Colleen McCullough: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

 

 

Year: 2008

 

ISBN: 978 0 7322 8722 1

 

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a popular book out of copyright, will be exploited by all and sundry. Ignorant of the exact genesis of this book, the question arises why an author of McCullough’s perceived stature is reduced to writing a ‘sequel’ to Pride and Prejudice which is usually the domain of the hack.

 

Such sequels usually ignore the canonicity of the original and at their core is the contention that the union between Elizabeth and Darcy is not a happy one.  At its most superficially level this is to recreate the sexual fission between Elizabeth and Darcy and repeat the narrative structure.  Time and time again Darcy is forced to demonstrate his love for Elizabeth by ‘saving’ a member of her family  (usually Lydia by the advancement in the time frame from alcoholism and prostitution).  Why these sequels are never satisfactory is they betray the ‘happy marriage [that] could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was’.  The perfect union that Austen presents of Darcy’s controlled rationality and Elizabeth’s uncontrolled emotionality at the end is obstinately marred by Elizabeth’s failure to check her laughter and  Darcy’s failure to learn how to laugh.

 

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet  is set 1813-1814 approximately twenty years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice (if you ignore the argument that the chronology is based upon the almanacs of 1811 and 1812) .  The Darcy marriage bed has been cold for the past ten years.  Disappointed in his offspring and wife, Darcy (known now as Fitz) has parlayed his frustrations into a political career with prime ministerial aspirations. To realise this ambition there must be no hint of family scandal and to this end Ned Skinner (Darcy’s illegitimate brother) will do anything (including murder Lydia) to effect this aim. 

 

McCullough’s Darcy Fitz is controlling and humourless. If one recalls Pride and Prejudice, Darcy does have a sense of humour.  Worse still it is said of Darcy’s Fitz’s Library , ‘A great man, my father, but not bookish.’ (p113) Let us once again refer back to Pride and Prejudice (PP) where  Darcy we are told is ‘always buying books’, reading and when asking Lizzy about her reading habits observes, ‘there can at least be no want of subject.-We may compare our different opinions.’ There are other such inconsistencies such as the age Darcy is when his father dies-twenty three in PP not seventeen as portrayed in the book. Of course, Elizabeth and Darcy   Fitz reconcile but exploration of their marriage is not the prime purpose of this book. Mary’s fate is.

 

What of Kitty’s and Mary’s fate? According to According to the Memoir of Jane Austen (1870)Austen told her family that Kitty married ‘a clergyman near Pemberley’, while Mary `obtained nothing higher than one of her Uncle Philips’ clerks’ in marriage’. This little vignette is always conveniently ignored and if it had been adhered to this book certainly would not exist.  

 

McCullough knows she has an inherent problem with Jane Austen’s Mary.  A fact acknowledge quite early in the book where the character needs to be reconstructed. ‘What had happened to Mary? Where was the distressingly narrow and imperceptive girl of Longbourn days?’(p33). McCullough gets away with the reinterpretation as Mary as a character is not universally loved and there is no public outcry that fidelity to the original is breached.

 

As the book  progresses it is difficult to determine whether it is to be interpreted as a satire of every PP sequel that has preceded it or a thinly veiled social (left-wing) commentary on contemporary society. 

 

Mary relived of familial duty by the death of her mother has in the intervening years developed a social conscious inspired by the mysterious Westminster Chronicle correspondent Argus critical of the plight of the indigent poor.  Infatuated with Argus (the secret alter ego of the Westminster Chronicle’s proprietor Angus Sinclair) Mary decides to travel North to research her proposed book on the conditions of the poor. Misadventure ensues. Mary is kidnapped, imprisoned underground to scribe the dictates of a self-styled prophet who employs child-labour to manufacture his elixirs.  Suffice to say, the resolution includes the rescue of the children, death of the amoral characters, establishment of two orphanages funded by ill-gotten gold and the elopement of Mary and Angus.

 

The nineteenth century was a time of great upheaval without the need to invent  a subterranean cult to rall against religion, society and woman’s place within it.  McCullough comments on consanguineous marriage (p25), human trafficking (p51), slavery(p249), unreasonable expectation of the young (p365), food security (p434), inequity of the art market (p434) among others are essentially the concerns of today’s inner city elite.

 

Thankfully, we are spared any attempt to mimic Austen’s syntax and lexicon. That said there is an unrelenting vulgarness and lack of authenticity to the characters’ language. Transcendent in popular culture there is a definitive perception, rightly or wrongly, of how Austen’s cast of characters would act in a situation and this doesn’t deliver. Again raising the question why McCullough wrote this book. Without the infusion of PP expectations would have been different and the book may have fared better.   Not having read any of her prior work, there is now a reluctance to visit any others including The Thorn Birds with all its cult status.

 

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet has seeds for a sequel but… please don’t.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

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