Your character, Mary Bennet, comes from the classic book, Pride and Prejudice. Is she your favorite character from the book? Did you always imagine a different life for her?
For many years my favorite character in Pride and Prejudice was Elizabeth Bennet. She’s the main character, and she’s clever and witty and not afraid of anyone. She also likes to read and play the piano—two of my favorite things. And of course she ends up with Mr. Darcy. What’s not to like?
While I always felt a strong connection to Elizabeth, as I grew older, I realized that in many ways I am actually more like her younger sister Mary. Mary also likes to read and play the piano, but she’s not always comfortable in social situations. In fact, sometimes her social interactions go horrifically. Sometimes she feels left out, and she is often underestimated.
A few years ago, I was rewatching the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film and I realized that if Mary’s life went as everyone around her expected it to go, then she would probably be rather miserable. I decided that Mary had a secret, and after a few months, I figured out what it was: Mary Bennet is a spy for the British government.
Where did you get the inspiration for The True Confessions of a London Spy?
I wanted to tell a story that occurred not long after Pride and Prejudice and involved Mary Bennet solving a murder mystery in London, while participating in her first London Season. I also wanted the story to incorporate real historical events, so after a deep dive into Regency history, I decided to set the book in January and February of 1814:
- Britain was still fighting a war with Napoleon Bonaparte
- It was super cold. Many places got over five feet of snow, and the Thames River froze over and they held a giant frost fair on the frozen ice
- The customs house exploded
- There was a scandal around a giant hoax involving Napoleon Bonaparte
This seemed like the perfect setting for a murder mystery.
A lot of my inspiration for the novel also came from thinking about how it feels to want to prove yourself—what it’s like to wonder if you’re enough.
I also wanted the story to be about Mary finding her place in her family. Many times, adult siblings find a way to get along better than when they are teenagers, and I wanted to see if Mary could develop a better relationship with at least one of her sisters.
What kind of research did you need to do for this story?
I did a lot of traditional research—online searches, books from three different libraries, and two newspaper archive subscriptions. However, the favorite part of my research was my visit to London in October 2019. I had already written a first draft of the book, so I visited a number of the places in the story—I walked along the Thames River and climbed the Monument to the Great Fire of London.
Katherine near the Thames. Tower Bridge did not exist in 1814, so did not end up in the book.
Katherine next to the Monument to the Great Fire of London.
Katherine and her daughter on a London street.
The Museum of London was particularly helpful. They’ve recreated Victorian city streets, which really helped me understand what it would have felt like to walk through London in the early 1800s. They also had tons of dresses, fans, shoes, watches, and other physical objects that appear in my book.
Katherine in front of Westminster Abbey.
In addition to helping me revise what I had already written, my London trip provided inspiration for new scenes. I loved seeing the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and I ended up using that location for a key scene near the end of The True Confessions of a London Spy.
What was your favorite scene to write and why?
My favorite scene to write was one of the ball scenes. Mary attends a ball in disguise, in order to observe and talk to the murder suspects. But unbeknownst to Mary, her family is at the same ball. She fears that they will recognize her, despite the disguise. I loved the tension in the scene and building the character interactions.
Mary found she was enjoying herself, dancing with a man she did not know in a persona that was not her own. There was something freeing about a different identity: it was like slipping on a new glove and finding that it fit her hand perfectly.
Suddenly, she was wrenched from her complacency. Across the room, she saw Georgiana. Georgiana Darcy, dancing with Mr. Johnstone. She felt as if there was a gaping pit in her stomach. Georgiana was supposed to be at a different ball.
“Miss Kendall, is something wrong?” asked Mary’s partner, Mr. Walmsley.
“I am quite fine. Do you ever have dreadful thoughts attack unawares? Do memories of unpleasant things besiege you?”
“No, I cannot say that I do,” said Mr. Walmsley. “How could a woman such as yourself have memories of unpleasant things?”
Her neighbour, Mrs. König, was dancing nearby, and her stomach gave a lurch at her knowledge of Mrs. König’s actions with Mr. Sharp in the tent. Then she noticed Mr. Darcy at the edge of the dance floor, watching his sister. He seemed to sense Mary, and his eyes caught hers for a moment. She tore her own eyes away, looking straight into Mr. Walmsley’s, and she leaned on the story she and Fanny had crafted. “My mother is long dead, my father, long away, and the mistresses of my finishing schools were not always kind.”
“That sounds dreadful. Yet you seem to have turned out quite well despite all of it.”
“Thank you,” said Mary. “I do what I can.”
They lapsed into silence, and Mary attempted to lose herself in the dance. She let herself smile at Mr. Walmsley’s glances and attempted to feel as if she had not a care in the world. She felt her muscles loosen and her back grow less rigid, and she was surprised by the way in which her pretence impacted her reality.
She did not know how this had happened—the Darcys were meant to be at a different ball tonight. They had mentioned nothing about accepting a different invitation instead. Yet they were here.
Mr. Darcy had seen her, and since she had already been seen, there was no point in fleeing. It would be a test of Fanny’s transformation of her, but she would stay, and she would stay in the persona of Miss Kendall at all times, and she would attempt to learn something useful over the course of the evening.
The dance finished and her partner gave her his thanks and a gentlemanly bow. “May I escort you anywhere, Miss Kendall?”
Mr. Stanley stood near her sister Elizabeth, so it would be best not to walk in that direction. It was risky to be at the same ball as her family while in disguise, but she might be able to succeed, as long as she avoided any close encounters with them, which might lead them to recognise her mannerisms or her voice.
What are you currently reading?
I love reading books across a variety of genres. I just finished reading the nonfiction book Braiding Sweetgrass and the memoir The Best We Could Do. A few of the books in my to-read pile are Digging Up Love, Every Reason We Shouldn’t, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls.
About the Author
Katherine Cowley read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when she was ten years old, which started a lifelong obsession with Jane Austen. She loves history, chocolate, traveling, and playing the piano, and she teaches writing classes at Western Michigan University. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her husband and three daughters. The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet is her debut novel.