Wednesday, February 22, 2012

P. D. James: Death Comes to Pemberley

P. D. James: Death comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (P&P)

Normally I ignore sequels to classics, but P. D. James is one of my favorite mystery writers. Many of her novels feature a large house, either occupied for centuries by the family or possibly long since turned to other uses: a nursing school, a laboratory, or even a publishing house. As the largest estate in the county, Pemberley would be a perfect setting for one of her stories. In addition, in an interview James said that her favorite author was Austen and she thought that, if Austen were alive today, she would be writing mysteries. So, I had to break a long-standing tradition and, at least, start it.

The novel opens with a prologue summarizing the significant events and introducing the major characters in Pride and Prejudice. James then brings us up-to-date, for six years have passed since the end of what is probably Austen's most popular novel. We are told that Elizabeth and Darcy have two children and that Elizabeth's younger sister Mary is also married to the rector of a nearby parish. Kitty is still at home, the only one left and likely to remain unmarried. Mr. Bennet is a frequent visitor at Pemberley, while Mrs. Bennet is less so. Darcy, while having become more patient and tolerant over time, does have his limits.

It is Friday, October 14, 1803, the day before the most important social event of the year in the neighborhood of Pemberley, Lady Anne's ball, the annual ball held in honor of Darcy's mother. Elizabeth has spent the day planning and preparing for the event with the aid of the inestimable Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper whom she had met on her first visit to Pemberley with the Gardiners.

Now late in the evening, Elizabeth, Darcy, the Bingleys (who had arrived a short time ago), Col. Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston are gathered together after dinner. Alveston is the only one who needs an introduction to readers of P&P. He is a rising young attorney who has become an increasingly regular visitor to Pemberley, and it is fairly obvious what the source of attraction is. In fact, it is that same attraction that causes Col Fitzwilliam considerable discomfort.

Georgiana, Darcy's sister, is now of a marriageable age: she is attractive and an heiress of a considerable fortune, and she is no longer the shy, quiet young girl we had known. Six years of associating with Elizabeth may have contributed somewhat to that. For some time now, both Fitzwilliam and Alveston have attempted to engage her affections. While Georgiana has not yet made her choice, Elizabeth feels that Col. Fitzwilliam will be disappointed.

It is then that death comes to Pemberley, or at least a madly driven coach carrying an hysterical Lydia arrives at the front door. All she can do is cry out almost incoherently that her beloved Wickham is dead, murdered. After questioning the more rational coach driver, Darcy and the others discover that Wickham and Lydia were going through their usual routine. Darcy has forbidden Wickham's presence at Pemberley; therefore, Lydia is never invited. However, the usual procedure is that Lydia arrives unannounced with luggage while the carriage immediately proceeds onward with Wickham to the nearest inn, where he stays while Lydia enjoys the amenities of Pemberley.

Lydia has come for Lady Anne's ball and will leave after the ball is over. But, this time Lydia and Wickham were accompanied by Wickham's good and possibly only friend, Captain Denny. However, shortly after entering the woods surrounding Pemberley, Denny and Wickham quarrel, with the result that Denny left the coach. Wickham then follows him into the trees. Shortly afterwards, a shot is heard. Lydia becomes hysterical, and the coach driver, unarmed, decides it would be best to go for help and also take Lydia out of any possible danger.

Upon hearing the coachman's story, Darcy, Fitzwilliam, and Alveston decide to go back to the spot where the driver left off the two men. They were reluctant to interfere in a private quarrel, but the report of shots being fired persuaded them to to investigate. After stumbling about in the forest for some time, they are about to leave when they come across a clearing in which a body is stretched out on the ground. Kneeling before the body and covered in blood is Wickham, who cries out upon seeing him that this was his fault. Capt. Denny is dead. The result is that Wickham is arrested, and a coroner's jury decides there is sufficient evidence for a trial.

What follows is NOT a contemporary mystery. James is too wise for that. We do not see Elizabeth and Darcy chasing around the countryside searching for clues, following up leads, and interrogating witnesses and suspects. That is left for the authorities and Wickham's expensive defense attorney (you can guess who pays for him).

In the first place, neither Elizabeth nor Darcy have any experience in detecting nor would they have even considered taking such actions. Secondly, Darcy is prohibited from taking any part in the case for Wickham is his brother-in-law. Darcy is one of three magistrates for the county. If he were to get involved and Wickham released, then there would be a suspicion of favoritism. On the other hand, it was also known that Wickham in some way had earned Darcy's enmity, so if it was decided that Wickham be held over for trial, there might be a suspicion that Darcy had had his revenge. They had to separate themselves from any direct involvement in the case.

Much of the time in the novel is spent with secondary characters--various servants and their familes, Wickham, Col. Fitzwilliam, and even Mrs. Younge, whom readers may recognize as the governess who allowed Wickham to almost carry Georgiana off in P&P, the cause of Darcy's intense dislike of Wickham. It is "downstairs," to borrow the title of a popular TV show, where the facts of Capt. Denny's murder are to be found. And, not surprisingly, it is Wickham who is the cause, directly or indirectly.

This is not a contemporary murder mystery. Instead, it resembles much more closely a mystery novel written during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The solution comes through coincidental meetings, a deathbed confession, various letters, and a last minute frantic journey with important information that, if it arrives in time, could affect the outcome of Wickham's trial. It is not Jane Austen, but it does read like, at least to me anyway, like a mystery that might have been written in Austen's time.

James makes no attempt to imitate Austen's style; instead she gives the reader prose that is a bit more formal. Nor does she attempt to recreate Lizzie as Austen would have done. Elizabeth is no longer Lizzie, the young lady with the sharp tongue. She is now in her late twenties, the mother of two children, a wife, and the mistress of the largest estate in the area. She has a position to fill and has matured in the intervening six years.

James has inserted into the novel, which is mostly serious (murder is a serious business), some subtle bits of humour and an occasional sharp observation of her own. For example, at one point we read the following: And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was hard to envisage Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honesty compelled an answer. Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

Readers should also be alert to references to people who are mentioned but never make an appearance in the novel. Wickham at one point had been employed as a personal secretary to Sir William Elliot. He was fired six months later, possibly because of Miss Elliot's concern regarding Lydia's open flirting with Sir William, and also perhaps when she grew bored with Wickham's own attempts at flirting with her.

While I won't discuss the ending in any great detail, I should add that the final solution involved (surprise, surprise) considerable expense once again to Darcy, and the aid of Mr. and Mrs. Knightly of Donwell Abbey and her close friend, Mrs. Harriet Martin.

The novel ends, as do all of Austen's novels, with a final summary, some comments about the future, and a conversation between our hero and heroine regarding their own sometimes rocky relationship before it resulted in perfect happiness.

When I first decided to read Death Comes to Pemberley, I went to the library and borrowed a copy. However, about one-third of the way through, I visited Clues Unlimited, Tucson's local mystery bookstore. I figured I'd be reading it again, and I wanted my own copy.


  1. Fred,

    Thanks for this book review. I had seen this book and was hesitant to read it. Now I think I'll give it a try.

  2. Cheryl,

    I would like to hear what you thought of it.

  3. I didn't like it nearly as much as you did, Fred. I had the highest expectations and to tell the truth, not one of them was met. This was of my disappointments last year. Made more so because I was given it as a Christmas present.

    But as Emerson so wisely said: No two people read the same book.

    I still enjoyed reading your review.

  4. Yvette,

    I agree with Emerson. I think someone else also said that nobody ever reads the same book twice.

    I know that's true of me. Sometimes a book I liked on first reading somehow didn't come across the second time, and, of course, books that I didn't like or couldn't finish at first became favorites on a second try later.

    Jane Austen is a classic example: I tried several times but just couldn't get past the first couple of chapters of several of her works. Later, after I turned 40, I tried again and suddenly she became one of my favorite authors and I regularly reread all of her works, including the juvenilia.

    Again, congrats on your award. You really work hard for it. I couldn't do in a week what you do in a day.

  5. Fred,

    You wrote:

    "Later, after I turned 40, I tried again and suddenly she became one of my favorite authors and I regularly reread all of her works, including the juvenilia."

    Could you please list Jane Austen's works that are juvenilia? I didn't know that she had written anything other than novels.

  6. Cheryl,

    I have two collections of her other works: one by Penguin and one published by Harmony Books.

    The Penguin collection includes _Lady Susan_, her longest juvenile work, "The Watsons," a short fragment of a novel that she stopped working on for some reason, and "Sanditon," the fragment of a novel that she was working on when she died.

    The Harmony Books collection includes "Love and Freindship," "The Three Sisters," "Lesley Castle," "A History of England," and a collection of letters. Aside from the letters, these are all considered part of her juvenilia.

    "Freindship" is not a typo on my part.

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  8. Yes, I agree. It captures the flavor of a novel written in Austen's time. The Lord and Lady of the Manor do not go around interrogating witnesses and chasing down clues. It's not their place.

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  10. I just saw this book at a store yesterday.

  11. Di,

    As you can see, not everybody thinks as well of it as I do. But, then again, I don't like the other books inspired by Jane Austen, whereas they seem to be favorites of many, and I suspect they would not like this one.