The Big Idea: Katherine Cowley
Appearances are deceiving. This is especially true in Katherine Cowley’s newest novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet. Dive in to her Big Idea, and learn how there can be more to a person than shows on the surface.
The first time I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I was eleven years old. Though I don’t remember much about that reading, I apparently liked the book, because I read it again a few months later.
By my mid-twenties, I had reread Pride and Prejudice several times and watched multiple film adaptations. (I value my life, so please no one tell the Keira Knightley haters that I prefer the 2005 film version.)
As often happens in fiction, I found myself drawn to the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet. Not only does the narrator give us an inside perspective on a protagonist’s thoughts and choices, which creates a natural draw, but there was so much I admired about Elizabeth specifically. She loves books, she is witty and clever, she can be defiant of authority figures, and she’s insistent on making her own way. And of course, she gets her happy ending. What is not to love about Elizabeth?
But in 2013, as I re-watched the 2005 film I noticed—actually noticed and focused on—her younger sister Mary. While the other four Bennet sisters are all beautiful or clever or silly or popular, Mary is the forgotten, often-overlooked middle child. People laugh at her and mock her and demean her. She either says the wrong thing, or she cannot come up with anything to say at all.
Poor teenage Mary Bennet. If she lived up to the expectations of those around her, she would end up an awkward spinster living with one of her married sisters and being laughed at for the things she says and how she plays the pianoforte.
By the end of the film (which admittedly does flanderize Mary, playing up her awkwardness more than Austen does in the novel), I made the decision that everyone was wrong. Mary Bennet was more than everyone around her thought.
But if that was the case, who was she really? And what would she go on to do?
I could not stop pondering these questions. And one of the things that helped me clarify my thoughts was—believe it or not—social media.
Because I’m an older Millennial, social media did not really exist in its current iteration when I graduated from high school. (No regrettable teenage photos of me and my peers forever entombed on the Internet—yay!) I lost track of most of my classmates from the two high schools I attended, except for the handful of people I occasionally emailed or lived close enough to meet up with. But once Facebook and Twitter became too big to ignore, I got accounts and was suddenly social media friends with everyone I had known years before.
While there are numerous problems with social media, one thing I was struck by was how many people had defied everyone’s expectations.
In the high schools I attended, there were plenty of individuals who, as teenagers, were overlooked and forgotten. Some were mocked or bullied. Others were circumscribed by the many categories we use to define people (the soccer girls, the druggies, the funny kids, the band kids, etc.).
Now, as adults, a lot of these people had moved past these categories and the often-confining restrictions that came with them. And seeing this brought me joy.
Ultimately, this turned into the Big Idea for my book: who you are and how people perceive you when you are fifteen, eighteen, thirty-five, or seventy-two, does not determine who you really are and what you can do with your life.
As I considered this, I began to focus on the positive side of Mary Bennet’s traits. She’s a deep thinker, even if she doesn’t always express herself fully. She’s inquisitive, observant, and aware. And the fact that she often goes unnoticed? Well, in some cases going unnoticed is desirable.
Like, for instance, if you are a spy.
I knew, at that moment, that I had figured it out: Mary Bennet was a spy for the British government.
The idea simmered in my mind for years, as many of my ideas do. Then, in 2017, I decided that I was going to turn it into a book. And so I wrote a story about how Mary Bennet solves a murder mystery.
My book has a dead body on the seashore, a mysterious castle that’s not actually a castle but is built to look like one, clandestine meetings, a grand ball, beautiful dresses and ragged cloaks, and the ever-present fear of Napoleon Bonaparte invading Britain.
Yet ultimately, the book is about Mary setting aside the expectations of those around her and becoming the person that she wants to be.