Friday Hoyden: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

book coverI’ve just read this book (which my kids “chose” for me as a prezzie), penned by the redoubtable Colleen McCullough. In it she examines the life of the Bennet sisters twenty years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, especially what happens to Mary after long years of spinsterly duty to her querulous mother are ended and she has some independent means.

I found it a rather rollicking good read, with plenty of social observations (especially on the roles of women) and the relationship vignettes that McCullough does so well. The romantic side of it appealed also. Who else amongst you Janeites has read it? (Did you get it for Chrissie too?)

Let’s have an Open Thread on it, and those who haven’t read it, ‘Ware Spoilers.

Harper Collins has a rather basic reading guide, which asks the following questions (which seem a good jumping off point, although no need to emulate the no-doubt earnestly pedestrian essays that some students would produce in response):

1. How do the ongoing lives of Jane‚ Lydia and Kitty compare to the lives you imagined for them? And how do you think Jane Austen might have felt about these newly created futures?

2. How do you feel about the state of Lizzie and Fitz?s marriage? Is the marriage that Colleen McCullough paints a realistic one?

3. Ned Skinner has a great sense of loyalty to Fitz‚ but also a darker side. After Ned?s actions‚ can there be redemption for him?

4. In what ways do Caroline Bingley?s words affect Charlie and his relationship with his father? How is Fitz and Charlie?s relationship repaired in the book?

5. How realistic is Mary?s quest at the beginning at the book compared to the task she undertakes at the end of the book?

6. In what ways do the women of this novel exert their independence and to what extent is that independence respected by the men around them?

Categories: gender & feminism, relationships

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I really want to read this book!
    I used to absolutely HATE being compared to Mary Bennet when I was a teenager, simply because I wore glasses and liked to read. This became worse when I actually defended her– she wasn’t as pretty as the others, therefore, she needed to find another way to fit in with patriarchal norms, and she does this by interpolating herself into the more stricutres facing women more thoroughly than her sisters whose beauty allows them leeway.
    Anyway, not to get into a huge discussion about the original P&P here– I’m very eager to hear your thoughts on how McCullogh reinterprets Mary’s character, and I’m willing to brave the spoilers. 🙂

  2. Hmmm… I’ve just read one of he other “sequels” to P&P, and provided that I let go of my commitment to the original characters, and took it simply as a good yarn, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, and completely frothy, relaxing, pre-Christmas read. So I’ll be looking forward to what other people say about this book too.
    I’ve always thought that JA was a bit harsh on poor old Mary, but then, many of her minor characters are caricatures.
    Deborah’s last blog post..Homeward bound

  3. Ampersand Duck’s review is very funny.
    G’won Ducky, tell us what you really think!
    Of course, this has biased me if I ever read it.

  4. Ha! Yes, I read Ducky’s review back then, and decided that I wanted to read it anyway. I agree with much of what she wrote – Colleen came down hard on the side of romance here, at the expense of exploring what could have been more interesting aspects of a thirty-something spinster’s exploration of the wider world, especially as a plain-looking woman rather than as a sudden beauty. There are lots of problems with it, and it’s not Austen-ish at all (a wise choice, I think) but I found that it also had some redeeming qualities, purple eyes aside.

  5. Purple eyes! My goodness, that really is Mary Sue territory, isn’t it? (*sigh* Why does McCullogh get paid for her fanfiction! :P)
    After reading that review, I kind of want to read it even more, in a train-wrecky sort of way– I’m feeling a similar urge to read Twilight.

  6. I liked how CMcC incorporated the broader social context of the Napoleonic wars, slavery, child labour and general exploitation, and how she had Mary fulminating against all the waste and cruelty. That struck me as a very likely progression for someone who was intelligent and widely read once she got over the religious moralising of her teenage years. CMcC also shows how books/journals alone as a source of information can lead to a skewed naivety combined with cynicism that leaves people with curious blind spots, especially when allied with the expectation of the time that gentlewomen were to be kept innocent of all matters to do with sexuality and the rougher aspects of life.

    I found that if I took it as a snapshot of that period of the developing Industrial Revolution with the Bennet characters merely the lens through which that was viewed, it was enjoyable.

  7. Gawd, I loathe McCullough’s writing. She seems to be under the misapprehension that detailed historical research is a replacement for good writing. Her prose is so naff. No wonder the ‘literati’ crucify her. The reviews I’ve read have all been very funny. But with the royalties she rakes in, she really doesn’t need to care. Whenever I’ve seen her interviewed she puts my teeth on edge as well. She seems so self-consciously a ‘character’, trying to bludgeon her audience with evidence of her intelligence and education. I bet she’s someone who always absolutely has to dominate the room.
    Apropriating some other writer’s characters is a reasonable thing to do. But in this case, why? Purple eyes – has Mary Bennett turned into Elizabeth Taylor?

  8. And just when I thought my own Mary Bennet fanfiction might have a unique niche in the market!
    I came across a choose your own adventure Pride and Prejudice yesterday. In the classics section.

  9. Sophie, that is in the Aust slang sense, “rooly classic!”, perhaps.

  10. Helen: Oh, of course, silly me 🙂

  11. I just wrote my own review of this silly book, and have spent the day reading other reviews. I keep on hearing about how McCullough is to be praised for her research and historical details. Well, I found them pretty paltry and clumsily presented. Two examples–she makes a point of telling us how much a guinea was worth and how the gold ingots were remade using the avoirdupois weight (she goes into this on 2-3 occasions, in fact). Neither fact is germane to the story and smacks of merely showing off. Her dealings with Mary’s and Angus’s sensitivity of the poor is also shabby. The only real poor we see are the kids from the cult, and she makes them so stupid that Elizabeth has to teach them how to use the toilet.
    And then the writing…the paragraph closing the section with Mary and Angus succumb to their passion for each other reads, “Her hair had fallen down; the last petticoat was tossed into a corner, the camisole and drawers laying on the floor in her wake like exhausted white butterflies.”
    Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude–I’m reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series for the second time, so there’s nothing McCullough can write that will shock this girl–but this particular passage was just drivel. And nobody’s writing about this aspect of the novel.
    And the part when Charlie decides not to call Darcy “Pater” anymore… I pulled a Jane Bennet and was actually embarrassed for McCullough.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think a story about Mary Bennet could be interesting. This just isn’t it.

  12. I have just finished this book – a prez from a well-meaning relly. I tried very hard to switch off my annoyance at the beginning with the appropriation of the much loved P&P characters by this cuckoo of an author. At one point, I was managing to read in a ‘neutral’ fashion, but various things would just scream out as being inappropriate to the character, such as Jane happily allowing Caroline Bingley to spank and cane her (Jane’s) children (CMcC seems to have a barrow to push about corporal punishment of children). Darcy is also completely unperturbed when his half-brother confesses to the murder of Lydia (she’s not his only victim either) and goes on to laud him – we are apparently to forget his grisly methods of dealing with ‘problems’ as it was all in a good cause. Also agree with JaneGS above about the showing off with historical research. Tiresome. And all the tedious details on how to transport the gold, bathe and discipline the children seems to me just ‘page-filling’ where the story had petered out. And who can imagine the P&P characters going on about ‘wees and poos’… they do in this book. To be fair, there are parts that have ‘rollicking read’ qualities, as some here have noted, there is an attempt to deal with the plight of women in those times and also, acknowledge the unsavoury underbelly of wealth, this was kind of interesting, but overall, I found myself in a state of ‘vexation and grief’. I am glad it is over.

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