What can be said about a book that has nothing to recommend it? The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet cannot boast of being well-written, well-researched, or well-plotted. Despite the association of Austen and her Pride and Prejudice characters, never mind the ample name-recognition of its author, this novel should not have seen the light of day.
Working with a promising premise – the later life of middle sister Mary Bennet – Colleen McCullough sends her from one prison (a twenty-year sentence as companion to Mrs Bennet) to yet another, more literal prison as the underground captive of a religious zealot named Father Dominus. This is “independence”?
The press release and dust jacket claim the action takes place twenty years after the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. R.W. Chapman places the events of P&P as occurring during the year 1811-12 – McCullough advances that to 1813-14. Although the date is mentioned only in the closing pages, her references to Napoleon and Caroline Lamb tell any reader expecting the 1830s that ‘twenty years later’ has the author assuming the Bennet girls married c1793. A baffling date seemingly pulled out of thin air. And this predisposition for the Napoleonic era makes several pivot points in this novel’s creaking plot even more absurd:
Women summoned from far and wide (even Caroline Bingley) for the funeral of Mrs Bennet, all because there would otherwise be too few mourners? Even by the 1840s it was unusual for women to attend funerals; after the 1842 service for her aunt, Emma Austen-Leigh declared she would never attend another. It is not up to McCullough to change historical reality simply to fit her idea for easily reuniting all the characters.
Mary, who has lived a supposed sheltered life, yearns to “carve a life for herself” by exposing the plight of the poor? A better set-up for an Oliver Twist sequel than any novel of Austen. Mary’s impetus for this resolution of doing research for an exposé book is the writings of a journalist named Argus. This desire would have been more believable had Mary witnessed someone’s plight. Instead McCullough plants the seed (more correctly: tells the reader the seed has been planted), allows Mary to take the ‘winter’ off so that her plan can be talked about a lot longer, then sets Mary on the road to discover the plight of the poor she so yearns to write about. Worst of all, the publisher of the Westminster Chronicle, Mary’s inamorato Angus Sinclair (AKA – who else – the very same Argus, the journalist whose words worked such influence over her) tells Mary that publishers take the risk of publishing books and grant their writers royalties. McCullough should know her history of publishing, royalties and pirate copies far better than this.
Mr Darcy (Fitzwilliam Darcy’s father) a “Napoleon of Crime”? Why not! If Father Dominus can recreate Fagin complete with a band of “orphaned” children, why not also include a Bill Sykes or two: Mr Darcy as well as Ned Skinner, who is exposed early on as a murderer; though readers will be surprised at the identity of one of his victims.
This hodge-podge might have been remotely palatable if the writing was less sub-par. Repetitive trains of thought emanate from all the characters. When not recounting ideas within their own heads, the characters interact in the dullest of dull discourse. Absurdities like Charles Darcy referring to his father, Fitzwilliam Darcy, as Pater are surely meant to make the novel sound “period”; they do not. And entire conversations around “wees and poohs” and circumcision? Who cares. Nothing really happens; instead people talk about what they think, feel, will do, should do, have done: “When I have assembled all the facts, the notes, the conclusions, I will write my book. Around the beginning of May I will set out on my journey of investigation.” (p. 39)
Mary the Underdog has miraculously transformed into Mary the Beauty – with violet eyes no less. She captivates every man she meets. If Mary Bennet deserves to be more than a comic cipher (blame films more than Austen’s prose for that image of her), then she also deserved to be taken seriously because of herself – not on account of exterior prettiness. It should be remembered that even Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara was no beauty – but men fascinated by her never realized that fact. In the references to Mary’s violet eyes (never mind the snaggle tooth that got extracted) readers are lectured on the point ad nauseam and to so little effect.
Austen fans should not be upset over the treatment; these are not even remotely the same characters. Bingley is dispatched out of the action: he sails off for a year to oversee his overseas holdings. Darcy has his eye on being Prime Minister, and cares only for his image and reputation. Elizabeth is frigid, and Darcy too much a take-charge lover for either to be satisfied. Jane, on the other hand must like sex well enough: she has numerous children and there is concern over her health. Of the Darcy offspring, McCullough skirts with portraying Darcy’s coldness towards his only son as parental gay-bashing. Charles Darcy is just too handsome to be manly, in Darcy’s mind (especially after being poisoned by Caroline Bingley’s tittle-tattle). Good thing the trials undergone during the novel takes the sheen off Charlie’s looks; Darcy can in the end appreciate his son (who then no longer refers to his father as Pater). With so little connection to Austen’s cast, McCullough’s can be dismissed as having no connection except ‘in name only’.
And here we arrive at the crux of the situation: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is yet another ill-laden wagon hoping to hitch on to the Austen gravy-train. This is one of the least deserving.
one and a half empty inkwells.
I looked through the book at Amazon, and although her characters are awful, her research is hilarious.
Elizabeth cries that Darcy and Bingley gave only around 9,5K to Mary. She says that Darcy spends 250 a year for a couple of horses and a similar sum on his stable man. Darcy’s eldest daughter gets 90K dowry, and they still have 3 more and a son to take care of. What currency is it? Australian dollars?
Then she has Darcy’s son remain for Christmas in Oxford because of heavy snows. Where? In Russia?
And they drive to Longbourn in a 70 years old carriage! A man who pays his stableman a gentleman’s salary can’t afford a new one?
The travelling times are all at odds with Austen’s. One needs two days to travel 60 miles. I thought that 50 miles of good road was but a half day journey.
But then of course it’s clear she never read the novel.
You picked up on the problem with the money too! I got the impression that the ‘cost of goods’ and things like salaries and dowries were grabbed out of thin air. I rather like the idea that its in Aussie dollars! (either would work just as well; as you say: no research bothered with here!)
The rough part was how many TIMES readers heard about Mary’s 9,500 pounds…. Unbelievable that Mary had EVERY penny of it! Never spent anything – in twenty years?!?
Austen pays attention to the little things: how much a dress cost, how large a generous (or not!) dowry was, how long a horse could travel, and how long it took to reach somewhere. She is exceptionally reliable.
This premise could have yielded nice results. Why would any author spend time on this half-baked dreck? Find a copy that you can look over the very end of the book. That will really have you laughing out loud. The Bennets may have been a family of daughters – but over and I again I kept thinking while reading this book ‘Oh Brother!’
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Kelly, we both felt the same about this book. You caught the historical research mistakes. Well done. You, not McCullough!
Cheers, Laurel Ann
My peeve isn’t that McCullough made research mistakes, but that she seems to have disregarded what she should have thought twice about encorporating. Most writers work hard to provide a credible background for their created period. Was there any effort to do that here? Then why set it in 19th century England?
Mary Bennet – as a character – was ripe for exploration. Using that character in this novel will sell copies just because of the association with P&P, with Jane Austen. But what a missed chance! A silly novel. It kept me reading, but just to see what the author would make these characters do next. It’s just laughable on so many fronts.
Writing a book takes a lot of time from one’s life. So why not produce something worthwhile? There are numerous authors who cannot get a break from a publishing firm; yet here is a book that has seen the light of day in at least Australia, the UK, and North America. Why???
I just finished the book and found it to be ridiculously distasteful and full of inaccuracies as to the original story of the Bennet sisters. How could anyone even dream of turning one of literature’s most famous lovers into such a bastard in this shameful story! To vilify Fitzwilliam Darcy in such a manner was horrifying and for the characters to go around calling one another by their Christian names in such a time in history was completely disrespectful! Jane Austen is rolling over in her grave!
I only continued to read this book to the very end in the hope there would have been some sort of twist to save it from the banal, unremarkable, silly and sometimes annoying storyline, but alas it just continued to be a waste of my time.
I agree with Janeite Kelly, if it had been written by a less well known author it would not have seen the light of day.
Kailey, thanks for your thoughts – based on Kelly’s and other reviews, my copy of this book sits on a shelf, likely never to be opened, suffering from the deserved cliche of “too many books, so little time”! – thanks for reminding me to keep it there!
Appreciate that you stopped by…
I borrowed this book from the library on Monday and I’m sorry to say it is now the second book in my life that I just can not finish. Maybe, just maybe it could be a good story but in my eyes the author is trying to use Jane Austen’s brilliance to hide her lack of writing skills. I love to read but seriously who could actually enjoy this book? Apart from the historical inaccuracies, the characters are wooden and have changed far too much from P&P and the story is boring.
I will never read another one of Colleen McCullough’s novels, it would be a waste of time
Hi Toria – I have not read this – Kelly wrote the review and though I have the book, nothing has induced me to read it! You are not alone in your criticisms – though McCullough’s novels are quite good – I think this is an aberration – she was not prepared for such an Austen-fandom negative response!
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.
I have just finished this book and really enjoyed most of it. Ignoring the minute details that seem to upset most it is a rollicking good tale. I found the characters where boring and annoying in Pride and Prejudice. forced to read it as a teen and I read it again as an adult I was glad that most of this new book to have no resemblance to the original and told in the way that only Colleen can.
I also enjoyed it very much!! Admittedly, it was a shock to read of Darcy’s harshness and Elizabeth’s misery, but the development and ending to their marriage was eminently satisfying. Similarly, the development of Charlie’s relationship with his father is heartwarming! Colleen McCullough is a fine author and if those who criticized her so roundly, have not read “The Thorn Birds”, then I suggest you do.
I am just enjoying the pace of the book and feel that its well written. I didn’t connect all the dots, research and times. I am liking the idea that I can get close to the idea of Austen and even if this book is off the mark a little I do think that its good reading and well represents the period and character new and old seem ok to me.
Thank you for commenting on your reading of McCullough’s book on Mary Bennet – wonder if you have read the latest “sequel” about Mary Bennet by Janice Hadlow: The Other Bennet Sister – much better than the McCullough book IMHO. I have done a post on Mary Bennet’s reading in the book here: https://janeausteninvermont.blog/2020/09/21/mary-bennets-reading-in-the-other-bennet-sister-by-janice-hadlow/
Thank you for visiting and responding!