The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough

First impressions? Author of The Thorn Birds! Beautiful language! (beginning with the very first sentence: “The long, late light threw a gilt mantle over the skeletons of shrubs and trees scattered through the Shelby Manor gardens; a few wisps of smoke, smudged at their edges, drifted from the embers of a fire kindled to burn the last of the fallen leaves, and somewhere a stay-behind bird was chattering the tuneless nocturne of late autumn” ) (1).

Alas, though I can’t help but respect Ms. McCullough for her gifts with the language and past achievements, I am not alone among fans of Pride and Prejudice who are horrified by what she has done to our beloved characters (and our not so beloved ones).  Lizzie is miserable in her marriage, largely because Darcy (here, Fitz), who is a member of Parliament and who has grand aspirations, is a horrible jerk.  They have five kids, and he dislikes them all. He no longer shares a bed with Elizabeth—ever.  When later we learn details of their initial sexual congress, it is revealed as having been worse than unfulfilling but rather, “degrading” to both (76). He has isolated Lydia and Wickham, who conveniently gets killed, and Mary and Mrs. Bennet, who dies in the first few pages. When Darcy learns of his mother-in-law’s death, he thinks to himself, “It is a vile thing . . . to marry beneath one’s station” (11). I kept asking myself, why is McCullough doing this to the greatest love story of all time?

Darcy doesn’t even love his books. This is just not our P & P.

Not only is Darcy’s character completely changed from the original, but also Mary Bennet is not here what she once was. Yes, it’s possible she has matured and grown to accept that she lacks musical talent and shouldn’t be such a spoilsport, but it’s highly unlikely that she suddenly has Elizabeth’s wit, intellect, and beauty or that two men fall in love with her almost as soon as they meet her. She develops what struck me as an odd relationship with her nephew, Charlie, who has been maligned by Caroline Bingley as “a devote of Socratic love” (28). She is ridiculously stubborn, as she always was, but has no concerns about societal norms and keeps falling victim to evil people. McCullough provides background information through various characters’ thoughts and through conversations (e.g. between Kitty and Mary, but though we need to know all this background, there are not sufficient reasons for the two of them to be reviewing the history, so it felt uncomfortable as a reader.) Even Darcy’s father is changed in this portrayal; Darcy finally calls him “a truly evil man” (385). The description of his proclivities and activities is hardly shocking after the murders and other disturbing behaviors earlier in the story, but this is Mr. Darcy, who is supposed to be a paradigm of virtue and righteousness.

Nonetheless, if we shelve the names Darcy and Elizabeth and pretend Mary, Angus, Owen, and Charlie are characters unrelated to Jane Austen, we have an interesting story here. Mary gets kidnapped by a warped cave cult, which seemed to me a fresh idea, and all the surviving sisters join in a noble cause as the novel builds to a close. There’s some humor, there’s redemption, and there are several mysteries solved. If your hands (this is a weighty volume) and your enthusiasm for poetic language are strong, this is a book you should consider.

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Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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