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.