Book Review: 'The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet' by Colleen McCullough

By Brigitte Weeks,
who is a former editor of Book World
Thursday, January 8, 2009

THE INDEPENDENCE OF MISS MARY BENNET

By Colleen McCullough

Simon & Schuster. 337 pp. $26

Rest in peace, Jane Austen. Your avid 21st-century fans may be outraged by this new and improved Mary Bennet, but I prefer to take her as a tribute to your unmatched ability to intrigue the imagination. "Pride and Prejudice" was recently chosen as the world's best novel by 15,000 customers of Australia's leading bookseller. Perhaps this resounding vote of confidence suggested to Australian writer Colleen McCullough the potential of a sequel.

McCullough is best known as the author of the steamy 1977 saga "The Thorn Birds," which was made into a highly successful miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain as a conflicted Roman Catholic priest. She seems an unlikely player in the build-your-own Jane Austen stakes. But the lure of Austen's characters is clearly irresistible. "The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet" is the latest in a long line of "Pride and Prejudice" prequels, sequels and updatings. Austen's novel was often adapted and dramatized from its early days, but the first full-fledged "P&P" sequel is thought to be "Pemberley Shades" by D.A. Bonavia-Hunt, published in 1949 and recently brought back into print. Countless other Pemberley and Darcy novels have followed. It appears impossible to keep Austen at home in Bath or Winchester. In 1984 she even traveled to McCullough's home country in "Antipodes Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen in Australia" by Barbara Ker Wilson.

Anyway, McCullough has now joined the legion of "Pride and Prejudice" chroniclers, but she strikes out on her own by choosing Miss Mary Bennet as her heroine. Austen mercilessly described Mary as "the only plain one in the family," with "neither genius nor taste." Poor Mary was thus of little value in the marriage market, and McCullough has reduced her chances further by giving her "shocking suppurating spots" all over her face and "a front tooth that grew sideways." Two decades since the events described in "P&P," she has by now spent many years as "the sacrificial goat" caring for her widowed mother at Shelby Manor, a dwelling provided by Mr. Darcy to keep his crotchety mother-in-law as far away as possible from his seat at the opulent Pemberley.

Isolated from both family and friends, Mary has spent her time reading through an extensive library that came with the house. Mrs. Bennet conveniently dies on Page 2 of the novel, not in the slightest mourned by her middle daughter, now 38. During Mary's seclusion with her ailing mother, her newly affluent sister Elizabeth has sent her to a skilled apothecary and to her own dentist with startling results: No longer spotty with crooked teeth, Mary is now free of her burdensome mother, independent, almost as beautiful as Lizzie and, to the horror of Mr. Darcy, determined to take charge of her own money.

All five Bennet girls attend the funeral: Jane, still beautiful but worn down by 12 pregnancies resulting in eight surviving children; Elizabeth, mother of first "one womanish boy" and then, to Darcy's dismay, "four wretched girls"; Mary, the self-educated aunt; Kitty, married to a rich elderly lord; and Lydia, George Wickham's widow with a bad reputation and a drinking problem.

Refusing offers of a home at Pemberley or at Jane's residence, Mary makes a decision: "I will journey to see England's ills, write my book, and pay to have it published." She wants to entitle her book "The Ills of England" and plans to go in person to "orphanages, factories, poorhouse, mines -- a thousand-and-one places where our own English people live in impoverishment."

She sets out taking the public stagecoach and learns more than she bargained for about the habits of the lower classes. Her adventures, including imprisonment in a cave, make up the plot of the novel. In the background, Lizzie struggles with Darcy's political ambition "to be prime minister and lead my country to a position of unparalleled power and respect." Pride has long since triumphed over passion in this marriage, and Darcy is no longer a handsome hero. He is cold and unsympathetic to his wife and cruel to his bookish and delicate son. His steward and right-hand man is a shadowy villain who will stop at nothing, including murder, to further his employer's ambition.

As the plot thickens, one Bennet sister comes to a bad end, but the other four manage to prosper. It would be pointless -- and silly -- to spend time opining on whether this highly colored romp has any likeness to Austen's quiet, elegant and often biting prose. These are 21st-century characters in 18th-century costumes. But it's fun to see Mary brought to life as an idealistic and unrealistic social reformer. She has become a beauty at 38, even if she still dresses appallingly. It is harder to witness Elizabeth, whose quirky spirit and ironic viewpoint power every page of the original novel, struggling to reconnect to a Darcy turned ruthless and judgmental. But McCullough, a romantic at heart, finally reconciles her borrowed characters and brings peace to Pemberley.

McCullough is no Jane Austen, but then no one could be. This is, in the end, an offering at the feet of the incomparable Miss Austen.


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