December 9th. This highly anticipated sequel is McCullough’s chance to stick it to the literati who dismiss her novels as pulp and write something tongue-in-cheek to tweak a few noses. Oh my! If the book is as outspoken as Ms. McCullough, Miss Mary Bennet might be as grating as her singing.

Who is Sophia Sentiment, and what is her connection to Jane Austen? The Becoming Jane fansite offers some possibilities this week along with some nice physical descriptions of the author by her family.

It looks like major casting is now complete for the Broadway bound musical Pride and Prejudice by the selection of Laura Osnes as literary legend Elizabeth Bennet. Readers might recognize Ms. Osnes as one of the winners in the TV reality show, ‘Your The One That I Want’ which aired last summer and selected the two starring roles of Sandy and Danny in the Broadway revival of Grease in a round robin type audition-off. Miss Bennet could not have a more beautiful or talented actress to portray her. Best of luck Laura!

Pride and Prejudice character Lydia Bennet is one fun and naughty young lady, and author Jane Odiwe is her celebrated channel as she continues penning her journal at Jane Austen Sequels blog.

The Annual General Meeting for JASNA opened today in Chicago celebrating Austen’s Legacy. I’m pea green over all my Austen friends having so much Jane fun without me. Be sure to have an Austentini for all of those absent Janeites!

Go Gothic with Northanger Abbey kicked off this week here at Austenprose. The Austen novel event will feature a group read of the novel, guest bloggers and free giveaways. Check out the introduction to the event to catch up with the celebration. Here are a few participants; Becky’s Book Reviews, Jane Austen Reviews, Cherishing Darcy, Bookbath, Kimberley’s Cup, A Striped Armchair, Wings of EaglesA Moment Captured, and Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker. The Northanger fun continues until October 31st, so please join us.

Until next week, happy reading!

Laurel Ann