Few other writers have inspired the devotion of readers as deeply as Jane Austen, and there are a plethora of authors who have taken her novels and reworked them to the enjoyment or rage of her fans. Some are true to the spirit of Miss Austen, such as this year’s “Death Comes to Pemblerley” by P.D. James, which had Elizabeth and Darcy acting as crime solvers in a case of murder, while other novels like “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife” by Linda Berdoll, will probably offend anyone who ever enjoyed Pride and Prejudice.
Colleen McCullough takes her turn at reworking Austen by concentrating on the middle sister of the Bennet clan, Mary. Set twenty years since the end of Jane Austen’s tome ,the novel finds Jane Bingley happily married and the mother of many children, while Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy is still tempestuous. Kitty has married and now moves in the highest levels of London’s social circle. Lydia, sadly is unchanged, her nature is as flighty, selfish and amoral as in her youth. Turning the focus on Mary, remembered as plain, unworldly, self-righteous and tone deaf, McCullough introduces us to the woman she has become.
By the time we meet her Mary has turned into a beauty and lost much of her awkwardness and self-righteous attitudes but not her moral underpinning. During the years since the actions of Pride and Prejudice, Mary has been forced to care for her mother who became even more needy following the death of Mr. Bennet and the loss of Longbourne to the Collinses. With the death of her mother, Mary suddenly finds herself free for the first time and decides to concentrate on helping the poor. Much of the story changes the characters in a fundamental way and I found myself getting angry at the behaviours of Darcy, Lizzie and Bingley in particular. Some of the ideas that Colleen McCullough explores are interesting but the concentration of social reform seem to be taken from a Dickens novel rather than from Jane Austen.
Mary Bennet is in need of her own story, but sadly despite the storytelling abilities of the author, this really isn’t it.