Katherine Cowley on The Thrills and Dangers of Writing a Jane Austen-Inspired Novel
I am so excited to share a little about my book, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet. My novel features Mary Bennet, the middle, often-forgotten sister from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, solving a murder mystery. My book starts about a year after the end of Pride and Prejudice, and I want to talk about some of the wonderful and challenging things about writing an Austenesque novel, or, in other words:
The Thrills and Dangers of Writing a Jane Austen-Inspired Novel
Thrill #1: I Get to Play with My Favorite Characters.
When I have a favorite character, I don’t want their story to end, and in Pride and Prejudice, this is the case for many of the characters. Are Elizabeth and Darcy as in love with ever? What is Mrs. Bennet wailing about? Is Mr. Collins still insufferable?
Writing a Jane Austen-inspired novel gave me the opportunity to spend more time with these characters and continue their stories.
Danger #1: Everyone has a different level of familiarity with Jane Austen.
Some readers have never read Jane Austen. Others have seen a film. Others have read Pride and Prejudice, but ten years ago, while other readers have read it dozens of times.
I decided to write in a way that no matter how much or how little you know of the original text, my book should be able to stand on its own. One of my critique partners has never read or seen any Austen, so having her read the book helped me see when I needed to add extra explanations and details. I also had several critique partners who are avid readers of Jane Austen, and they helped me notice errors and gave me advice on making my book feel true to the original text.
Thrill #2: I Can Mix Genres.
I love Regency stories and Jane Austen, and I also love mystery novels, so writing The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet gave me the chance to weave both genres together.
Jane Austen’s novels are all about characters trying to understand each other, which is also what investigators do in a mystery novel. For me, it felt very natural to mix mystery and Austen.
Danger #2: It is difficult to match Jane Austen’s language.
Languages change over time, and the way we use English has definitely changed in the last two hundred years, since Pride and Prejudice was published.
One of the things I liked to do was reread Austen to get me into the mindset of the sentence structure and approach to words. Then, as I was writing, I would speak aloud in a (very terrible) British accent, which helped me focus on how the characters might speak.
I also spent a lot of time looking things up. There’s a Jane Austen Thesaurus where you can check if Jane Austen ever used a word. I also frequented the Oxford English Dictionary and Google Ngram, to check if other authors used words or phrases in certain ways in 1814.
Thrill #3: I Can Provide an Alternate Perspective
Mary Bennet actually only has seven lines of dialogue in the entire novel of Pride and Prejudice (though she has a few other noteworthy passages, such as when she can’t come up with something to say, when she plays the pianoforte poorly at the Netherfield Ball, and when she wishes that Mr. Collins had proposed to her).
In some adaptations, Mary is present mostly for the sake of comic relief—she provides someone for the audience to laugh at. And yet I felt like there’s so much more to Mary than just that.
I wanted to provide an alternate perspective on her, to let readers explore her thought process and why she acts the way she does. And I wanted Mary—overlooked, ignored, mocked Mary—to have her own story, her own adventures. Everyone deserves their own story, their own chance to shine and make a difference in the world.
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.