Archive for October 2009

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet - a personal point of view

Hello All! I'm back after a pretty hectic Diwali break. And what I have to offer is a book review. This one is titled 'The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet' by Colleen McCullough. You would be right in making an immediate connection with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

P&P is one of my favourite books. The first time I read it, I was in my teens and fell hopelessly in love with Mr. Darcy. I am fascinated by this book. Not the least because it is written by a woman in the rigid English society of several hundred years ago. I have read it many times since my adolescence and find a newness with each reading. I love the gentle irony with which Austen outlines the lives of women, the obsession with making good marriages, the entailing of property of men who didn't have male heirs, the social hierarchy and the burden it placed on women. Many parallels with Indian society! I also loved the characters themselves. The gutsy Elizabeth (I might have been her in a different life!), the vulgar Mrs. Bennet, the moralising Mr. Collins and the pompous Lady Catherine de Burgh.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is a sequel (of sorts) to Pride and Prejudice. Now normally I'm wary of sequels - in books or movies. But I so wanted to know what life would have been like for the Bennets, Darcys and Bingleys after the happy ending. And this book was authored by Colleen McCullough. I had read three books by her: The Thorn Birds, Tim and The Ladies of Missalonghi. The content of each book was diverse and I had liked them all. So I went ahead and purchased the book.

A brief synopsis of the story:

The story is set twenty years after P&P finishes. Mrs. Bennet is dead. All the sisters are busy with their own lives. Lizzie and Jane are mothers and wives to rich men. Kitty is a young widow having married and buried an elderly peer of the realm. Lydia is her usual wild self. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Wickham never appear in the book, though there are several references to them.

The two older Bennet sisters are not having the fairy tale marriages one would expect. Mr. Darcy reverts to his old proud self. He is all set to become the Prime Minister of England. He is also not happy that Lizzie has given him only one son and several daughters. Jane is busy popping out babies every other year.

Miss Mary Bennet, the boring sister who plays piano and reads dull books is a 38 year old 'spinster' looking after her mother. With the latter's death, she comes into some money and decides to write a book about poverty in England. When she goes about this, she gets into all manner of scrapes which is essentially what the book is all about. And oh - by some clever dentistry and skin care, she is now a beauty equal to Elizabeth.

The Review: Disappointing

The first thing I have against the book is casting Mr. Darcy in the role of villian. Call me a dumb romantic - but Mr. Darcy thrilled my adolescent heart. Here was a rich good looking man who loved with such a passion that he underwent a complete transformation to honour his love. He embodied all that women expect from men but rarely get. So it was rather difficult for me to accept a Darcy that was ambitious, calculating and a son-preferring father.

Next - Mary Bennet. In this book she is forced, as the only unmarried sister, to look after their mother for seventeen long years. After her mother's death, she is determined to seize the chance to live life on her terms. She is very well read and wants to write a book. She has no interest in getting married, and decides to travel to research her book. She is angered by the poverty she sees around her, particularly the treatment of children who are forced into unpaid labour. Very promising indeed - till she chances upon one Angus Sinclair. After this, the book is like any other Barbara Cartland.

Oh wait! Thats not entirely true. There is intrigue also. Mary Bennet is abducted and held captive by a mad priest. She is imprisoned in some underground labyrinth of caves and tunnels not far from Pemberley. A good part of the book is devoted to her incarceration and the search and rescue. To add more garam masala to the biryani - there are half brothers, death and murder.

Final word:

I expected MUCH MUCH more from a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. P&P is a classic. It is taught to literature students. It makes a comment on the society of its time, particularly the status of women. It is also bold in its attempt to present a female protagonist who has a mind of her own and a male protagonist who makes a mistake and admits to it. Above all, it is written by a woman author in a time when women did not normally write or were allowed to write books.

I'm rather disappointed in Colleen McCullough. I thought Tim was a beautiful story. I also liked Thorn Birds which exposed the decay in the Catholic church in an epic saga. But 'The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet' is pedestrian fare. It is nothing more than a well researched Georgette Heyer novel which uses four letter profanity.

Read it at your own peril.

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