Tonight’s book review, of Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James is brought to you by Beryl Belsky of The Writer’s Drawer.
Synopsis of P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (London: Faber & Faber, 2011)
The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband Bingley live nearby and the orderly world of Pemberley seems unassailable. But all this is threatened when, on the eve of the annual autumn ball, the guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia Wickham – Elizabeth’s younger, unreliable sister – stumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.
Inspired by a lifelong passion for the work of Jane Austen, PD James masterfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, and combines it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly-crafted crime story. Death Comes to Pemberley is a distinguished work of fiction, from one of the best-loved, most- read writers of our time.
“It is a truth not universally acknowledged that a classic novel is not in want of a sequel” – these lines, penned by John Crace, preface his scathing “digested read” of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. Those who are familiar with Jane Austen will, of course, recognize them as a parody of the opening of her most famous novel Pride and Prejudice. And, naturally, it is not Austen that Crace is mocking but P.D. James for daring to attempt to write a story using the characters and setting from this hallowed work.
The characters, manners and surroundings might be based on Austen, but the story is most definitely not. Austen would never have dreamed of writing a crime novel (in fact, James apologizes to her in her Author’s Note) and would have known nothing about such things. But P.D. James does. In fact, all her writing life, which covers many decades (she is now in her early 90s), was devoted to this genre, and many of books (Cover Her Face, Shroud for a Nightingale, The Black Tower, to name a few) were adapted for film and television. However, in order to write a murder mystery that takes place in the early 19th century she must have conducted some research into how crime was investigated in those times. Who carried out such investigations? How did the legal system work? Who exactly were the magistrates and other officials? What did an inquest entail? How was a trial conducted? What was known about forensic medicine?
So James has implanted a murder mystery in a Jane Austen setting, although it is not the first time murder has come to Pemberley. In The Phantom of Pemberley: A Pride and Prejudice Murder Mystery, published by Regina Jeffers a year before James’ book, several strange deaths take place and Darcy himself is forced to be the investigator. Does James’ endeavor work? The answer is, in large part. For Austen lovers, it is always a pleasure to return to her characters, although Elizabeth, in particular, is a somewhat pale version of the original. Her sardonic wit seems to have been submerged by the weight of responsibility and duties of running Pemberley. Married life has turned her into a matron, with two young boys (who, of course, have a full-time governess), and she and Darcy − whose character is actually less two-dimensional than in the original − appear to have settled into a busy but contented life, close to sister Jane and Jane’s beloved Bingley, until, of course, murder strikes.
It is only appropriate that those who disturb the peace and orderliness of Pemberley are none other than the wayward daughter of the Bennet family, Lydia, and her infamous husband Mr. Wickham. Lydia’s unwelcome arrival, followed by Wickham, the main suspect in the murder, launches a lengthy and detailed investigation, inquest and trial, involving the main as well as minor characters, such as servants and tenants living on the estate, local magistrates and police, and other sundry characters. Some might find all this tedious, but Austen’s novels weren’t exactly fast-paced and James’ treatment is therefore relatively faithful to Austen.
As a detective novel, Death Comes to Pemberley may not be as successful as James’ other crime works, and may not appeal to some of her fans. But combining the 18th-19th century genteelness and mannerisms of Austen with the messiness of murder is quite a daunting task, which she does a heroic job of overcoming. Another problem is her rehashing of the original Pride and Prejudice in the early pages of the book. James is unsure whether all her readers will be familiar with it and therefore seeks devices (such as Elizabeth daydreaming back to her days at Longbourn) by which she can retell the story. To Austen lovers this might seem redundant, and to James’ lovers, tedious and perplexing – although some of the revisiting consists of James’ own interpretations and expansions (such as the views of Meryton locals on Elizabeth’s marriage).
However, short cameos of some of the other figures from Pride and Prejudice are quite true to character and could even have been penned by Austen herself. Elizabeth recalls a visit to Pemberley of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who accompanied her on a call to the seriously ill son of a tenant on the estate. As they leave the cottage, Darcy’s aunt delivers a monologue on the art of dying: “I have never approved of protracted dying,” she pontificates. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.” The long-suffering Mr. Bennet, who arrives at Pemberley in order to boost the male presence in their hour of need, explains his arrival in a humble hired chaise instead of the family coach as due to Mrs. Bennet’s need to spread the word of Wickham’s latest exploits around Meryton. And although Austen’s characters never expanded on their political views, the opinion of a local magistrate Dr. Josiah Clitheroe, invented by James, on the role of gentlemen in England could almost be called Austenesque. “The peace and security of England,” he states, “depends on gentlemen living in their homes as good landlords and masters… If the aristocrats of France lived thus, there would never have been a revolution.”
Overall, Austen lovers will enjoy this return to Pemberley, and might even relish the added dimension of mystery and foreboding hanging over the estate. On the other hand, the genteel Austenesque pace, the lengthy descriptions, the continual references to the original story, and those characters and manners so familiar to and beloved of Austen fans, might be elements that will deter adherents of the detective genre. Moreover, the epilogue, in which Darcy has a heart to heart with Elizabeth and tries to explain and apologize for his deplorable behavior to her, to Jane and to his sister Georgiana could better serve as a fitting conclusion to Pride and Predudice. But, you never know, maybe those unfamiliar with Austen will be so intrigued they will be tempted to delve into one of her novels.
This review was originally posted on http://www.thewritersdrawer.net/pemberley-review.html
Beryl Belsky is a graduate in East Asian studies (Japanese) and political science from the Australian National University, and works as an academic editor.
She was born in Eire, grew up in Australia, and currently lives in Israel.
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