Tracing Jane: Death Comes to Pemberley
Tracing Jane: Nearly two hundred years after her works were first published, Jane Austen not only continues to appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds, but also inspires writers and artists in different genres and media. This rubric will trace Jane Austen’s work into the twenty-first century and investigate the fascinations, imaginations and, perhaps, annoyances which led these different artists to put their own spin on her classic novels.
P.D. James prefaces her latest novel with an apology to Jane Austen for involving the characters of Pride and Prejudice in a murder mystery. Certainly, a murder plot is not what we would immediately associate with Austen’s tales of domestic decorum – but I think it is safe to say that this is a combination many whodunit-lovers must have been dreaming of for some time. To be sure, as James points out, in Mansfield Park Austen did write, ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’. However, simmering under the surface of countrified Jane’s lovely tales, there is a lot of crime and unpleasantness: elopements, illicit pregnancies, abandonment… so why should this ‘other pen’ not tackle murder?
The first thing any Austen devotee will love James for doing, is confirming our fantasies of just how Lizzie and Jane got on after we left them in Pride and Prejudice. Of course the two sisters are still the best of friends, and James has removed the Bingleys from Netherfield to an estate within easy reach of Pemberley.
Even Mary is happily married to – who could have doubted it – a clergyman, and Mr Darcy has achieved an excellent understanding with his father-in-law Mr Bennet. Lizzie presides as the very able mistress of Pemberley, and both she and jane are raising hopeful families. Mr Wickham is not received at Pemberley, and all is as it should be.
However, their peaceable lives are shaken up when – who else? – Lydia arrives at Pemberley in distress, screaming that her husband has been killed in the estate woods. The events that follow embroil Lizzie, Darcy and their guests in a murder mystery against the backdrop of the complex social and political situation of 1803.
P.D. James is a veteran writer of detective fiction and her work has won countless awards, so trust her to have meticulously researched every aspect of her homage to Austen, particularly the different stages of the murder inquiry. Thus, her readers will learn the exact role played by a Georgian magistrate, the changes afoot to the judicial system by 1803, and why it was to the defendant’s benefit that the case be heard in London and not locally in Derbyshire.
However, in an era that was, despite the genteel Austen-esque surface we know, quite merciless to criminal convicts, the result of this entertaining whodunit could easily have become too dark to match the Pride and Prejudice setting. James treats this matter with perfect grace, so that what she calls ‘the trauma of a murder investigation’ is not allowed to taint the happy home that is Pemberley.
Death Comes to Pemberley is a murder mystery of the riveting yet comfortable kind, and as such is highly recommendable. In tone and style it is like Jane Austen, and the period detail is extensive and excellent. Naturally, the characters were always going to be James’s own interpretation – there is no love lost between her and Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the grown-up version of Georgiana Darcy takes some getting used to – but Lizzie, Darcy, Jane, Bingley, and, most importantly, Lydia, are unchanged, and their new setting is believable and refreshing. I found this a delight to read. What do you think of the book? Please comment and let us know.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is published by Faber and Faber Ltd and the hardback edition is priced at £18.99 in the UK.
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