The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet- Collen McCullough (2008)
The first 100 pages of McCullough’s (a Western NSW born writer) book were extremely tedious. But don’t let that put you off (and bear in mind that she apparently wrote it to “tweak the noses of the literati”). There are several good things and several bad things about this book, which I think you should definitely know (and which can constitute as spoilers, so be wary when reading this review).
McCullough’s book begins with a really interesting premise. Who is Mary twenty years later now she has grown up? What is her personality? This idea is a fascinating one, particularly as Mary is so often cast aside as the boring character no one wants to write about. However, instead of making this book an extension of Mary’s character, she spends the first twenty pages explaining how Mary is no longer an ugly, awkward child and has been fixed into a beautiful woman (with this theme permeating through the whole novel). That’s fine, but after it is first mentioned… I got the point. She’s suddenly beautiful and intelligent and interesting, it’s unbelievable but fair enough. Yet, McCullough doesn’t leave it there and continues pressing the point, with everyone from her nephew (Lizzy’s son) to a book publisher making small suggestions about how good looking she is. I get it already.
The storyline itself begins as a good one. Mary wants to write a book about the ills and suffering of the poor in England. This was a really nice idea, and seemed to fit Mary well. She sets off, much to the irritation of Mr. Darcy (who is cast as an absolute monster for the first half of this book) and all proper society, and ends up with bad luck and getting kidnapped where she pretty much remains for the next 250 pages. So much for a book about Mary. And so much for a feminist critique of the time that was suggested by the sleeve’s suggestion that it is ”for every woman who has yearned to leave her mark upon the world”.
Putting that aside though, the descriptions are nice, there is a great amount of detail about the other girls, what has happened in the family and situations that have led up to now. I just found it difficult to feel anything for the characters. I wasn’t worried for Mary as she fell into horse dung around a load of lower-class ill-bred people. I didn’t feel sorry for Jane when we hear that Bingley has a mistress, or even outraged for little Charlie when we hear that Darcy is rejecting him as a son. They just aren’t the people I fell in love with in Pride and Prejudice.
Perhaps this is the point. Lizzy’s failing marriage with Mr. Darcy is maybe supposed to irritate and make my passions flare up. As, if I am being entirely honest, it was this storyline that annoyed me more than anything. “Lizzy and Darcy, unhappy together! … Never!” is essentially the thought that went through my mind. Austen fans will have a field day picking this one apart, and at my book club on Friday Huong and I were both in agreement about our distaste for this butchering of their relationship. On discussion, the sequel did bring some interesting thoughts to light- how would women, who were almost entirely ignorant about sex, react to being thrown into this sort of intimacy? McCullough’s thoughts seemed modern but still relevant to the time in this aspect.
Despite this part remaining relevant, McCullough’s seemingly random inclusion of the character ‘Ned Skinner’ (who, as it turns out, has a really intimate link with the family of Darcy) was enough to ruffle my feathers. Similarly, the cult group, the Children of Jesus, irritated the hell out of me. It was so out of the blue and led by this maniac, with disturbing ideas and even more disturbing talents. I can’t really find any other references to this sect that seems plausible in history books, and I am sending it to the back of my brain, before the wind changes and my face ends up with a permanent scowl. I’m all up for people trying to press new ideas onto the book, but there are certain conventions, characteristics and elements of an Austen novel that you should try to keep. And there are definitely historical elements that you cannot afford to mess up. (e.g. Women at funerals?! Strange monetary values floating around?… for an author experienced in writing historical novels, I would have hoped for more accuracy!)
While so many of our favourite characters have been played with and changed beyond recognition, characters who we would be interested to see changes in remain as 2D as ever. Caroline Bingley is just a caricature of her original, Austen created self. Jane is as meek and mild as ever, with only one or two redeeming moments in the entire book. I just wasn’t impressed.
The character development that happens around page 300 saves this book from disaster. I found the last 100 and so pages easy, nice reading that felt like Lizzy’s character, and Darcy’s passion. Mary was somewhat herself, but newer and more sophisticated. I began to feel for them again, as people, rather than the cold statues they are for the first half of the book. There were some lovely Father-Son moments, and some nice realisations… all of the characters showed some sort of vulnerability. If McCullough had written in this way for the whole book, I imagine it would have been much more of a success.
Overall, my praise must go to McCullough for presenting something 100 per cent fresh and original (unlike most Austen re-hashes), but there were some serious historical plotholes and failings that needed correction, leaving me a little in doubt about the entire book. If viewed as a separate book with no connections to Pride and Prejudice then it might just pass as acceptable. I expected a bit more from an Australian writer who has a lot to prove in the Austen field and whose other books have received such critical acclaim (and to all you Sydney-siders you can pick it up really cheap from Basement Books).
Read it? Loved it? Hated it? Let me know!