‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D.James


2011, 310 p

I can remember as a (much) younger reader experiencing a kind of grief when I finished a book where I had fallen in love with the main characters.  What pleasure I took in series of books where you could meet up with them again! I must admit that I rarely feel that way today (one exception is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie character) and I’ve decided that I can’t remember characters well enough between books and their sequels to read them in real time – I’m better off waiting until a trilogy is done and dusted and then gorging on it in one big reading feast.

But the frequent re-reading of classics is another matter entirely and Jane Austen in particular rewards frequent re-reading. And, as many canny authors have found, there are rewards in re-writing Jane Austen as well.  I’m not particularly attracted to the Jane Austen zombie mash-ups (or mash-ups of any kind, for that matter) but when one comes from the pen of P. D. James, that’s different.  Although I am not, admittedly, a great detective fan, P. D. James herself is a great Jane Austen fan, as she explains in this video.  James’ own introduction to the book reflects her sense of humility and presumption in even endeavouring to marry her love of Jane Austen and the murder investigation genre in the book that follows:

I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’ No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.

The scenario is this:  Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily ensconced at Pemberley for the past six years where Elizabeth has duly delivered two Darcy heirs.  It is the eve of the traditional Pemberley ball instituted by Darcy’s mother Lady Anne.  Sweet Jane and Bingley have arrived early, Darcy’s sister Georgiana is fending off two suitors in Colonel Fitzwilliam and the young lawyer Mr Alveston,  the silver is being polished and the house is crackling with anticipation. Suddenly the preparations are disrupted by Elizabeth’s younger sister Lydia Wickham, arriving unannounced and hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered in the nearby wood.  He hasn’t , but his friend Captain Denny has.  I shall go no further: if you have read the book, you’ll enjoy John Crace’s ‘digested read’ from the Guardian here.

I was interested to see how (and if) P.D. James was going to pull this off.  The need to provide background information entangled the book in several places. She starts by a prologue that briefly encapsulates Pride and Prejudice should there be any reader absent from planet Earth in the last forty years who has missed both the reprints and the frequent film versions- does such a soul exist?  The backgrounding completed, she then launches into her own trajectory, in a voice that echoes Austen’s writing with long, convoluted but controlled sentences but a sad dearth of the cutting, clear-eyed quip that Austen-readers so enjoy.   There are sly Austenesque references to Austen’s own oeuvre, most particularly Mansfield Park, and nods and winks to the original book, but often the clumsy backgrounding sections make you aware as an Austen-savvy reader that you are eavesdropping on a rather laboured explanation to other readers that you’d rather not have to sit through.

Conversely,  there is also P.D. James’ need as a  writer to mould the expectations of her own crime-writing fans by warning that the timing of this book predates the rise of the detective and a paid constabulary.  And so we see Darcy, who was himself a magistrate and surely familiar with such matters, intently listening to the lawyer Alveston’s explanation of the courtroom procedure and strategies and again, as a reader, you become aware of the backgrounding nuts-and-bolts that James is tightening as author.

However, as an aspiring historian of nineteenth century English legal practice- and does a historian ever stop reading as a historian?- I was impressed by her fidelity to the role of the magistrate in pre-Peelite policing days and her sensitivity to early 19th century  courtroom procedure, most particularly the nature of evidence and Wickham’s statement to the court.  All of this involved James relinquishing those stand-bys of the modern crime genre and as such, testifies to her careful research, no doubt bolstered by her work on the true crime non-fiction book The Maul and the Pear Tree which she co-authored with historian T. A. Critchley.  The crime itself and its motivations, while rather insipid by modern standards, faithfully reflect 19th century moral standards .

My qualms come not with P. D. James as crime writer, but with P. D. James as Austen fan. I was perhaps most disappointed by the flatness of the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy and wondered if, perhaps, Elizabeth HAD been taken over by a zombie after all.  The Elizabeth Darcy of this book admits that she would not have married a poor man, and weights young Georgiana’s choices between love and status equally on the scale of marriage choices.  She’s an insipid shadow of her feisty self.

This all sounds rather negative, which I don’t intend.  The thing that I enjoyed most about this book was the sense of  rather wicked glee that comes through when P.D. James reveals herself as Austen fan, talking back to Jane Austen herself.  Here she is, as Elizabeth thinks back to Darcy’s two proposals: the first rather insulting proposal, and the second request for her love, made a day later, just after she had learned of Lydia’s elopement:

It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour… If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?  (p.50)

It’s a question that James herself seeks to answer in the epilogue as Darcy unburdens himself over the same issue: “But how could you believe me altered? How could any rational creature?” (p. 307).  I don’t know if James’ answer satisfies completely, but I enjoyed the interchange.

I received this book in my face-to-face bookgroup (AKA ‘The Ladies who Say Ooooh”) where at our December meeting we anonymously lend a book that we have enjoyed, knowing that it will be returned to us. After giving our response to the book, we then try to guess who donated it.  I think I know who donated it.  I’ll say that in spite of my qualms, I enjoyed reading this response to Pride and Prejudice written by an honest fan, who brings her own wealth of literary skill (and sound historical research) to the challenge.  I don’t think it will propel me towards the zombies though.

Other reviews:  Hah! Try to find a review of the book when the mini-series has been screen just days earlier!!  Probably the best review that I’ve read is by our own Whispering Gums, a true Janeite!

One response to “‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D.James

  1. That’s great praise indeed, thanks RJ. And thanks too for your commentary on the historical aspects, an area I more or less took as read rather than knowing exactly whether she got it right.

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