(Disclaimer: I wrote this review earlier in the week, days before the death of P.D. James. R.I.P.)
P.D JAMES – Death Comes To Pemberley
“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?”
I love this little homage that James makes in reference to the predecessor, and inspiration behind the novel that continues the tale of a little-known couple called Elizabeth and Darcy. Not only did it highlight to me just how little time Darcy and Elizabeth did spend together in Pride and Prejudice before actually making their commitment to one another, but it cemented just how good an author P.D. James is to make a quip such as this one and make it part of her follow-up on the future life of the Darcy’s.
I got a precursor to her clever wit before actually beginning the book though – In the Author’s Note she wrote that she owed Jane Austen an apology for involving her Elizabeth in a murder investigation, with Austen’s views on these matters made clear at the end of her novel Mansfield Park:
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
“No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.”
I loved the book already, and I hadn’t even started it.
What also amazed me before actually commencing the book, was reading that James had been born in 1920. What? I did the calculations… she was 91 when this book was published, now even older at 94! I only hoped I could still be writing at that age. What an accomplishment, of both age and career.
In a spoiler-less nutshell, James’ take on the future of the Darcy’s takes place 6 years after the end of their tale in Pride and Prejudice in 1803. It is the eve of an annual ball, and the estate is shook by the sudden and unprepared arrival of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, screaming that her husband George Wickham has been murdered. What follows in the rest of the 6-part book (not including the prologue) is a discovery, a scandal, an inquest, trial, and of course a resolution.
As I started to read through the book, the amazement with James’ ability to match Austen’s prose, and my old love for these characters grew. It was like meeting up with old friends and seeing where they had been and what they had been doing for the last little while. Although there can be fear of a follow-up tale, especially one that is not written by the original author of the successful bestseller, not being even half-way up to scratch against the predecessor, Death Comes to Pemberley is such an original take on the romantic story dealing with issues of class and convention, that many times I actually forgot that Austen hadn’t written this herself.
You see that James shares Austen’s cheeky wit and sense-of-humour in the following line:
“It is my belief that, for a woman, love more often comes after marriage than before it and, indeed, it seems to me both natural and right that it should.”
I find these lines utterly amusing and fascinating. Perhaps I find them so novel because I’m not living in a time where men’s opinions of women are more of ownership, than equal partnership. And of course the above was quoted by a male. Figures.
There was also this beauty:
“It is never so difficult to congratulate a friend on her good fortune than when that fortune appears undeserved.”
There is also mention of a man named Joseph Joseph, so called because his parents were so enamoured by their surname they gave it to him also in baptism. Surprisingly, the fellow ain’t so bright. I loved being pleasantly surprised in moments here and there, giggling at little things like this that lightened the ‘thriller’ aspect of the book, much like I had smiled too often while reading Pride and Prejudice.
For me, reading books such as this one is not only enjoyable because of the writing and the characters, but because of the different time and place in which it is set. I find it fascinating to read of a time where this stuff was the norm, a time when such innocence was prevalent in almost all dealings, while interestingly and factually a decent amount of indecency was usually present.
I found it almost mind-blowing reading about the ‘help.’ Darcy and Elizabeth’s staff are overly accommodating to them and their guests, constantly on top of everything and helpful to the point of almost being able to forecast what is going to happen and prepare for it beforehand! Or at least that’s how it felt like. It would have been a very lovely and innocent time to be living, more so if you had the resources to be waited on hand and foot. Elizabeth observes:
“She was unlikely to encounter them on this floor, but if she did, they would smile and flatten themselves against the wall as she passed.”
There is also a couple of mentions of letter-writing, and the notion of a relaxed and luxurious time when one had the opportunity to sit and write, or just read for hours on end, just sounds so splendid to me.
Another amusing yet also innocent moment comes when the men get together to talk and get their stories straight regarding the night of the murder at Pemberley. All I could think of is “isn’t this like tampering with evidence, that being your minds and memories?” Isn’t that why members of a jury are forbid from being exposed to outside bias during a trial, so as not to be swayed by opinion, and hearsay? I found this absolutely ridiculous, but I think it was deliberately inserted to show the innocence and naivety of the time, even in an age where the law was taken so seriously, as stated later during the inquest and trial.
I could go on and on about how well James imitated Austen’s world, and how fascinating I find that world. I love how during the night of the murder, Elizabeth finds it appropriate to say this:
“But you could at least stay and have something to eat and drink before you go. It is hours since dinner.”
How one could be concerned with eating in knowledge of a dead body is beyond me.
Like in Pride and Prejudice, there are important and very thought-evoking questions of class, society, and manners. One amusing example of this is in an event where Darcy has to make a trip, and knows that it is preferred he arrive in a coach, though he would prefer to ride in on horse, but compromises by taking a chaise. The reputation and prestige associated with what mode of transport you arrive in is baffling, but then not so when I remember that Hubbie and I too are wanting to update our car. James also imitates the same spell-it-out fashion that makes you want to sometimes yell ‘why do I need to know that the larger of the two keys was used to unlock the door?’ It all adds to the style I guess.
What else frustrated me about this spelling-the-details-out, and also similarly the great lead-ups to events and long drawn-out establishing scenes, was that as a new writer, I’m not allowed to do them! I do do them, however I am told that new writers must stick to the rules (that of getting to the point), while established writers are allowed to break them all. As witnessed in Austen’s books, and to some extent in James’ one, as mentioned above. Sigh.
I was happy with quite a few additions James made. She showed a bit more intimacy between Elizabeth and Darcy, something we didn’t get too much of in the original. Maybe because they got together at the end of the book, but perhaps more so because of the time. Not that we don’t get much more than a hug here and there, but still, the contact is nice.
Most characters from the original are in this follow-up, and even if not so they are mentioned in hearsay or via letters, so that you get to find out how everyone is going. Even if there are only brief mentions made of someone, James captures their personality and demeanour perfectly to match Austen’s. A particularly fantastic example is made of Mrs Bennett. If you can remember, she was rather impossible, though hilarious to us as readers (and probably at least a tad annoying). When Mr. Bennett is visiting the Darcy’s, he receives a letter saying she has been hearing footsteps outside the house and has been suffering from palpitations in his absence.
“Why was he concerning himself with other people’s murders when there was likely to be one at Longbourn if he did not immediately return?”
There is a quite sudden tone change towards the end of the book, one I found striking given the type of world the story takes place in. All the good stuff though… gore, chaos, tension, nastiness. Like a soap opera, as I observed at one point. James ties up all loose ends very nicely, however at one moment I was overwhelmed with information to the point that I couldn’t keep up, but fortunately some of it was repeated and I got with the program.
I did find it interesting that later on in the book James chose to explain Darcy’s deeds from Pride and Prejudice, as even further closure. First I went ‘no! she can’t do that!’ Should it be allowed, since it’s not from Austen? But then I realised, neither is this book! I guess writing a follow-up, in some ways a completely different book on where the characters have ended up, is quite different to referring specifically to events from Pride and Prejudice, and explaining the actions of the characters then as written from another author. Food for thought.
Oh, and not to spoil, but I have to mention… in the last section, Elizabeth says something to Darcy, and says she cannot promise him something. This part, is beautiful. Watch for it. Because you know what? Somewhere, someplace, she can 🙂
This book was an absolute pleasure, a joy to read. If you loved Pride and Prejudice, and love thrillers… well what are you waiting for?
Please let me know your thoughts on Death Comes To Pemberley in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 🙂