Sunday, 10 June 2012

Death Comes To Pemberley, by P.D. James

There are no lack of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs in the world, none of which I have bothered to read. What sets this one apart is its author: P.D. James, who has written best selling crime novels in a career spanning fifty years. She wasn’t an early starter either: she is the same age as my grandfather - nearly 92. I’ve not read her novels before - crime is not my favourite genre - but a writer of this calibre taking on Jane Austen’s world got my interest.

Set six years after Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are happily married with two small children (boys - the Darcy estate is safe). Elizabeth has adjusted to being the lady of the house at such a grand estate as Pemberley. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and Mr Bennet is a frequent, and welcome visitor, to their home. Dastardly Wickham and Lydia are most certainly not welcome at Pemberley. Georgiana is yet unmarried, though some suitors may be on the horizon. In short, everything is orderly and respectable. The household is busily engaged in preparations for the annual ball, one of the highlights of the local social scene, when, late at night, a carriage arrives at the house. A murder has been committed, throwing the previously orderly, happy home into uncertainty and chaos.

James invokes a strong sense of era, and her dialogue feels both natural and appropriate to the period. As this is a crime novel it encompasses aspects of Austen’s society we don’t see in her books. The body is examined by the local doctor, with what I assume is cutting edge skill for the time. There is an inquest, and then a trial, where we can see the foundations for the court system we know today. I am sure James has researched thoroughly, and these sections of the book work well. James introduces a young lawyer, Henry Alveston, who voices some rather liberal views in regards to women, mentioning Mary Woolstonecraft. Austen’s world is taken out of the parlour - the nineteenth century has arrived.

Much of the action at Pemberley, and indeed the murder itself, take place in an area of woodland on the estate. It is inhabited by an elderly servant, Thomas Bidwell, and his family, and while not otherwise neglected, it is considered wild in comparison to the rest of Pemberley. This is partly because of a family legacy: Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide there, an act that has weighed heavily on the family for generations. There are of course ghost stories associated with the woodland. All this adds a gothic element to the book, a genre that Austen herself satirised brilliantly in Northanger Abbey. It works though, partly because James keeps it fairly subtle. The slight shifts in mood as the woods and weather close in when Elizabeth and Darcy find themselves in the woodlands give a lovely sense of the claustrophobia, and volatility, of both their physical surroundings and their situation.

For any potential readers out there, I don’t think this will in any way effect how I perceive the characters when I reread Pride & Prejudice. The style of the novel is too different, while I know they are the same as Austen’s characters, and James does write well, they don’t have the same feel. Nonetheless the book is written with skill and wit. It is a fairly light read, and enjoyable. I did find myself wondering why, other than that she is well established enough, and old enough to do whatever the hell she likes, James chose to write this book. I usually associate unofficial sequels with authors who can’t create their own worlds, not with someone with a proven track record of doing exactly that. While setting it in Austen’s world adds a sense of fun to the novel, much of the plot could be as well served by a story of James’s own creation. The one way the novel felt - at only a few moments to be fair - flat, was in scenes where characters are explaining their actions in Pride & Prejudice. I didn’t understand why Darcy would feel the need to explain to Elizabeth behaviour of six years earlier; especially as this is largely done through expository dialogue, it felt a bit clunky. Also, why would we be interested in James’s interpretation of events? I feel that filling in those gaps ourselves is often part of the joy of reading. Interestingly I listened to an interview online in which she discussed some aspects of Pride & Prejudice that had puzzled her, and that she wanted to explain. It is very deliberate, but I think it would be a stronger book without these sections.

If you are only ever going to read one sequel to a Jane Austen this is probably the one to read. Of course it doesn’t compare to one of the best loved novels of all time, but it does stand on its own two feet as a novel in its own right. James has wisely not written a romance; by writing in a different genre she is able to bring something new to the world of Elizabeth and Darcy. The crime aspect is fittingly ungrisly for the most part, and I thought the gothic aspects worked particularly well. A few quibbles aside, it is an entertaining read.

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