Riddle me this; what happens when one of your favorite authors Colleen McCullough (who penned the well respected ‘Masters of Rome’ series and ‘The Thorn Birds’) takes on the characters of one of the world’s favorite stories written by the iconic and beloved Jane Austen? Well I don’t want to call it a train wreck necessarily, but maybe one of those multiple car pile ups that can make I-70 a rush hour nightmare.
When I first spotted ‘The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet’ at the Zona Rosa Barnes & Nobel it was in hardback, which I didn’t want to spend the money on so I waited patiently for the book to come out in a more affordable version. I was all happiness when I finally got my mitts on it. I can now safely testify that it is nothing like any other ‘Pride & Prejudice’ continuation I have ever read – and that’s not necessarily a good thing. If descendants of Austen’s family tree (she died child free) still owned the copyrights of her novels I’m fairly sure they would have nixed the publication of ‘Miss Mary’.
I observe this book doesn’t represent the first time, nor will it be the last I venture, that an author commandeers the characters of Austen and takes them on highly unlikely adventures. It is, however, the first time I have read an established author of various genres take such liberties. I’m sure I would be all praise if McCullough succeeded, but as you gather now, I do not think she did. She brokers no apology as she takes the proud Darcy name and gives it a mud bath of sorts. Good golly Miss Mary, within the confines of the story we have a bad marriage, a prototype feminist character in Miss Mary, murder, mayhem, mysterious caves, a cult, and children dressed like miniature friars. Even Mr. Bingley, who for most of the book is sequestered in Jamaica, is given the interesting side story of a “mulatto” mistress and a squadron of island children.
I probably would have been drawn to ‘Miss Mary’ regardless of McCullough’s name because I have a sweet tooth for all things Austen and Austen related. Yet, I have grown trifle weary of sequels which give a passionate happy ever after to the ‘P & P’ clan to then give the Darcys a gaggle of offspring who all have “fine eyes.” Here McCullough promised to explore the life of the Bennet’s most neglected, yet silly, child. The daughter who stubbornly sung off key while exhibiting at parties AND the only one who would have said yes to Mr. Collins if he had bothered to ask her for her hand. This was the Mary McCullough was going to resurrect to become a heroine on her own terms. Alas, this Mary 2.0 had as much in common with the original Mary Bennett as I do with Queen Elizabeth. In McCullogh’s sequel Mary ends us the spinster sister whose fate for the last seventeen years is attend to the constant anxieties of her mother, Mrs. Bennett. When the old bat meets her maker at 56, Mary, who is 38, is free to throw off her shackles and embrace the worth that she has only read about in the confines of her library. She had been living on small estate that Darcy and Bingley provided for Mrs. Bennett so that the pleasure of having their mother-in-law visit them was infrequent to non-existent.
For those souls who pick up this novel hoping for a Lizzie and Fitzwilliam wedded bliss version are going to be disappointed – well, not so much at the end where McCullough mimics Austen in making right all that which might be wrong within their slice of the world. Even though it is not so hard to imagine that the controlling aspects Mr. Darcy demonstrated in the original story would make him a less than ideal husband, I wasn’t prepared for the extent McCullough went. He was more like the Beast in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ before finding true love.
As for the other characters, Jane remains too soft hearted, Lydia is still a tramp, and Kitty married well to an old man who then showed the grace of dying thus leaving her rich and respectable with all of London at her feet (Way to go Kitty!). I found in fact that many of the characters had familiar themes that I have read in other books of this genre. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley constantly reproducing as in ‘The Bar Sinister’, which in the states was renamed ‘Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife’ by Linda Berdoll. Oh, also in ‘The Bar Sinsister’ Georgiana Darcy ended up marrying Col. Fitzwilliam. In ‘Mr. Darcy’s Daughters’ by Elisabeth Aston had Mr. and Mrs. Darcy with a gaggle of girls just like McCullough does here. Of course when McCullough had Mary desiring to do something useful and then proceeded to hop on a stagecoach to travel incognito as a lowly governess, I hardly blinked at the absurdity and felt that I was in for an original tale. When she was described as fair of hair and beautiful in appearance If felt good for Mary (take that Mr. Collins). Yet, when Mary is kidnapped and imprisoned in a cave, I, dear reader, have to draw the line.
A small part of me was amused, but I don’t think many who are Austen fans, the ones who clamor to read and sometimes write books like this, are not going to be entertained at all. Many found Seth Grahame-Smith’s ‘Pride & Prejudice & Zombies’ too over the top and insulting (I found the book to be hilarious). If ‘Miss Mary’ was written by another author or if McCullough hadn’t promoted it as a ‘P & P sequel, I might have been fine with the story, but this is the same Colleen McCullough who wrote the ‘Master of Rome’ featuring Sulla, Caesar, and Mark Anthony – one of my favorite book franchises of all time! To have her write this silly bump of a story appalled me because I thought she was better than this. For many it would be like J. K. Rowling suddenly deciding to write a tail about Rainbow Bright failing out of law school to become a truck stop hussy off I-35.
Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend ‘The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet’ unless you as a reader are unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s creations or with Colleen McCullough’s previous accomplishments. If this is describes you and you are someone who likes historical romance with adventure than this book might be up your alley, if not I think you will be disappointed. BTW, if you like historical romance and haven’t read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ yet – get yourself to a library pronto!