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Friday Bookblogging: Oxymoron Edition

October 10, 2008

The first Friday Bookblogging we’ve had in a while! And lots of book-type stuff to talk about.

We were fascinated to learn that Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. The Australian has some more information about it.

As Austen made her, Mary is the hedge among the roses, the sister with the tuneless singing voice and the unrequited crush on clergyman Mr Collins.

Um…crush not in the book. In just about all the movies, but not the book. Austen only goes so far as to say that Mary might have been prevailed upon to take Mr. Collins as a husband. That’s hardly a crush. Is Mary Bennet capable of a crush?

‘‘First of all, why Jane Austen didn’t like Mary, to whom she devoted a whole eight sentences.

Because she was conceited and pedantic? Just taking a stab.

The other question was whatever happened to Mary?

That’s easy. From Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter XIX (61):

Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet’s being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.

Of course, since that is the last chapter, it would require one to actually read the entire book to learn so much. Can’t let the novel interfere in one’s fan ficcing. And if one actually did a nominal bit of research, one might discover the denouement suggested for Miss Mary Bennet by the authoress herself:

Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philip’s clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton

See how easy?

Then I saw this film and I thought that writing about that will really get under the skins of the literati. That will really, really irritate them,’’ she says with another roaring laugh. ‘‘And I love irritating the literati.’’

It would irritate a lot less–and perhaps not at all–if she paid a bit of attention to at least the original novel. But then we’re just a tar-hearted dried-up spinster purist blah de blah.

Now, here’s how not to irritate the “literati”: if you must use Jane Austen’s novels as a springboard, at least use them to springboard somewhere respectful of the original. You get bonus points for being clever and original. It sounds like Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe mystery novels, might soon be enjoying the approbation of Janeites as his novel A Cure for All Diseases, inspired by the unfinished Sanditon. It’s coming out in Canada; the Globe and Mail has a review.

Hill has maintained the quality of this series because he never drifts into formulas and his characters, from walk-ons up, are always inventive, intelligent and beautifully constructed. In the midst of the Healthy Holiday folks, we have a neurotic psychiatrist, some very peculiar aristocrats and some genuine Yorkshire characters, including Charley’s ask-nicely-and-shoot father. Everything from accents to plot is pitch-perfect. Miss Austen might not have welcomed the notoriety, but secretly, she would be proud to be the muse of this clever and intelligent peek at a modern Sanditon.

We hope it is released in the U.S. soon!

The Oxford University Press blog has a post on the New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, which includes the episode in which Jane Austen exchanged letters with James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian. She was polite; he was a bit, er, pushy.

The Smart Set uses Jane to snark on the Literary Darwinists, and we find it impossible to object.

Likewise for the work of Joseph Carroll, who has, with at least a notable obsession, subjected Jane Austen’s novels to a withering barrage of statistical analyses in order to find out, for example, whether people tend to “dislike,” have “sorrow” for, have “interest” in, or “root” for Austen’s female protagonists. Poor Emma with her -0.17 score, so unrooted for! Carroll concludes that, “All of Austen’s novels move inevitably toward a culminating state of connubial felicity,” (he means the characters like to get married) a conclusion also drawn, no doubt, by those who simply read the novels. He concludes further that readers of Jane Austen tend to enjoy the prospect of being drawn into the happy world of 19th-century privilege. I’m glad to find out I’m not alone in this (and Austen does tend to cleanse the palate after too much Dostoyevsky).


Henry Hitchings (we assume tongue firmly in cheek) explains how to fake like you’ve actually read the classics.

For instance, you may draw attention to the fact that Proust was known for leaving extraordinarily generous tips when he went out to eat. Equally, Albert Camus was a goalkeeper, Tolstoy did not learn to ride a bicycle until he was 67, two of Jane Austen’s brothers were admirals, and Cervantes was a purchasing agent responsible for provisioning the Spanish Armada. From here you can extrapolate enthusiastically, heading in a direction with which you feel comfortable. As you do this, the person to whom you are talking will fill in the gaps. I know because I have tried it.

For instance, mentioning that Austen had two naval brothers will precipitate a stream of observations at each of which you need only nod. Her novels, it’ll be noted, repeatedly play on themes familiar to those with naval connections: the excitement of news received from afar, the social benefits of a promotion, the drama of abrupt arrivals and departures. You tee this up, and a mass of information follows, for which you get some of the credit while deserving none.

Colleen McCullough, and her fellow sequelists who prefer to not clutter their muse with actually reading the novel to which they are writing a sequel, should take note. And now that we’ve circled back to our beginning, it’s time to end this week’s Friday Bookblogging. Until next time, Gentle Readers, always remember: Books Are Nice!

Leave a Comment
  1. October 10, 2008 12:46 am

    A Cure for All Diseases is highly enjoyable. It helps very much that the book isn’t dependent on Sanditon, it’s got plenty of other resources (lol I have been reading too much Mrs. Elton)

    Colleen McCulloch’s book sounds about as awful as can be, but I reckon I’m going ot buy a copy before the weekend is over!

  2. Marsha Huff permalink
    October 10, 2008 1:39 am

    Reginal Hill has another Dalziel and Pascoe mystery that pays homage to Jane Austen. Pictures of Perfection takes its title, epigraph, and all chapter headings from Jane Austen’s letters.

  3. October 10, 2008 3:23 am

    Come now, why should Mary Bennet not be capable of a crush? She presumably has hormones. But I am always irritated when she is portrayed as having a crush on Mr. Collins. Eew.

  4. Amy P permalink
    October 10, 2008 1:02 pm

    ‘‘A lot of people don’t realise that Pride and Prejudice was written very early, in 1792 and ’93, and (Austen) tarted it up later (it was published in 1813),’’ she says. ‘‘There’s no mention of Bonaparte, which says to me she wrote it before Bonaparte came along.’’

    You know, the arrogance of some people amazes me. I suppose she thinks she would have written about Bonaparte (and probably she would), so since Austen didn’t mention him then it proves something–she was a poor author, an inadequate reviser–take your pick, they were both implied. Why can people not accept that she chose not to mention the world situation? It’s not like she was ignorant of it–her own cousin’s husband died during the Terror, and even if she had no personal interest, she could read! Heaven forbid that any author alive in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic eras choose not to mention the political scene.

    Not to mention that Napoleon was not the only note-worthy thing to ever happen in Europe. Here’s other things she didn’t mention: by 1792, France had declared war on much of Europe. The guillotine was first used in France. The French monarchy was abolished. Former King Louis was brought to trial. In 1793, France declared war on England itself, for heaven’s sake. The events in France were extremely unsettling to the English. If she had needed impetus to mention foreign affairs in her books she didn’t need to wait around for Napoleon to do it!

    As a side note, I’m beginning to think that, “Oh, this will make Janeites so mad! But we don’t care!” has unfortunately become a selling point.

  5. Mags permalink
    October 10, 2008 1:34 pm

    As a side note, I’m beginning to think that, “Oh, this will make Janeites so mad! But we don’t care!” has unfortunately become a selling point.

    It is a piece of humility that must disarm reproof. ;-) Right up there with “But at least it will encourage Young Persons to read the books!”

    Seriously, they are attempting to lower expectations and defuse valid criticism. Both methods are dishonest and cowardly IMO. Also I’m really tired of bad excuses.

  6. Sue permalink
    October 10, 2008 3:02 pm

    I hope someone tells Colleen that Richard Chamberlain is absolutely too old to play Darcy even as a supporting character.

  7. October 10, 2008 3:10 pm

    Same old thing: People think that if you write a poor book that has some connection (no matter how rediculous or incorrect), to a popular book, fans of the original will like (or at least read), the new one. Why do they think that? Well, it probably works, to a degree. Let’s not let it happen here. Please, Janeites, don’t give these authors more reason to continue this pattern!

  8. Cynthia Ann permalink
    October 10, 2008 4:55 pm

    This woman has obviously not read the book and then wants to draw her own conclusions from it. And I agree with you Sue, our dear Darcy could never be a supporting character in anything.

  9. AmandaJ permalink
    October 11, 2008 8:14 am

    I’m afraid that Ms McCullough has read P&P, according to a quote from her in this month’s ‘Australian Women’s Weekly’. (Yes, I know – we have a monthly magazine called The Women’s Weekly. Long story, but the bottom line is that they couldn’t really re-name it the Women’s Monthly went it changed its publication from every seven days to every 28, could they?)

    She is quoted as saying, “My new book stems from the frustration that Jane Austen never told you anything about Elizabeth Bennet’s sister, Mary. The first time I read P&P I was in my early 20s and working in neurophysiology. I was ambitious, hardworking, and although most of my peers were men, I never inserted my femininity into the equation.

    “I think P&P still resonates because it’s the unattainable man, exactly the same reason everyone loves Father Ralph and Meggie in The Thorn Birds. Women fall in love with the man they can’t have.

    “Mr Darcy was one of the richest men in England. Elizabeth was a nobody and she caught him. And although, sometimes, the editor in me goes, “Oh no, Jane!”, her prose is beautifully structured and it’s simple.”

    This gets me going on so many levels. All I will say is that I’ve read The Thorn Birds once (when I was about 18). I’ve read P&P, with its beautiful structure and ‘simple prose’ (simple!?!), about 20 times.

  10. October 11, 2008 10:46 am

    There’s “unattainable” as in “doesn’t suffer fools and prefers a woman of wit and vivacity” and “unattainable” as in “took vow of chastity.” Can’t really compare them. And geez, that makes Elizabeth sound like such a gold digger!

    Same thing, I read The Thorn Birds back in college. I don’t think I’ve re-read it since.

  11. Ann permalink
    October 11, 2008 8:02 pm

    “too much Dostoyevsky”…there’s no such thing!

  12. Lucy permalink
    October 12, 2008 6:53 am

    Here’s an excerpt from the McCullough book for anyone who’s interested. It seems to be the first chapter.

  13. Bryndl permalink
    October 12, 2008 7:21 pm

    Colleen may have read P&P a long time ago, but she should have re-read it. And perhaps checked what fate Austen had in store for the characters- but perhaps it doesn’t really matter, she’s only the original author. From the blurb in the Australian paper, it seems that she gets Kitty wrong, too- wasn’t she meant to marry a clergyman? But in the new book she’s the wife of a wealthy society man (sounds like the type of clergyman that Mary Crawford would like!).

    Colleen does seem to enjoy poaching from more-respected authors- her ‘Ladies of Missolonghi’ was nearly identical to L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle.” I read both when I was a teenager and lost all respect for her then and there.

  14. Allison T. permalink
    October 13, 2008 1:30 am

    Um, wait just a minute here, kids. I just read thru the first couple of chapters of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (PDF with headline April 18/08, 11:27 am , as per the link mentioned above) and I think that what we have here is a pretty demmed wicked parody of JA sequels (not of JA’s novels themselves, which is a different matter).

    There is no doubt that Miss McCullough is pulling our collective Janeite leg. The novel opens with Mary looking out onto a Bronteesque landscape of burning leaves while worrying that her mother will fuss over the freshness of a late-season cucumber-and-crab sandwich, all the whilst Lizzie and Jane are swanning around with their bosoms (after multiple pregnancies) drooping down towards their waists, with Fitz being more interested in politics than his family (well, ok, that plot point is perhaps somewhat believable). Mrs B dies suddenly but quietly during tea and the rich relatives, i.e., Lizzie and Jane and the alcoholic Lydia, descend upon Mary. She and her nephew Charles, Lizzie’s eldest son, engage in some high jinks: “Well, will he come? –Oh yes, indeed!” and there are some other inferences about less than usual liaisions.

    Goodness Gracious! She’s trying to take the mickey out of us. She may well succeed-I’d like to read the rest of it! This is a contender for a major sleeper parody of JA sequels/prequels/continuations, etc.

  15. October 13, 2008 1:47 am

    I couldn’t even get through the first chapter. And scorn me if you like, but with Lizzy and Darcy unhappy, I cannot read it, not to mention the idea of Darcy going into politics is irksome. Aren’t parodies supposed to be funny?

  16. Effy permalink
    October 13, 2008 5:06 am

    I read the book. Although McCollough opens some interesting perspective on the characters, f. instance will Lizzy and Darcy really have a 100% happy marriage, especially as Lizzy seems vere asexual re. the engagement and pending marriage, and have we not all considered the Jane Bingley as the curse of two many pregnancies, wearing Jane down as Elizabeth Aysten Knight and so on. Where the book failed is that the premise of sending Mary on a journey through the eorgian early industrial Britainnever get fulfilled. She is not aa week into her quest, before she is abducted and instead of writing about beliavable powerty, the plot gets so absurd and Mary so out of the plot that is neither Austenbased nor interesting

  17. Mags permalink
    October 13, 2008 11:11 am

    Does it count as parody if it’s unintentional?

  18. October 13, 2008 7:29 pm

    No, I think you have to mean it, like in my new novel, The Scorn Birds…

  19. Maria L. permalink
    October 13, 2008 8:01 pm

    Um, I hope she is pulling our leg with that first chapter because otherwise, it’s pretty putrid. It gave me megrims….

    I suspect that 100 years from now, people will still be reading Austen. McCullough, not so much. Though I would be very tempted to read The Scorn Birds!

  20. Claudie permalink
    October 15, 2008 9:16 am

    I love The Thorn Birds! As a twelve year old I found the illicit love affair as racy at it could get- but now I generally skip over the Ralph and Meg parts and continue to read it for primarily for the provocative descriptions of the Australian outback. I bought “The Independence of Mary Bennet” quite eagerly but really couldn’t get beyond a couple of pages. McCullough’s incarnation of Mary is so worldly- its completely implausible. Also her need to define the Bennets as ‘great beauties’, particularly the fact that both Elizabeth and Mary are ravishing redheads is nauseatingly indulgent. Her explanations for certain developments i.e. the disintegration of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, seems completely at odds with the spirit of the original novel and are not validated at all. I think had Ms. McCullough written the book as an original work of fiction, of no relation to P&P (which in many ways it could have been) I would have been a lot more forgiving. As it were, she doesn’t even come close to the inimitable Jane.

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