The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

I have mixed feelings about Colleen McCullough. On one hand, she wrote the well-researched and racy Caesar’s Women and other novels set in ancient Rome. On the other hand, I haven’t quite forgiven her for The Thorn Birds, and ok, so I also blame her a little bit when I introduce myself and people say Oh! Like Meggie in The Thorn Birds!

But I had to read The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, her Pride and Prejudice spinoff. This is one of the sequel spinoffs, not a reinvention spinoff (oh man, I’ve read so many Austen spinoffs I have to sub-categorize them), and I was excited for some more brilliant Elizabeth / Darcy banter. I’m also interested in seeing how the relationship matured. Would seventeen years of marriage to Elizabeth get Fitzwilliam laughing and lighthearted, or would she find that the dark, sarcastic, brooding type can be hard to live with? Are Jane and Bingley cheated by every servant, as Mr. Bennett predicted at the end of Pride and Prejudice? Can Lydia and Wickham make a go of it, or does she spend the rest of her life regretting it?

I was hoping that bookish Mary would have some bluestocking friends and perhaps meet a nice professor or author for her love interest. Instead, in this book she is kidnapped first by highwaymen, then by Darcy’s brutish secret half-brother, and finally spends most of the book held hostage by, um, a human-sacrifice cult living in the huge underground caves near Pemberley! The Darcy family just have endless skeletons in their closets, don’t they?

The understated comedy was gone. Instead, characters with the same names as my beloved Bennett sisters had emotional blowup after emotional blowup. A blunt and uncontrolled Elizabeth Bennett Darcy shouting mediocre insults? Huh? Darcy — who goes by the cutesy nickname Fitz — has apparently given up his social awkwardness and is now networking with the house of lords as part of his campaign for prime minister (Could there be a less appropriate occupation for Darcy?), and trying to keep both his thuggish half-brother and mad, alcoholic Lydia Bennett Wickham a secret. One clever in-character moment, like when Caroline Bingley is dispatched to deal with pushover Jane and Bigley’s unruly children, is canceled out by the rest of the bizarre actions by characters we know and love.

Writing a sequel to such a well-loved story would be difficult no matter what, and subject to readers insisting that that’s not what Jane / Elizabeth / Darcy / Mary would really have done. But, come on, a human sacrifice cult? In Derbyshire?

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