(‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ – P D James – Faber and Faber (2011)
(One of the many sequels to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)
I approached ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ – in paperback, not Kindle – with trepidation. I don’t do sequels written by some B list author trying to swell her coffers by piggy-backing on to a well-known classic – usually ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In fact, Jane Austen must shudder in heaven (where she will be, seeing as she was reputed to be sweet and saintly) at the large number of apocryphas to this particular work. But I was given this book for Christmas and this was P D James – my best eighteenth century author meets my best twentieth century author.
Well, dear Reader, I was captivated from the first page, because I was drawn into a story about the familiar characters. The book started with a prologue, which was not just a summary but an analysis of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and finished with an epilogue… about which more later. P D James has got into Jane Austen’s characters at least as thoroughly as Jane herself, and, although she developed some of them, Darcy in particular, she did so sympathetically, with no need embellishment, Hollywood fashion. With the exception of Mrs Bennett, Mary and Kitty (and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Collinses, who appeared through their letters only) they were all there, and, although new characters were introduced, none of them figured for very long. Jane nee Bennett now Bingley remained generous and unable to believe ill of anyone. Wickham was still a charming womaniser, although he had now become a war hero. Lydia appeared – very briefly – screaming hysterically that Wickham had been murdered. He hadn’t, but the publishers still mentioned this passage in the blurb on the back cover, which was misleading. I longed for Lydia to return to the page, because P D James, who had her worrying about her dress for Lady Anne’s Ball while Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam searched for Wickham’s body, brought her to life even more so than Jane Austen had – loud, in-your-face, a possible ‘Big Brother’ contestant, I thought.
Regarding Elizabeth, the author made two assertions without any supporting basis from Jane Austen’s text: that Elizabeth was not liked in Meryton because she affected not to like Darcy and then married him, and that she wouldn’t have had him had he not been wealthy. I’m not sure about either of these, but, having got this off her chest, she then allowed us to enjoy with Elizabeth the pleasures of being chatelaine of Pemberley, ordering the household and the visiting the tenants. It was also a pity P D James had to demystify Darcy – he who should always remain aloof and distant – but, as so much of the story was written from his point of view, this was inevitable. In this book Darcy is shown to be emotionally dependent on Elizabeth, and, because he is honest and decent, making some uncomfortable choices. For schoolgirls and Bridget Jones, Darcy lost much of his sex appeal, but he has now grown up, into a husband and father.
So far, so good. P D James set up her plot perfectly, with many hooks which kept me turning the pages, but, as I worked my way through the last third, it all started to unravel. Wickham (not dead) leans over Denny’s body saying “He’s dead. Oh God, Denny’s dead. He was my friend, my only friend and I’ve killed him. I’ve killed him and it’s my fault.” but Darcy and the others don’t believe him, for no substantive reason, and we readers are also encouraged to overlook his confession. The plot then heads rapidly to a trial at the Old Bailey, but the writing here lacks excitement, even with the twist after the verdict, which requires another hundred words, including the Epilogue, to fit in all the necessary details. This is not the sort of stuff Adam Dalgliesh handled. It’s muddled and confused.
In addition, the question of who Georgiana Darcy would marry was bigged up in the first few chapters, with a triangle forming between her, Colonel Fitzwilliam and new character, Henry Alviston… but then we lose that thread for several hundred pages and only revisit it on the last two.
So, dear Reader, do I recommend ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ or not? Yes, on balance.