Book Review: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

I just finished The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough. Warning: spoilers ahead. I liked it, but it got a little strange in places. The book purports to pick up the characters from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s novel, nineteen years after its conclusion, and follow Miss Mary Bennet, the sister least mentioned, as she discovers her independence after the death of her demanding, querulous mother.

At first, I was delighted. The tone of the writing was modern, much less complicated and flowery than Austen’s writing, but the characters sounded like themselves, straight out of the original novel.

However, there is a problem. Whenever McCullough finds her characters faced with a problem, things get strange. After Mama dies, Mary has a very little money to live on, paid by her brothers-in-law for caring for Mama. Instead of going to live respectably with either of her sisters with whom she has been invited to stay, Mary decides to live on her own (shockingly for the time, without a female companion). Then she decides to travel around England, researching the plight of the poor, beginning in Manchester. This is when events take a turn for the bizarre. When McCullough decides it would be better if Mary didn’t reach Manchester, then Mary is, after a series of misfortunate happenings, accosted by a highwayman, tries to fight him off, left for dead in the woods with a head injury, rescued by her brother-in-law Darcy’s trusted man, then abducted again by a mad apothecary who has invented a cure for brain injuries and needs someone to test it on. Then things get really strange.

There are other instances of McCullough taking the easy way out, killing characters off just because they are troublesome, introducing other characters for no other reason than they add verisimilitude. These characters, in particular the daughters of Elizabeth and Darcy, are barely developed as characters, drawn hastily and casually using basic stereotypes.

The book is really quite well-written, but it begins as a straight Jane Austen knock-off. Then, without warning, it becomes quite the modern novel. Really, whatever happens in a novel should be foreshadowed in the beginning, within the first few pages. That is most emphatically not the case here, since by the middle of the book I was feeling as though I had a changeling in my hands.

A few other small quibbles with the book: McCullough states quite clearly that the north of England is a hotbed of religious cults, but I have never heard nor was able to find any such information. Wanting to create a cult for a character is one thing, to change the history of a real area in a mostly realistic book is too much.

Also, by the end of the book I felt Mary Bennet, and perhaps the other female characters in the book, were speaking more as modern, emancipated women than as characters of the early nineteenth century.

In short, a good book, but not as good as I could have hoped.

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