From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Few who have read Pride and Prejudice can forget Mary Bennet. The middle sister among five daughters, she is a minor character in Jane Austen’s classic with only a few scenes, and fewer lines of dialogue. Her unaccomplished pianoforte playing and singing at the Netherfield ball were an unwelcome embarrassment to her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth. She is plain and preachy and pedantic—a comedic ruse by Austen to offset the seriousness of scenes.
Transformation & New Adventure
Author Katherine Cowley has embraced that tedious creature and given her a new life as a British spy. Mary a spy, you ask in astonishment. Indeed. We were introduced to her transformation in the first book in the series, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet (2021). We were amazed and delighted. Now Cowley has given Mary another adventure set during the London Season of 1814, a perfect cover for a young lady who must investigate the murder of a government messenger.
A Spy in Training
Invited to stay with her older sister Elizabeth Darcy, Mary is more interested in the fact that Parliament is in session than dancing at balls. She still has much to learn about being a spy, but with the previous training of Lady Trafford, the guidance of Mr. William Stanley, and the assistance of fellow student Miss Fanny Cramer, she is determined to succeed. Also staying with the Darcys is Georgiana Darcy and Mary’s younger, flighty sister Kitty.
“All the balls and the dancing and the shops…think of the fun we shall have together. Maybe we will even find you an officer.” The last officer Mary had danced with had been a murderer, which dampened the already limited appeal that officers had held for Mary.” (27)
Tasked with investigating the murder of Oliver Rice, Mary must discover his ties to three radical members of parliament who wish to revolutionize the government. Conveniently, Rice’s married sister Selena König lives next door to the Darcys and Mary secures an introduction to the family. Shortly after, the Darcys, Georgiana, Kitty, and Mary dine with the Königs, further opening connections and future introductions to people on Mary’s list of suspects.
Off to a Ball
Georgiana encourages Mary to accept invitations to balls that the family will be attending. Mary agrees, seeing that the events will provide her with opportunities for espionage. During her first ball, instead of dancing and flirting like Georgiana and Kitty, Mary requests an introduction by Mr. Darcy to Sir Francis Burdett, a radical on her list who she must engage in conversation and earn his trust.
“…you spend a significant portion of the essay describing what you see as attacks on the rights and liberties of the English people.” Sir Burdett nodded patiently. “You also talk about these events as attacks on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.” He nodded again. “But as I read the Magna Carta itself, it seemed to me that it really was not offering the same freedoms as we have today.” Mary realised that she had found the thrust of her critique and spoke more quickly now. “In fact, it spoke specifically about giving…” (53)
Meanwhile, Georgiana reveals a romantic interest in new acquaintance, Mr. Johnstone, a widower on the wrong side of 45. He is also on Mary’s list of suspects so this could work to her advantage. When the ball concludes, most young ladies would be discussing dancing partners and competitors’ frocks, but Mary’s reflections to her sister on her first London ball are entirely different.
“It was quite invigorating,” said Mary. “I conversed with a number of interesting people, and I had the opportunity to observe and reflect on a wide range of human behaviour.” (65)
On the Town
With the help of her associate Fanny Cramer, who is undercover in the Darcy household as Mary’s maid, she visits London sites, attends an Ice Fair on the Thames, and spies on the radicals when they meet at a French restaurant during her duties to uncover the killer.
Cowley cleverly uses and expands upon Mary’s idiosyncrasies and foibles. Her proclivity for reading and her manner of speech are exemplified in her discussions with her suspects. Imagine being introduced at a ball to an important political figure like Sir Francis and within moments grilling him on his speech on the Magna Carta! This passage made me laugh out loud. Cowley had captured the pedantic geekiness of Mary Bennet perfectly. Who indeed would suspect such a young lady of being a British spy? It is a brilliant, ironic flip to our previous impressions of Austen’s character—and a delightful, sardonic twist that the original author would delight in. There are many more moments such as this throughout the novel which makes it special and entertaining.
Reverent, Stylish, and Captivating
Many of the political personalities and events in the story are based on historical fact, notably Lord Cochrane who inspired the book and the film Master and Commander. For those who enjoyed the Patrick O’Brien novel and the Peter Weir film, you will be pleased to read an account of his sea battle tactics against the French and Spanish in chapter seven, prompted by the inquisitive Miss Bennet, of course! The use of newspaper epigraphs to start each chapter was insightful and enjoyable. We can only imagine the research involved in finding the perfect passage and we suspect that Cowley is a bit of a Mary Bennet herself. There were some points where the historical details slowed down the plot, but they soon passed. Cowley captured and expanded upon Austen’s characters with reverence and style, her depictions of 1814 London during an extreme frost were atmospheric, and the mystery elements were complex, clever and captivating.
The True Confessions of a London Spy will appeal to those who enjoyed the Being a Jane Austen Mystery series by Stephanie Barron. Both draw upon real lives, social events, and history to frame their mystery narrative. We especially appreciated the message of this story—that we all have gifts, and if given the right environment and support, we can achieve our heart’s desire.
Of the many Mary Bennet makeover novels out there, and there are dozens, Cowley has crafted a story to admire and cherish. The third book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception releases on September 6th.
5 out of 5 Stars
- The True Confessions of a London Spy: The Secret Life of Mary Bennet (Book 2), by Katherine Cowley
- Tule Publishing Group (March 1, 2022)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (348)
- ISBN: 978-1956387230
- Genre: Austenesque, Historical Mystery
We purchased a copy of the book for our own enjoyment. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Tule Publishing Group © 2022; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.