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

Snobbery with violence

Despite her own origins in a country vicarage, her consistently satiric treatment of social snobs such as Sir Walter Elliot (of Persuasion) and Emma Woodhouse in the novel that bears her name, and her sturdy refusal to draw her heroines from the upper ranks of British nobility so much beloved of the women novelists of her time, Jane Austen is frequently regarded in our own day as a creator of elite novels for elite readers.

This may be due in part to the remarkable dignity of her writing, which translates into a stance that would probably, in the world of haute couture, be recognised as ‘poise’. She is fastidious in her choice of word and phrase, precise and economical in deploying them, so much the literary stylist that her manner is impossible to imitate.

It is no wonder that the many ‘sequels’ to Pride and Prejudice written and published by hopeful Austenians with literary ambitions have tended to fall on their faces with resounding thuds. A great stylist is necessarily a hard act to follow, and Pride and Prejudice, to which sequels have frequently been attempted, raises particular difficulties.

The original work is essentially a novel of its time (the early 19th century). Austen was writing there of a world she knew, and modern sequels, for all their attempts to present authentic recreations of 19th century diction and atmosphere, succeed only in delivering costume drama. Deprived of Austen’s ironic observation, their characters remain as pasteboard figures; without her acute ear their conversations lose depth and nuance. .

Novelists

I cannot be quite certain whether it was Fay Weldon or P.D. James (both British women novelists of our own day) who so far missed Austen’s essential irony and moral seriousness as to go on record with the unfortunate remark that Jane Austen is essentially an “up-market romantic novelist”.

I hope I am quoting correctly. I hope also that it was Weldon who said it: if the remark had been made by James, many Austenians would regard it as a crime much worse than any she has created in her detective novels.

In Death Comes to Pemberley, James, who clearly knows her Austen and is, moreover, an acknowledged expert in the art of writing detective stories, adroitly kills two birds with one well-aimed stone. Romantic novels of the kind marketed by Mills and Boon (whose top sellers this week include Lynne Graham’s The Secrets She Carried, Lynn Raye Harris’s Unnoticed and Untouched, Jennie Lucas’s To Love, Honour and Betray and Melanie Milburne’s His Poor Little Rich Girl are, after all, wildly popular sellers: especially, I regret to say, to a largely uncritical female readership.

Detective fiction, though a much more ‘respectable’ read, is almost equally popular. By combining the two genres in one book, P.D. James, who is a very popular and experienced British writer of detective fiction, smartly plays two winning cards at once, bringing off a double whammy in a work that cannot fail to find buyers.

‘The year is 1803, ’ reads the publisher’s blurb, ‘and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery.

Secure life

Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball.

The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered.’

All the elements that appeal to Janeites are pressed into one inviting paragraph. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet became readers’ favourites as soon as they appeared in print, and the many cinematic versions made of their romantic love/hate relationship in recent times have confirmed their status as the world’s literary sweethearts.

We are pleased to learn that their marriage is both happy and fruitful – did we ever doubt that it would be? - and look forward to meeting again Elizabeth’s sisters Jane and Lydia, who are important characters in the Austen novel and are due to make an appearance in this one.

Even the “shades of Pemberley” are evoked, in the reference to a ‘wild woodland’, and many readers of that other female novelist Daphne du Maurier would recognise an allusion to a key scene in Rebecca in Pemberley’s ‘annual ball’.

Finally, in a climactic sentence, we are promised a sensational event of the kind that Austen herself carefully omitted from her books, but no crime novel that deserves its name can possibly do without: a delectably violent and bloody murder.

Who dunnit? Of course, this reviewer will not spoil the suspense by revealing the answer, or even by hinting at one. We authors must stick together, and support one another. Let us look, instead, at some of the book’s most attractive features.

One of these is the author’s talent for credibly filling in ‘blanks’ in the original (Mary Bennet, for example, finds a clerical husband, and Georgiana Darcy a suitable admirer). James even indulges in some playful intertextual games, establishing links between one Austen novel and another.

A good example of this occurs at the novel’s end, when ‘Georgie’, an orphaned child on the Pemberley estate, finds a ‘home’ with Robert and Harriet Martin at the Abbey Mill farm. Remember Harriet? She was the ‘pretty little friend’ of Emma Woodhouse in Emma, and ‘Mrs Emma Knightley’, now the chatelaine of Donwell but still Harriet’s friend, gives this charitable adoption her particular patronage.

Authors love playing games of this kind, for their own pleasure and the entertainment of their readers.

( P.G. Wodehouse does it with a single, glancing allusion in Something Fresh that links the Woosters with Lord Emsworth’s family at Blandings Castle.)

It is interesting, and probably significant, that the only links Austen seems to have established for her own books tie them, not to other books, her own or anyone else’s, but to real life. Visiting a portrait gallery in London, she amused herself on one occasion by looking for a portrait of ‘Mrs Darcy’. Finding none that could satisfy her, she wrote to her sister Cassandra that Mr Darcy’s admiration of his wife probably made him reluctant to expose her features to the gaze of strangers!

Readers play games, too. Who is the reader of Austen who has not amused him/herself by looking into the fictional future, picturing those unexpected visits paid by Mr Bennett to his son-in-law’s library at Pemberley, inventing fireside conversations at Hartfield between George and Emma Knightley as Mr Woodhouse sips his bowl of ‘wholesome’ thin gruel, or imagining Anne Wentworth enjoying the fresh sea breezes on the deck of a sailing ship bound for the Antipodes?

Constructing credible plots is, of course, a crime-writer’s stock in trade, and in this area James can have very few rivals. But she is also good at providing alternative points of view, as when she outlines Meryton society’s cynical opinion of the Elizabeth/Darcy love-match.

What her book does not do, alas, despite the publisher’s claims to the contrary, is to satisfactorily provide either ‘psychological and emotional richness of characterisation’ or ‘a pitch-perfect recreation of the world of Pride and Prejudice’.

But perhaps we should not expect too much. A great stylist is necessarily a hard act to follow. It is no wonder that the many ‘sequels’ to Pride and Prejudice written and published by hopeful Austenians with literary ambitions have tended to fall on their faces with resounding thuds.

A great stylist is necessarily a hard act to follow, and Pride and Prejudice, to which sequels have frequently been attempted, raises particular difficulties.

The original work is essentially a novel of its time (the early 19th century). Austen was writing there of a world she knew, and modern sequels, for all their attempts to present authentic recreations of 19th century diction and atmosphere, succeed only in delivering costume drama. Deprived of Austen’s ironic observation, their characters remain as pasteboard figures; without her acute ear their conversations lose depth and nuance.

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