Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years and are about to put on the annual autumn ball at Pemberley, Darcy’s ancestral seat in Derbyshire. It’s 1803, Britain’s wars against Napoleon have just begun and in this period of national uncertainty a chaise draws up outside the house and Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s wayward sister, tumbles out shrieking that her husband has just been murdered in the woods.

Thus begins the whodunit aspect of James’ story, involving all the classic elements — post mortem examination, reconstruction, inquest, suspects, red herrings, murder trial, late information, surprise outcome — that are expected in crime fiction. To detail these would be to give away too much, but that James is an accomplished crime writer is more than confirmed by this part of the book; her experiences both as a magistrate and working in the Home Office give the procedural aspects of the murder investigation — the legal considerations and the court proceedings — a sense of authenticity. It’s also interesting that her co-authored non-fiction study, The Maul and the Pear Tree, dealt with some infamous Regency murders which occurred in 1811, two years before the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and raises the likelihood that the investigations and courtroom scenes of Death Comes to Pemberley were informed by her research into the cold case of the Ratcliffe Highway murders.

The metaphorical bookends to the action are the prologue and epilogue, and these represent the core of James’ exploration of the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship. The prologue is a summary of developments since the marriage in 1797, mostly from the point of view of Elizabeth and focusing on the rest of the Bennets. To be honest, even for lovers of Pride and Prejudice, this drags a bit and — even worse — gives voice to the common gossip that Lizzy was a bit of a cold-blooded gold-digger where Darcy and Pemberley were concerned. What’s interesting is that as the novel proceeds we get to find out more about Darcy, and the kind of proactive things he did offstage, as it were, in Pride and Prejudice now move centre stage; and when we get to the epilogue he becomes strangely confessional. Conversely, Lizzy takes more and more of a back seat while still retaining both the sensitive and sensible characteristics we prized in Austen’s original. I’m not sure the two aspects — sequel and crime novel — gel too well, but I like James’ attempt to give some closure to aspects of relationships which hung like loose threads at the end of the original novel, such as how Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Burgh get on after Lizzy’s besting of Darcy’s insufferable aunt.

Other enjoyable aspects of this follow-up are the re-appearance of characters like the inestimable housekeeper Mrs Reynolds and the mysterious Mrs Younge, plus the introduction of new figures such as the bluff Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, a fellow magistrate of Darcy’s. Other figures, both familiar and unfamiliar, flit in and out, but very few seem to have a significance beyond a walk-on-walk-off part.

The two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice may well be rounded off onscreen by the dramatisation of Death Comes to Pemberley but James’ original novel of 2011 is a better place to revisit the world of Longbourn and Pemberley and to find, as the author puts it, ‘fresh insights and delights’.

I ought to say a little bit about the language that James uses, and here I’m going to presume by being critical of a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. At one point she uses the tautological phrase ‘querulous complaining’, a slip that I find surprising. She also puts words into the mouths of her characters that seem anachronistic, even if a check of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary shows they were not unknown at the time. For example, one character is described as a ‘paradigm’ where I suspect ‘paragon’ would be more apt; ‘unconscious’ might be more appropriately replaced by ‘incognizant’; and while ‘job’ was certainly not unknown in Regency times I’m sure that ’employment’ would be the term that would have been used in the social context she describes. But who am I to quibble…

10 thoughts on “Two enthusiasms combined

  1. I am an easy mark for Austen sequels (Eliza’s Daughter, Jane Fairfax, etc.), but how happy it makes me when they are actually GOOD! Joan Aiken and PD James make me feel like this little weakness of mine might actually be a worthwhile pursuit. I wonder why Jane’s work feels so personal (see, we’re on a first-name basis) and somehow invites sequels, while, say, Dickens does not. Or maybe there are Dickens fan-fictions out there, and I simply am not interested in “what happens next.” Or what happened before. Or what’s going on with that minor character…
    Tone is such a tricky thing, however, and with these books that we have occupied for so long it seems impossible for a sequel to completely feel right.


    1. You’re spot on, Kimberly, and maybe my expectations were a little too high for this sequel, but I did enjoy the procedural sections even if the Elizabeth/Darcy backstory update left me a little cold.

      I’m looking forward to reading more original Austen, and then maybe it’ll be time to tackle the Joan Aiken novels — I’ve already got Jane Fairfax waiting…


  2. I am in two minds about this one. I admire both writers, but I cannot imagine James’s style or the genre allowing for the story to retain the charm of the Austen touch. Sequels are a risky business at the best of times, and even more so from the nib of a different pen.


    1. I’m glad I read this, even though I don’t think it 100% successful as a mash-up of the two genres.

      Sequels ‘from the nib of a different pen’ on paper sounds a bad idea — questions of style (such as will it be a slavish copy or, worst, a pastiche), character development (will one’s view of a favourite character be ruined forever, for example) or plot (potentially disappointing) make one fear for the end result.

      But then authors didn’t always do follow-up stories well either … especially pulp authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs (hardly any of the Tarzan stories equals the first in quality or innovation, for all its faults).


  3. I really enjoyed this book, though I had some of the same quibbles you did about characters and language. It’s easily the best of the Austen “sequels” I’ve ever read, though.

    Thanks also for the heads-up on the BBC mini-series. It looks intriguing, though, as you said, a bit over-dramatic. I’ll keep an eye out for it on this side of the Atlantic. Cheers, and Happy New Year!


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! We recently finished watching the BBC mini-series and, though it took liberties with the text and the times, I thought it worked very well, in some ways being better than the book — which I wasn’t expecting.

      And I hope your 2014 brings the happiness you hope for,


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