Monday, January 9, 2012

An Icon Tackles an Icon

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James.*

A review by Marlyn Beebe.

In the author's note prefacing the story, P.D. James apologizes for involving Jane Austen's characters in a murder. She quotes Austen (from the final chapter of 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.
James concludes her apology by saying
No doubt [Jane] would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.

As much as I admire Miss Austen (and I have been a Janeite for decades), I must respectfully disagree with Ms. James. Her "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice, which begins some six years after the marriage of Elizabeth to Fitzwilliam Darcy echoes Austen's style so well that at times I had to remind myself whose work I was reading.

Our story begins as Mrs. Darcy and her household are preparing for the annual ball in honour of Mr. Darcy's late mother, Lady Anne. Little do they know that Elizabeth's flighty sister Lydia (who, along with her husband Mr. Wickham, is persona non grata at Pemberley) is planning to crash the party.

Lydia turns up at the Darcy's door in a speeding, barely controlled coach, screaming that her husband is dead. On their way to drop Lydia at Pemberley, Wickham and his friend Denny had a disagreement so intense that Denny had jumped out of the carriage and Wickham had gone after him. Hearing gunshots, Lydia had immediately assumed that Wickham had been killed and directed the driver to go immediately to Pemberley.

I must confess to being somewhat disappointed that Lydia's husband was fine. It was Denny who was dead; being the only other person present, Wickham was charged with the crime. Such a turn of events caused all kinds of turmoil to this Janeite: is the admittedly immoral Wickham really capable of murder? The Darcys believe not, and set about to prove his innocence.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel is James' descriptions of life in the early 19th Century, and the amount of detail that she imparts about the day-to-day activities of not just the Darcys, but their servants, their families and their peers. The description of Wickham's trial and its aftermath is particularly interesting.

Like P.D. James' more typical works, her paean to Jane Austen is well-written and -constructed, and completely absorbing. If Miss Austen were to read it, she just might approve.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to my sister-in-law for the gift of this book.


  1. Another well-done review, Marlyn!

    Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLY a lot, and was surprised to read so many negative reviews of it. Glad I'm not alone!

  3. Sorry, I am one of the naysayers. I listened to the book read quite well by Rosalyn Landor, and I agree that the Austen tone was well-done by James for the most part. (Although I do not think people used the word "lifestyle" so often as Ms. James did, and there were some other words that seemed anachronistic.) Both Elizabeth and Darcy seemed to have become rather dull people, and the solution to the mystery arrived without much preliminary sharing of clues with the reader.

  4. Great review, Marlyn! I may read it just for the info on life in the early 19th Century!

  5. I agree that James did a good job w/ tone/language and the integrity of the characters.

    However, I was hoping for/expecting a real mystery (perhaps w/Elizabeth as amateur sleuth) and James delivered a "here's the explanation at the end" type story instead.

  6. Delighted to read this! I had been so disappointed by some reviews that i was afraid to read the novel, loving both Jane and James as I do.

  7. Thanks all for your comments. I've seldom seen a book with such passionate positive AND negative reviews.

  8. As my English grandson would say, "absolutely spot on, Marilyn!"

    Great review of a terrific book. Thanks for the thoughtful insights.

    Kit Sloane


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