Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James [Review]

Many authors before have attempted to write a sequel to the notorious novel Pride and Prejudice such as; ‘The Darcys of Pemberley’, Georgiana Darcy’s Diary’, ‘Mr Darcy takes a wife’ and many more. As well as writing spin offs of Pride and Prejudice and other Jane

death comes to pemberley

Austen’s novels such as ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’, ‘Mr Darcy, Vampyre’.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers in the English literary canon and Pride and Prejudice is one of her most famous novels. A book as great as that does not need any sequels and must be left alone. However, P.D. James has attempted and, in my view, thrived in creating a sort of sequel to the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.
The story is set six years after Pride and Prejudice in which we see how marriage life is treating our dear Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. P.D. James writes a little note before beginning her story but stating:

” I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her
beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation,
especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made
her views quite plain; ‘Let other pens dwell on the 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, had she wished to dwell on such odious
subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done better.”

We then have a small prologue in which she recaps the story of Pride and Prejudice for those who have not read the actual book (for shame on those people 😛 ). It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits them both often- Lizzy more so than Jane- and they are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, a coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

It has to be said that P.D. James is the first to try to write a mystery murder case in a Jane Austen world. I have to say that I prefer a murder mystery to a zombie breakout. Can you really imagine our beloved Elizabet fighting off zombies? Anyway, back to P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley.

OB-JH746_james7_DV_20100720151806A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem. I have to confess that I have not read any of P.D. James’ novels but my mum has and she says that she is a very good mystery author, and I trust my mum’s choice of authors! P.D. James has admired and loved Jane Austen all her life and  inspired by a lifelong passion, James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story. An acute admirer of Austen’s novels (which, her autobiography makes clear, she has been re-reading for more than 80 years), she keeps her sequel close to their ironic spiritedness, moral toughness and psychological finesse . Peter Kemp from Sunday Times states that ‘Death Comes to Pemberley is an elegantly gauged homage to Austen and an exhilarating tribute to the inexhaustible vitality of James’s imagination.’

The greatest pleasure of this novel is its unforced, effortless, effective voice as many scholars and reviewers have stated. James hasn’t written in ‘florid cod-­Regency whorls, the overblown language other mimics so often employ’. Not infrequently, while reading Death Comes to Pemberley, one succumbs to the impression that it is Austen herself on the page and not P.D. James.
Jane Jakeman from The Independent writes ‘This Gothic element is, of course, dangerous ground, the kind of mystery which Jane Austen mocked so effectively in Northanger Abbey, but James handles it with a delicate touch. There is another departure: this novel must sometimes venture outside Austen’s feminine world into the masculine arenas of inquest and trial, and some minor male characters from the canon play larger roles for the purposes of the murder plot. James makes a plausible account of them, giving us into the bargain an interesting male viewpoint of past events, where Darcy explains his strange behaviour at Longbourn.’

While many writers have composed sequels to the various Austen masterpieces, James manages to preserve the flavor of Pride and Prejudice while also creating a fairly good ‘whodunit’ story. One negative viewpoint that I can mention is that in “Death Comes to Pemberley” marriage has made Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s smartest, sharpest-tongued and most beloved character, ‘a little dull’. Apparently weighed down by her responsibilities as chatelaine of Pemberley — the need to keep up appearances and propriety — she’s become earnest and dutiful, seldom speaking her mind. And though the novel keeps insisting on how much she and Darcy are in love, they get little chance to show it. Each is so involved in his or her own sphere, and so solicitous of intruding on the other, that they have to make appointments to have a conversation.

I have to agree with other reviewers that the most original invention in “Death Comes to Pemberley” is Darcy’s great-grandfather, an eccentric but not unsympathetic character who couldn’t stand the pressure of being lord of the manor and went to live alone in the woods with his dog.

Many Austen fans have written bad reviews for this particular book or have just plain refused to read it. I was one of them and in some cases i am still one of them… I refuse to read ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ out of principle but you never know I might read it one day just out of morbid curiosity and write a very bad review about it 😛 … but as far as Death Comes to Pemberley goes, I have to say that I am happy I read it and it is a lovely short mystery story. This is a novel one reads for its charm, for the chance to revisit some favourite characters, for the ingenious way James resolves old elements from Austen…It is a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.

—– K.J. Koukas