Friday, July 23, 2010

Colleen McCullough The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

This is not the first time we have encountered an Austen derivative.  I loved  the movie Clueless which is a modern re-telling of Emma.  Gurinder Chadha's movie Bride and Prejudice was colourful and interesting, if not a favorite.  A couple of book sites on my bloglist regularly come up with reviews of books on some aspect of life of Mr. Darcy or some other Austen character.  At one time I looked high and low for a book called 'The Jane Austen Book Club', to be sorely disappointed by it.

This book came highly recommended by a book site I subscribe to, and it is written by Colleen McCullough, the author of Thorn Birds which is supposed to be the Australian Gone with the Wind. I have read the Thorn Birds and loved it, not as much as GWTW, but well enough.

The book begins with the death of Mrs. Bennet.  Mr. Bennet died a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice ended. Elizabeth and Jane are safely ensconced in their homes as Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley.  Kitty is a rich and merry widow thanks to an advantageous marriage.  Lydia is in shambles, Wickham is at war and she is an alcoholic and sex crazed.  Mary has spent the past 17 years (since the big wedding between Darcy and Lizzie) caring for her mother and keeping her away from causing any further embarrassment to her daughters. Mary is no longer the ugly duckling, but rivals Elizabeth in handsomeness.  She has spent her exile reading books and developing a mind, and now, with her mother gone, she is looking forward to doing something with her life.  All this information is stuffed into the first chapter, just like Jane used to do.

The first time I picked up the novel, I dropped it in disgust because Mr Darcy was addressed as Fitz.  I am not sure if even Elizabeth would have deemed it proper to address her husband as anything but Mr. Darcy, let alone his sister-in-law.  If I remember correctly, even Elizabeth's father referred to his sons-in-law by their surname, Wickham, Bingley, Darcy.

Anyhow, the novel gathered dust for nearly a year. A week back I picked it up again and this time, expecting the worst, read it through.  Jane is still her sweet (cloying?) self and popping babies.  Elizabeth and Darcy (no Fitz for me) have troubles.  He is back to being the stiff and starchy one, she is disappointed in him because among other things, ahem .. he is a beast in bed.  Wooo, I say, bring him on.  On top of this, their firstborn, a son, is allegedly effeminate.  Kitty and Lydia are marginalized in this novel too.  Mary gets the center stage here, sort of.  (Even now, Elizabeth and Darcy cannot be shoved into a corner.  At times it seems as if the novel is more about them). Mary is on a mission to write a book about the British poor. Cough. She has some hair raising adventures, the rest of the family also gets pulled into it.

The story is interesting enough on its own but there is nothing Austenian about it except the characters, that's for sure.  People use four letter words and foul language as if they lived in nastier times.  There is even ess ee ex .. phew !   It messes with the kind of an image you have of the characters and the times.  What I like best about Austen's books is its faithful rendition of life in her times.  The leisurely walks, the formal way of addressing each other, the dresses, the balls, the MEN.  The way the ladies and the gentlemen spent their times.  Even though the books are really romances, they are also a mirror of their times.  I hate this book for shattering that beautiful image.

Even Jane's worst critics admit that she had a faultless style.  I am amazed to say this of the author of Thorn Birds, but I found that lacking woefully.  There were many repetitions of phrases and words, which rankled.  Did Ms. McCullough have a bad editor this time round?  No, as an Austen sequel the novel failed badly.  Not surprising really, which sequel has worked?  The sequel to Gone With The Wind, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley  was awful. Mrs De Winter by Susan Hall was a terrible sequel to Rebecca. While one can understand the itch writers get to try to imagine 'what happened afterwards', one wishes they desist, if this is all they have to offer.

Spoiler Spoiler dirty Spoiler :  In case you don't want to read this novel and are wondering what really happens to Mary, she does not write that book, but settles down with a rich Scottish newspaper owner in the vicinity of Pemberley. Spoiler Ends.

As if you expected a Bennet girl to do anything different - now that is so Austenian 

Super Spoiler: She has sex with him before marriage - GASP! Super Spoiler ends.


couchpapaya said...

Really?? And by Colleen McCullough?? I would have picked it up just because of the author too, so disappointing! As for the writing/editing bit, I dont know if you have read the Masters of Rome series by McCullough but it's woefully bad. I must say even I expected more after Thorn Birds. But, the Rome series is interesting which is why I was able to overlook the writing. I dont think I'll pick this one up, I have read too many bad derivatives to waste my time.

PS - you are right, Fitz is sacrilege!! Sounds like a butler :S

Vee said...

Wooo, I say, bring him on... Thats It. The best part. ;);)

Don wanna read and really don care what happens to Mary... :):)

Super Spoiler was really sooper.

And Fitz, for sure sounds to me like some cold drink name (unlike butler to couch)

avdi said...

Really Truly CP. I have begged off Austen derivatives too. I will have to re-read P&P to purge my system. Even I was wondering if the Rome series was interesting.

avdi said...

Hahaha.. Vee .. I didnt even remember Mr Darcy's first name, he is so planted in my mind as that. Butler ho ya cold drink - I say no no.

couchpapaya said...

Ugh Avdi, this book is so awful. I threw it across the room when the author hinted that Lizzy fell in love with Darcy materialistically after she saw Pemberley. And that's only at page 42. I echo your thoughts, why write a sequel if you are going to shred the original world-building to unrecognizable tatters? Like the movies I'm going to guess this is a way of making money off the P&P cash cow. Is goodreads the site where itwas recommended? I'll go check it now.

avdi said...

nah ceep, it wasnt goodreads. It was some book blog. Did you read through the end? it gets dreadfuller.

couchpapaya said...

Stopped reading. I dont know if you came across this but I thought it was such a dreadful take on events that I hunted around for a reason why McCullough wrote it and came across an interview where she mentions that a) she doesnt like Austen and b) she wrote this book to tweak the noses of the literati.

I think this was the point I put the book down since the author obviously had written it with a sense of malice and I couldnt be bothered to spend my time with it. And I dont know about showing up the Austen fans or whoever, but this is one reader who will never touch 'any' of her books again (all copies of Thornbirds were unceremoniously evicted from my bookshelves). Probably not a great loss to her empire but I thought I should mention it somewhere!!

avdi said...

CP : Even before I read this terrible Colleen comment, I disliked her. I was appalled at her imagination and style. So she was off my bookshelf, and there she stays. I am with you.

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