Hey-ho Janeites! It is no secret that Jane Austen fans crave more stories about her beloved characters from Pride and Prejudice. Novels inspired by Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet now number too many to even attempt to count. Next in line in popularity from the Bennet family is middle sister Mary. Surprised? Think again! She is conflicted and complicated in the original and that always makes for an interesting heroine.
Next up in the long line of Mary makeover novels is The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, by debut novelist Katherine Cowley. However, this novel is not your typical “let’s fix Mary” fare. In this instance, with the help of relatives, Mary meets new challenges that take her away from her family home at Longbourn and make her look outside of her past life while she solves some mysteries.
I am very happy to welcome author Katherine Cowley to Austenprose for the first time. She and her publisher have graciously honored us with the official cover reveal and an exclusive excerpt of this enchanting new novel that releases in April 2021. Drum roll, please…
Isn’t the cover striking? The blue and green tones are lovely. It makes you wonder what Miss Mary Bennet is doing at an ancient stone castle. Let’s find out.
In Jane Austen’s revered Pride and Prejudice, Mary, the middle sister, is often passed over. Until now…
Upon the death of her father, Mary Bennet’s life is thrown into turmoil. With no fortune or marriage prospects, Mary must rely on the kindness of her relatives. When a mysterious late-night visit by an unknown relative—a Lady Trafford from Castle Durrington—leads to an extended stay and the chance for an education, Mary gratefully accepts the opportunity.
But even as she arrives at the castle, she’s faced with one mystery after another. Who is Lady Trafford really and what is she hiding? Do her secrets and manipulations place the small seaside community at risk of an invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte? Always curious, Mary sets out to discover the truth. But when she discovers the dead body of a would-be thief she outed prior to her father’s funeral, Mary jeopardizes her position at the castle and her family’s good name in her quest for the truth.
Never underestimate the observation skills of a woman who hides in the background.
Excerpt from The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, after Mary arrives at Castle Durrington
Mary did not want to continue the tour with Mrs. Boughton, but she knew it would be impolite to refuse. People like Elizabeth always managed to do things that were impolite, yet in a way that did not give others offense. Perhaps Mary would try it. She pictured her older sister in her mind and decided on the proper phrasing.
“I would truly love to see the terrace, but I am feeling great fatigue from my long journey. Perhaps we can continue it another day.”
“It is well worth seeing the back of the house. I can make it a short excursion.”
Mary had seen plenty of backs of houses. They were typically a duller version of the front.
“I need to lie down,” Mary said flatly.
Mrs. Boughton looked like she was about to protest but then thought better of it. As the grand staircase did not lead to the second floor (it was covered by a dome) they went up the smaller spiral staircase. Even though Mrs. Boughton had agreed to continue the tour another day, she would not stop talking. There were over a dozen rooms, with one section reserved for visiting relatives. Mrs. Boughton pointed out her own room (“it is close to yours, and I will act as a chaperone until Lady Trafford returns”), and the nursery (“should Mr. Withrow ever choose to marry and produce heirs”), and then she finally brought Mary to the room that would be hers during her stay. Her room was on the north side of the house, the side from which the carriage had approached. From her windows, besides the clearing in front of the house and a glimpse of the road, all Mary could see were trees, some with a few leaves turning their fall colors.
After Mrs. Boughton verified that all of Mary’s cases had been brought up, she left so Mary could rest.
As soon as the door was closed, Mary opened the case with her music and found her error. It was an easy part—how could she have completely forgotten the opening movement? She wanted to return to the pianoforte but stopped herself short of the door. She had used the excuse that she was tired to free herself from the rest of the tour, but now that prohibited her from using the pianoforte. Next time, she should come up with a different polite reason. And next time, she would not decline refreshment after traveling.
Mary lay down on the bed, holding her music to her chest. This castle—no, house—was grander even than Netherfield, where Mr. Bingley had lived for a time. And compared to the residence of the Philipses—well, she should not compare her aunt’s house to this place. Perhaps she should have stayed there, in a place that was familiar, with people who were familiar. At least there she knew her place in the world. Here, more seemed possible, yet it also made her future feel more uncertain. But there was no use in looking back. Her decision had been made, and she would make the best of it.
She set her music to the side and tried falling asleep, but too much afternoon light shone through the window. She rose and walked to the window; instead of closing the curtain, she gazed outside at the walk and the trees. She removed her mourning ring. She read her father’s name and date of death, then flipped the bezel to reveal the clip of hair. She pressed the translucent stone to her lips. Change was inevitable, and death, as the philosophers liked to say, was but a natural part of life. While she would suffer through it with resolve, that did not mean she had to relish her suffering.
A movement—or perhaps a light—caught Mary’s attention. She peered out her window. There, in the trees, a red light flashed, two more times. A minute later the light flashed again, three times. What even made a red light, strong enough to be seen through trees in the daytime?
She waited, but the light did not flash again. Yet a minute or two later, someone walked away from Castle Durrington, towards the light. She recognized his clothes and hair. It was Mr. Withrow.
She tightened her fingers around the fabric of the curtain. Withrow could be engaged in business for the estate, but then why the mysterious red light? It seemed like a signal, a secret signal that most people were not meant to understand.
What he did was none of her concern, yet she could not stifle her curiosity. This was the man who had searched her parents’ room, after all, and she still did not know why he had done so. She might never learn why, but at least she could discover what occupied him now. If Mrs. Boughton questioned her leaving her room, she would simply state that she had received sufficient rest.
Mary took the small spiral staircase down two flights, all the way to the main floor. A servant stood at attention in the front entryway.
“Would you please open the door?” she asked.
He did so, asking, “Where are you going, miss?”
“I need a bit of fresh air,” said Mary. She should not need to justify her movements to Lady Trafford’s servants.
“Are you in need of any assistance?”
“No. I am quite independently minded.”
As she stepped away from the castle, she realized that the servant might report to Withrow that she had left the house. She did not want the servant to know that she was following his master, so she veered to the left, as if she was headed to the side of the house. After a minute she turned back, towards the place in the trees where she had seen the light.
As she neared the trees she slowed. She stepped over branches and around fallen logs, keeping as quiet as possible. She heard voices, not truly audible, and as she neared them, she crouched down into some shrubbery.
She pushed aside a branch and peered at the two figures who stood a bit farther forward. One was unmistakable: it was Withrow. The other took her a moment to place, in part because his presence was so unexpected. The man had a mustache and a beard, which changed the look of his facial structure, and his hair was now a darker color, but despite these changes, Mary recognized him.
Mr. Withrow was meeting with the man who had attempted to steal her family’s mourning rings.
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.
The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet: Book 1, by Katherine Cowley
Tule Publishing (April 22, 2021)
Trade paperback & eBook
Cover image, book description, excerpt, and author bio complements of Tule Publishing © 2020; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com