Death Comes to Pemberley

I have just finished reading P. D. James’s latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley. Of course I have always loved Pride and Prejudice, and I am also a keen reader of James’s detective novels, so this was a real treat for me. Sequels are a difficult thing, especially sequels to classic novels such as Austen’s (and I gather there have been over 70 sequels written – I read one or two years ago, and they were ghastly). But this isn’t just a sequel: while the characters are the same, developed into later lives, so that we see Darcy and Elizabeth married with children, it does something quite different: it takes one genre and transforms it into another. It’s almost like really, really good fan fiction, because James uses Austen’s characters in their own setting but in a plot quite unlike anything Austen would ever have dreamed of.

We see the peaceful tranquility of Pemberley as the home of the Darcys, preparing for a ball, before the peace is shattered by the arrival of Lydia, claiming that her husband, Wickham, has been killed. It transpires that it is not Wickham but his friend, Denny, who has been killed in the woods near Pemberley, and Wickham is charged with his murder. The novel focuses on unravelling the mystery, and in the process we see how James has matured and refocused Austen’s characters, and this works well. There are even characters mentioned at the end of the novel who have escaped from Emma. It is, in many ways, a country-house murder mystery (though there is no real detective figure), except that of course readers already have a history with these characters, and are clearly expected to draw on what we already know about them (although this is also signposted in a way which would be helpful for those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice). It’s very cleverly done: James mimics Austen’s tone very well indeed; for example:

‘It is generally accepted that divine service affords a legitimate opportunity to assess not only the appearance, deportment, elegance and possible wealth of new arrivals to the parish, but the demeanour of any of their neighbours known to be in an interesting situation, ranging from pregnancy to bankruptcy.’

Those characters who were verging on caricature in Austen’s novel cross the boundary into full-on cartoons here, and provide some amusement; Mr Collins, the obsequious curate, is well-drawn here; and a letter from Lady Catherine de Bourgh is particularly hilarious. Lady Catherine also provides almost Wildean aphorisms, such as ‘I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.’ James remains aware of the problems of writing Austen, though, and doesn’t overstep the mark; this is, after all, a book which Austen wouldn’t have written, and deals with a subject matter of which the Janeites may not approve – there is more blood than in an Austen novel, for a start. So James sends up herself, and Austen (kindly) by making us aware of the problems of fiction:

‘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?’

By writing in a different genre, James is not pretending to be Austen, and she is not taking herself to seriously – after all, murder mysteries are escapist fiction. This is a relief: the problem of other sequels is that they do take themselves seriously, and fall flat. And Austen’s characters could roam around a sequel without a purpose, looking for a new home and failing to settle, were they not engaged in the business of murder and trials. This is not by any means the best of James’s novels – after all, apart from anything else she is constrained by what is reasonable for these familiar characters to do – and the plot moves a little slowly, and is a bit thin, but for all that it’s a highly enjoyable read, and offers a chance to see how versatile James’s writing is, and how meticulous her research and how accurate her ear for natural-sounding period dialogue.

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