In McCullough’s sensational sequel to Pride and Prejudice, wallflower sister Mary Bennet sheds her cocoon, as Elizabeth and Darcy contemplate divorce.
Mary, dismissed by her family as plain, has been for two decades designated caregiver to scatterbrained Mrs. Bennet, who passes on while awaiting tea. Twenty years after Elizabeth Bennet married Fitzwilliam Darcy, their marriage is threatened by sexual dysfunction on both sides. Darcy’s disappointed in his heir, Charles, thanks to vicious rumors spread by his jilted ex, Caroline Bingley, that the too-handsome Oxford scholar is light in the loafers. Slatternly sister-in-law Lydia, a hopeless drunk, has turned up at the Darcy country seat, Pemberley, to spew swoon-inducing profanity. Mary, now lovely thanks to cosmetic interventions by Lizzy’s pharmacist and dentist, but driven by her spinster’s crush on anonymous newspaper correspondent Argus, embarks on a quest to expose the outrages perpetrated upon England’s poor. Argus is really Darcy’s friend Angus, wealthy Scottish publisher of the Westminster Chronicle. Enchanted by Mary, this 40-ish bachelor dares not propose to the skittish bluestocking. Mary journeys across England by stagecoach, no way for a gentlewoman to travel, and encounters situations unimaginable or at least indescribable by Austen. She’s pawed by ruffians, waylaid by a highwayman named Captain Thunder and kidnapped by the “Children of Jesus,” a cave-dwelling congregation of abandoned children led by a renegade alchemist named Father Dominus. Angus, Darcy and Charles, who’s manning up, search for Mary. Darcy’s devoted fixer and factotum Ned is also on Mary’s trail, along which he’s surreptitiously strewn several corpses. Mary, the titular heroine, is still, despite her makeover, too bland to be interesting. The attention-grabbers are Lizzy, whose sarcasm has begun to pall on Darcy, incorrigible harpy Caroline and, unexpectedly, self-appointed avenging angel Ned, who could anchor his own Georgian-era noir novel.
Whereas Austen was preoccupied with subtle digs at mores and manners, McCullough (Antony and Cleopatra, 2007, etc.) bursts from the drawing room to paint Austen’s milieu in lurid colors.