My mother always told me that if I couldn’t say something nice about someone to not say anything at all. Dorothy Parker quipped that if you can’t say something nice about someone, then sit next to her.
Old habits die hard and I’d rather love something than hate it, so maybe that’s why I’ve come up with a silver lining for The Independence of Mary Bennet. In the end, it made me laugh, though I doubt that was McCullough’s intention. Who knows what she intended to do with this novel, but it is such a silly, poorly written wreck of a book that I ended up shaking with laughter. As most reviewers have pointed out, McCullough crossed a line with this novel. I don’t mean the trashing of beloved Pride and Prejudice characters and their families. I mean she crossed the line at which she stopped taking her work seriously and started taking herself seriously, and the result is laughable and sad.
I read and enjoyed The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown last year and was anticipating reading Caesar’s Women later this year. Now, I don’t know if I’ll bother. I know I won’t be reading her Antony and Cleopatra as it’s clear she’s lost her way as a writer. I don’t think McCullough was ever a great storyteller or writer, but she was a credible one. After finishing The Independence of Mary Bennet last night, I don’t consider her credible anymore.
I’m not sure why her editor, agent, publicist, or publisher didn’t have the guts to tell her that this story was not ready for prime time, but someone should have. Someone should have edited the clichés out. Someone should have tightened up the long internal dialogues and deleted the self questioning and insisted on McCullough showing rather than telling about a character’s evolution. There are so many things wrong with this novel that it will be required reading in writers workshops for years.
All this said, the most damning aspect of the novel is her utter disrespect for Austen. I don’t mean the trashing of her characters—I can live with that—but on pages 294-295, McCullough, who used her reputation as a bestselling author to get this egregious piece of writing published, has the gall to have her character Angus Sinclair tell Mary Bennet how foolish she was to plan on using the nine thousand pounds that Darcy had given her to publish a book. He goes on to say, “…But you must never pay to have a book published! If it’s worth reading, a publisher will be willing to incur the expense of publication himself. In effect, he takes a gamble on the author—that the book will attract enough readers to make a profit.”
As a respite from the dubious pleasure of reading this book, I started reading Rebecca Dickson’s A Jane Austen Treasury. In chapter one, Dickson shows the title page of the first edition of Sense and Sensibility, which clearly states that it was “Printed for the Author.” Austen paid to have this timeless novel printed. Mark Twain aside, there aren’t too many people who would say that Sense and Sensibility was not worth reading. The same cannot be said of The Independence of Mary Bennet.
Without McCullough’s name on it, this novel would never have seen the light of day. It shouldn’t have. Honestly, I would rather laugh at works that are intentionally funny, not those that are sadly so. It goes against the grain to say unkind things, at least out loud.
Sorry, Mom. I hope I haven’t set myself up for payback in the karma department, but I was asked to write a review and I did look for something nice to say. Really, I did.