PD James, Death comes to Pemberley (Review, sorta)
How do you review or evaluate a Jane Austen “sequel”*? Do we expect, want even, the author to channel Austen? I suspect the answer is as varied as are the readers of sequels, and it probably depends on why we read Austen. Those who are mostly interested in the stories and what happens to the characters are likely to have a completely different perspective from those who love Austen’s language and her very particular wry, sly eye on humanity. I fall into the latter group and this is why I am not drawn to sequels. I want to read Austen for Austen, and other writers for their style and worldview.
I have just read PD James‘ Death comes to Pemberley. I’d describe it as a traditional sequel, with a difference. That is, it picks up the story of Elizabeth and Darcy some six years after their wedding, but it is a crime novel, which adds an extra complication for the reviewer, because not only is there the issue of Jane Austen’s story and characters to consider, but there’s a shift in genre. This, I’ll admit right now, puts me at a double disadvantage: I don’t read Jane Austen sequels and I don’t read crime novels. So why did I read this book? Two reasons really. It was given to me by a friend and my local Jane Austen group decided to discuss it as part of this year’s focus on Pride and prejudice.
I’m glad I read it, mainly because I’ve been wanting to try a “sequel” for some time to understand what they are all about – and a sequel by a writer of PD James’ reputation seemed like a good one to try. However, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. It was, however a quick read – and I did find it intriguing to ponder what sequel readers look for.
Before I discuss that, I’d better say something about the plot, though that’s hard without giving too much away. The story proper starts on the night before a big annual ball. Elizabeth, Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam (now Viscount Hartlep), Georgiana and the Bingleys are all at Pemberley getting ready, when a carriage careens into view carrying, we soon discover, an hysterical Lydia claiming that her husband, Wickham, has been shot. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam and a new character and suitor to Georgiana, Alveston, set off into the woods to find out if indeed this has been the case. The novel then, as crime novels tend to do, follows the story of a murder through inquest, trial and resolution. It’s an interesting enough plot, and one whose resolution I didn’t guess. But then, as I’ve already said, I’m not a crime reader.
But now, rather than review the book in my usual way, I’m going to talk about it specifically in terms of its “sequelness”. (Is that an ok neologism?). So here goes…
If there’s one thing a sequel should do, I think, it’s to be true to the characters. No matter what new situation they are placed in, they need to still be them. Unfortunately, in this novel, Elizabeth and Darcy do not come across as Jane Austen’s creations. Darcy spends most of the novel – which, remember, occurs six years after the wedding – bothering about his decision to marry Elizabeth and how it returned Wickham to his world. He’s not sorry about marrying Elizabeth but he mulls and mulls and mulls yet again about the implications feeling, for example, “that he had lost some respect in his cousin’s [Col Fitzwilliam] eyes because he had placed his desire for a woman above the responsibilities of family and class”. That’s not our Darcy!
Similarly, it’s a rather subdued Elizabeth we see. Sure, she’s older but she is still in her 20s. And sure, she’s now the mistress of Pemberley, but that doesn’t mean the young woman who stood up to Lady Catherine, unlike “sensible” girls who recognise their need of a husband, now has to be quiet and, yes, dull. Why doesn’t she tell Darcy of some clues and suspicions that may be relevant to the murder?
Would Charlotte Lucas really harbour resentment towards Elizabeth? James suggests she does:
… but it was unlikely that Charlotte had either forgotten or forgiven her friend’s first response to the news [that she'd accepted Mr Collins].
I’m not sure that a sequel must ape Austen’s style … which is just as well because James doesn’t really. The problem is that I think she tried. She’s clearly a good writer, but it probably would have been better for her to stick to what she does best. There were moments of wit and humour, but much was ponderous. Here is Georgiana’s suitor speaking to Darcy:
Forgive me, sir, but I feel I must speak. You discuss what Miss Darcy should do as if she were a child. We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?
This is way too didactic and preachy for Austen, particularly for a non-Mr-Collins-like character. The dialogue, overall, lacks Austen’s light touch – and is often stilted without capturing the formality of the period.
There were times too when I felt she was more Dickens than Austen. Some of her characters’ names are pure Dickens, such as Hardcastle, Pegworthy and Belcher.
However, I understand that James is known for her settings – something that Austen did not focus much on – and her descriptions of place are generally evocative and effective.
Along with her style, it’s the way Austen hones in on human behaviour and describes it with brevity and wit that keeps me coming back to her. James was clearly keen to match Austen in this area and occasionally made me smile, as with this description:
… had exacerbated a disagreement common in marriages wherein an older husband believes that money should be used to make more of it, and a young and pretty wife is firmly of the view that it exists to be spent; how otherwise, as she frequently pointed out, would anyone know that you had it?
And this comment by the imperious Lady Catherine:
I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.
These little commentaries were like beacons in the forest … and showed me that, despite the misses in the novel, James does “get” Austen.
Then there’s the genre shifting. This is both a crime novel and historical fiction. I can’t speak much for the crime aspect except to say I thought it was well plotted and kept me guessing. I didn’t work out whodunnit, but when it came, the clues generally made sense. James also incorporated some Gothic elements – nature awry, dark woods and possible ghosts – something that Austen didn’t write, though she did spoof readers of Gothic fiction in her Northanger Abbey.
The historical fiction aspect was mixed for me. James had clearly researched the period thoroughly and I enjoyed learning about the practice of law, in particular. However, there were times when it felt that she just had to impart some information, whether or not it was essential to the story. Interesting enough, but it got in the way of her story.
Unlike Austen, who is often criticised for not writing about current events, James makes regular references to the Napoleonic war – and to English nationalism. This is fine. I don’t think a sequel has to limit itself to Austen’s subject matter.
I’d love to write more, but have already taken up way too much of your precious reading time. I’ve probably panned the novel more than I originally intended to. This is because it’s not the book for me – but it’s by no means a “bad” book. If you like Austen sequels, you’ll probably like it. If you like crime novels or are a fan of PD James, you could very well like it. But if you like Austen for her Austen-ness, then, like me, you’d probably rather read Pride and prejudice – again. Horses for courses, as they say.
Death comes to Pemberley
London: Faber and Faber, 2011
* Sequel in this Jane Austen context are books written by other writers based in some way on Austen’s novels. They can be “real” sequels (or prequels) in that they take an existing novel and tell us what happened next (or before); they can be retellings of a particular novel; or they can take another approach, such as tell the story of, or from the point of view of, another character.