Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet!

Our book today is The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, the latest and highest-profile exhibit to date in the upsurge of Jane Austen pastiche novels currently flooding bookstores. It's also the strangest of these, in some ways, since McCullough, the author of The Thorn Birds and a shelf of novels set in ancient Rome, is to my knowledge the most commercially successful novelist to try her hand at this particular sub-genre. McCullough has legions of her own fans, and yet here she is indulging herself in writing about one of the minor supporting characters in Pride and Prejudice, the stay-at-home Bennet daughter Mary.

I guess once an author's proven herself to her publishers the way McCullough has, she gets as much latitude as she wants, and maybe I'd appreciate the whole thing more if the book itself weren't so relentlessly awful. But the whole time I was reading it (well, 'whole time' as in roughly 70 minutes ... but you know what I mean ...), I was bothered by something else entirely than the lack of any noticeable proficiency with language, character, dialogue, plotting, or drama.

No, the thing that bothered me more than the fact that The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet stinks as a book is the fact that it stinks as pastiche.

Pastiche, in which a writer uses the setting and characters previously established by somebody else ("fan fiction" is the current term, and Fanfiction.net is the sprawling uber-site for it all - if you knew my TV-show and comic book tastes, not to mention my fiction style, really well, you could find me in several places on that great, endless site) is the most miserable, scrounging, least respected of all the literary sub-genres. To the uninitiated, it seems to wear its unoriginality on its sleeve: I mean, the writers don't even make up their own characters!

This is a grossly unfair opinion, of course - half of the greatest works of the Western canon are pastiches (all the ancient Greek plays, Virgil, Ovid, nine-tenths of Shakespeare, etc) - but it's certainly true that a huge percentage of pastiches are really, really bad. The reason is obvious: the fact that the setting and characters don't need to be invented is an open door to narrative laziness. The best pastiches actually work very hard to overcome this inertia, and it's that scrappy energy that makes them so much fun to read (and fortunately for the idle browser at Fanfiction.net, that energy can be spotted immediately - usually in the first paragraph, if it's there at all). I argue that when you're reading a really good pastiche, when you're experiencing the particular thrill that comes from a writer successfully capturing 'your' characters in new adventures, you're experiencing something in common with Athenian audiences in the 4th century b.c., listening to 'new' words the playwright has put in the mouth of Europa, or Hercules, or Orestes.

There are lots of examples, from lots of different venues - the Star Trek novel Strangers from the Sky, for instance, or the great, hilarious episode of "Buffy the Vampire-Slayer" where our heroes meet the actual, honest-to-gosh Dracula (except for the episode's ending, of course, but that's a posting for another time!), or the enormously entertaining Sherlock Holmes movie "The Seven-Percent Solution." When it's done right, pastiche offers rewards found nowhere else in fiction.

And there's one basic rule of pastiche that comes before any others: don't violate the heart of your original.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet violates the heart of Pride and Prejudice. It violates the heart, the soul, the kidneys, the spleen, and every other organ it can get its hands on. But the most central violation is the worst by far, because as all readers of Jane Austen's great novel (perhaps the greatest novel ever written? Certainly in the top five) know, the heart of the story is that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are, despite everything, perfect for each other, that they have managed, as very lucky lonely people sometimes actually do, to find each other amidst the noise and frivolity of the world around them. If you violate this living, breathing heart of Pride and Prejudice, your pastiche will not only stink but annoy the hell out of Steve. So you can just imagine what I felt reading these thoughts from Darcy, early in the book:

Darcy got up, frowning, to stand for a moment with his eyes riveted sightlessly on the leatherbound rows of his parliamentary Hansards. The old besom was dead at last. It is a vile thing, he thought, to marry beneath one’s station, no matter how great the love or how tormenting the urge to consummate that love. And it has not been worth the pain. My beautiful, queenly Elizabeth is as pinched a spinster as her sister Mary. I have one sickly, womanish boy and four wretched girls. One in the eye for me, Mrs. Bennet! May the devil take you and all your glorious daughters, the price has been too high.

Naturally, Austen's tricky, complex characterization of Darcy - not the easiest man to like or love - presents the temptation for thoughtless extrapolators to misunderstand him. But dammit, McCullough's a professional novelist! If she can't be trusted to understand what Austen's doing well enough to avoid writing a travesty of a paragraph like the one above, what business does she have writing a pastiche on these characters at all? If her workings of these beloved characters were, for want of a better word, accurate, I could forgive her even for the sodden wretchedness of her prose - and that's forgiving a lot, as the book's almost show-stopping first paragraph makes clear:

The long, late night threw a gilt mantle over the skeletons of shrub and trees scattered through the Shelby Manor gardens; a few wisps of smoke, smudged at their edges, drifted from the embers of a fire kindled to burn the last of the fallen leaves, and somewhere a stay-behind bird was chattering, the tuneless nocturne of late autumn. Watching the sunset from her usual seat in the bay window, Mary felt a twisting of her heart at its blue-gold glory, soon to be a memory banked inside the echoing spaces of her mind. How much longer? Oh, how much longer?

But she doesn't redeem this kind of claptrap with anything sharp or very interesting (her creation of a bookish, sickly son for the imperious Darcy - the whole book is set a decade after Pride and Prejudice - has flickerings of originality, but they never amount to anything), and repeatedly resorts to the same sin that so mars her ancient Rome novels: stuffing the results of her period-research into the narrative, often in hilariously awkward, guidebooky ways:

“You say [a potential suitor says] they [the Gypsies, of course] like their life. But you do not like yours.”

“That will change in May,” said Mary, nibbling a macaroon. “This is very good. I must ask Mrs. MacLeod for her cook’s recipe.”

“That’s a relief!” cried Mr. Wilde, forgetting that it was not polite for new acquaintances to contract words.

Well, he might have forgotten, but you didn't, did you, old girl? And you just couldn't bear to write that scene without making sure we all know you know, like waving the appropriate index card in our faces. Like I said, it's almost impossible to believe we're talking about somebody here who's written a dozen novels. And while we're talking about things impossible to believe, listen to this little peroration, half Encyclopedia Britannica and half ranting monologue by Doctor Doom:

Fitz [believe it or not, that's how we're referring to Darcy] stretched his long legs out and crossed them at the ankles, staring into the ruby depths of his glass with a bitter face. “You were too confined to Pemberley to have known that family when it was together, Ned, that’s the trouble. You didn’t travel with me in those days. My concern over Mary Bennet has nothing to do with expediency – it’s simply prudence. My reputation is my all. Though the Darcys are related to every king who ever sat upon England’s throne, they have escaped the taint of more stupid men – men who snatched at huge honours, great commissions. Now, finally, after a thousand years of waiting, it lies in my power to advance the Darcy name in an absolutely unimpeachable way – as the elected head of England’s parliament. A duke? An earl marshal of the battlefield? A royal marriage broker? Pah! Mere nothings! England has never sunk so low as under the Hanoverians – petty German princelings with names longer than their ancestry! – but her parliament has risen in exact step with the diminution of her sovereigns. A prime minister in this day and age, Ned, is genuinely pre-eminent. A hundred years ago it was still an empty title passed around the House of Lord like a port decanter, whereas today it is beginning to be based in the House of Commons. Existing at the whim of the electors, rather than embedded in an unelected oligarchy. As prime minister, I will deal with Europe in the aftermath of Bonaparte. His Russian campaign may have finished him, but he has left the Continent in a shambles. I must mend it, and be the greatest statesman of all time. Nothing must be allowed to stand in my way.”


No, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is the type of pastiche that only annoys, and it'll only further convince those who need no convincing that the whole sub-genre of fan fiction is beyond the pale. I urge those people not to judge by this very poor book! McCullough should have known better than to try it (we can only hope she cuts some original cloth next time around), and, to be fair, the great galloping herds of Austeniana out there aren't much better (truly good Austen pastiches have hardly yet been written - I have my ideas, but hey, I can't write everything). If you're at all tempted to, gawd help us, buy this book, spend your money on the gorgeous leatherbound hardcover volume of the complete Jane Austen, available at your local Barnes & Noble - it's money much better spent.


editor galaxy said...


Have you read Steve Duffy's The Night Comes On, a terrific collection of pastiches on M.R. James? From Ash Tree Press--I don't know if they've done a paperback yet--the hardcover is probably terribly pricey if even still in print. However, for a taste, the story "Running Dogs" from the aforementioned collection was reprinted in a Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (probably from 98 or 99, but maybe earlier?).

But I came to this site to make a suggestion to you: after reading your Ovid piece on Open Letters, I had a vision: that's what Steve's memoir would read like. Several dozen (or a hundred or more) encounters with books, observations and personal anecdotes swirled in. I've thot about doing the same with CDs.... You wouldn't need to worry about structure until you'd written maybe 30 or 40 pieces. J.C. could edit the ms. in his free time (ha!). You could share the project as a work in progress on another blog...

A.G., author of the footnotes to the article "Do You Know Squarepusher?"

steve said...

Footnotes on an ARTICLE??? Who would be brazen enough, garrulous enough, nay, MALEVOLENT enough, to put footnotes on an ARTICLE???

steve said...

As for your suggestion, the thought has crossed my mind! (in tribute to all the fun this blog has given me, I've even thought of calling it "Our Book Today") Of course, such a memoir would only cover the last third of my life, everything that happened after I became INTERESTED in books ... don't even want to think WHAT I'd call the two previous volumes!

editor galaxy said...

I know, I know. Presumably the editors of OL sanctioned the use of footnotes...

Possibly inspired by the thousands of articles that include footnotes. And only about 40 of those were written by David Foster Wallace (reread his Lynch essay, and I thought--as I often have when reading footnoted fiction/nonfiction--that it's a damn shame footnotes are viewed as a post-modern trope, once hip but now hipster-ish, because they work so well).

Do write the memoir, by the way.

steve said...

They do indeed work so well - in their proper role! Which is to provide supplementary information that can't plausibly be worked into the main text but that the reader may find interesting nonetheless.

Foster Wallace, to the best of my knowledge, never once in his entire life used a footnote correctly. You don't footnote digressions, and you don't footnote - or note in any way (except your private diary) - every stray thought that happened to cross your mind while in the actual act of typing your main text.

If the writer you're writing about had a wife who took to drink after his death, you can feel free to note that in your diary. If the writer you're writing about had a wife who took to drink after his death and consequently embroiled his publishers in a protracted lawsuit over copyright, you can put that in a footnote. If the writer you're writing about was famous for writing about a wife who took to drink after her husband's death and his wife took to drink after his death, THAT you put in the main text.

And if Foster Wallace had written that clarification, it would be enshrubbed with incredibly long-winded footnotes about the company histories of the various brands of liquors the author's wife liked to drink - information of no interest to anyone, no bearing on the main text, nothing ... just words written because the author has movable fingers.

Still, I wish he were alive - he could perhaps have learned better habits.

editor galaxy said...

Of course, on your blog you get the last word, and that's as it should be--I'll bow out after this comment, I promise.

I--obviously--disagree with your defintion of the footnote--your ruling is needlessly limiting.

A footnote is an annotation. Your definition would apply only to an academic paper, and even in that context there is flexibility of usage. Literary footnoes--such as Hemingway's footnote in "A Natural History of the Dead"--serve a richer purpose than merely to add "supplementary information." Literary footnotes offer a second narrative, or a glimpse at an alternate interpretation of the main narrative, or show the reader that writing had a tendancy to make linear what is not linear: stories.

I applaud the innovative use of tools. That's what we're talking about--the use of a tool (the footnote). And tools are not sacred unless you make them so.

Greg said...

"And if Foster Wallace had written that clarification, it would be enshrubbed with incredibly long-winded footnotes about the company histories of the various brands of liquors the author's wife liked to drink - information of no interest to anyone, no bearing on the main text, nothing ... just words written because the author has movable fingers."

Chuck Palahniuk would just cram all that into the text, to pad out the "story."

Ms Teadrinker said...

I have just finished this book - it was given to me by well-intentioned elderly lady , so I laboured to the end. A painful experience. Your comments are spot on. The author seemed to enjoy carte blanche to push her own barrows, make a display of 'research' (whoopee doo) and stomp all over P&P and its characters in her hobnailed boots, whilst raking in a tidy sum. Publishers risk losing the faith of readers when a famous author is given free reign to indulge herself at our expense - it's one thing to do 'fan fic' for nix on the internet, another to put it out in hardback - I'm sure many like me have suffered through this 'gift' book. What a travesty. I feel like going into bookshops and inserting warning notes into copies on the shelves. P&P? Pulp & Pulverise!

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