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PD James, Death comes to Pemberley (Review, sorta)

April 22, 2012

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 JamesDeath 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…

Characterisation

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].

Style

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.

Observations

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.

Genre

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
310pp
ISBN: 9780571283583

*  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.

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 1:08 am

    Nvere read one and never will. I think it’s cheap to piggy-back on someone else’s talent/fame/fan base.

    • April 23, 2012 9:25 am

      I’ve always said that too … but eventually, in the interests of understanding them in the light of my JA “studies”, decided to dip my toes in the water. It enabled me to think a little more about what is going on. It does feel like cashing in and yet why would someone of the ilk of PD James want or need to do that? I think for her it might be – and I haven’t read reviews or interviews on this so may be wrong – that she loves writing and she loves Austen. I hear that she had concluded her Inspector Dalgliesh series, so I wonder if he case she was that she found she was still alive, and wanting to write, so why not try this?

      • April 23, 2012 11:32 am

        whatever floats your boat is my motto

        • April 23, 2012 12:07 pm

          I guess it depends on your sporting affiliations! (Not that I’ve ever been a horserider, mind you.)

  2. April 23, 2012 9:36 am

    Saving your post because I’m reading this write now for book group. I adore Austen and generally dislike prequels, sequels and re-workings but I’m trying to keep an open mind …!

    • April 23, 2012 9:42 am

      Oh good, Nicola … you’re basically reading it for the same reason I did (though mine was my specific Jane Austen group). Do come back and let me know what you think when you’ve finished it.

  3. April 23, 2012 9:38 am

    Oh Lord, I meant RIGHT now, not write now (blush!)

    • April 23, 2012 9:44 am

      Haha, Nicola. No need to apologise. I was just rereading the post, which I posted last night, and trying to fix some formatting when I discovered I’d written “toward’s”. Now that’s an errant apostrophe of the like I’ve never done or seen before! Where did it come from?

  4. April 23, 2012 12:14 pm

    I reckon Joan Aiken’s Jane Austen sequels are the best, mostly because I am very fond of Joan Aiken as a writer, and also because she is a wonderful witty story teller in her own right.

    If you haven’t read Joan Aiken, a collection of her short stories entitled The Monkey’s Wedding & Other Stories is available in ebook format.

    I have read Death Comes To Pemberley, and found it reasonably amusing, but certainly not great literature.

    • April 23, 2012 7:03 pm

      Thanks Anne … Aiken is another one who’s a writer outside of her Austen spin-offs isn’t she. I’ve heard of her – but haven’t read anything of hers. Wittiness certainly sounds like she could make a good fist of Austen. Anyhow, thanks for the recommendation. Short stories can be a good place to start I reckon.

  5. April 23, 2012 7:00 pm

    Thank you for this, Sue, I have always had an instinctive prejudice against spin-off books such as this, (not even Wide Sargasso Sea!) and now I have some cogent arguments to use to bolster my opinion!

    • April 23, 2012 7:05 pm

      Thanks Lisa … I hope they stand up. One day, if life ever quietens down, I might work a little more on the spin-off issue.

  6. April 23, 2012 9:15 pm

    Ugh, this lost me as soon as you described how lame Elizabeth and Darcy are in it! I’ll stick with the originals and, when I’m feeling a bit jazzy, Lost in Austen ;)

  7. Susan permalink
    April 24, 2012 12:28 am

    Liked your review! I’ve been meaning to read this one but forgot about it. Isn’s James 90 years old or maybe more?. I’ve read some of her detective stories but am not a real fan. Curious that an experienced writer would hazard all the pitfalls of a sequel. Wonder if she thought of it as a “fun project” for her old age.

    • April 24, 2012 5:48 pm

      Thanks, Susan … yes, she’s 92 this year. I think she might have thought it a fun project. A bit of a risk I’d have thought but perhaps she felt, and probably quite rightly, that she had nothing to lose. Even if people don’t like it, it’s not going to be what she’s remembered by is it.

  8. April 24, 2012 1:55 am

    Well done! I have been wondering what you’d make of it. I didn’t like it much either and found Elizabeth horribly dull. I only read a crime novel now and then and when I do it’s PD James or a handful of others. I went to a reading she gave once years ago and she said she reread all of Austen every year so when I found out about this book I figured that if anyone could write an Austen sequel it would be James. So disappointing! I liked the way you went through various aspects of the book. What did your Austen group think of it?

    • April 24, 2012 5:51 pm

      Thanks, Stefanie … yes, why did she make such a sparkling creature (a word Elizabeth uses I think) so dull.

      None of us liked it! Most of us tend not to like sequels but there are some that do, and they didn’t like it.

  9. April 25, 2012 9:45 am

    I’ve read much better JA sequels… I just don’t know why James would care to venture into this genre at, what, 91? I’m afraid my feeling was… she’d shown her age. But I blame it on the editors, for a lot of ‘flaws’ are editorial I think. Anyway, I’ve appreciated your very detailed and generous review. If you’re interested, here’s my review.

    • April 25, 2012 11:23 am

      Oh thanks Arti … I will pop over to read your review. Not sure that I totally agree they are editorial but I’m prepared to be generous to James. I don’t blame her for trying but it hasn’t changed my mind about (not) reading sequels I’m afraid.

  10. April 27, 2012 2:42 am

    Guy covers my view in the first comment, and it continues to trouble me that my beloved Jean Rhys wrote one (though I should probably read it, but then I haven’t read Jane Eyre).

    Why not create your own characters, world, fiction? Why piggy back? It seems, well, just not something that speaks to me. Still, if others enjoy it that’s fine, and you could certainly do worse than James to pick up the pen where the original left off.

    Loved the structure of the review by the way. Nicely informative.

    • April 27, 2012 3:14 pm

      Thanks Max … yes, as you will have gathered I basically agree, though I did read the Rhys (eventually, but, like this one, only because it was scheduled for a group discussion).

      Because of my JA enthusiasm I often think about this sequel/spinoff business. There are clearly many reasons why people write these – some of them (the reasons I mean!) more crass and commercial than others. I’m thinking of writing another specific post on this … perhaps. But not if I have to read more spinoffs. Can I explore the issue further without reading more of them? I’m still thinking on it.

      • April 29, 2012 2:26 pm

        I’ve read the Rhys too, and it seems to me that it’s a meditation on the original — not a sequel, not a spin-off, not a continuation, but a challenge. The relationship between Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre is the relationship between Malouf’s Ransom and the Iliad, not the relationship between Pemberly and Pride.

        • April 29, 2012 9:05 pm

          Oh that’s a great distinction DKS and I think you have a point. Perhaps a bit similar to the relationship between Jack Maggs and Great Expectations.

          It’s a fine line though, isn’t it. Ransom could perhaps be described as a “retelling” which is what some of the spin-offs are. It would be interesting to tease out this line of thought a bit more.

  11. May 1, 2012 3:37 am

    You’d have to take the author’s intentions into account. It doesn’t make sense to say that every author who borrows from another author’s work is taking the easy route, otherwise you end up accusing that money-hungry Mr Joyce of nourishing his career on that poor dear sweet Mr Homer, too foreign and dead to defend himself and no doubt the thief took that into account when he copied his plot for that stupid book, by crikey. Even stole his title! Blatantly! A famous character isn’t just a character, it’s a tool, it has a weight in peoples’ minds, and it’s possible for an author to swing that weight in a new direction, as Rhys does in Sea: she’s writing against the easy way that the original author dismisses the mad wife in the attic. She’s writing a critique as well as a novel. She’s saying that Jane Eyre is a repository of certain ideas and she’s critiquing those ideas. That’s why she needs to use the other woman’s characters and setting. They’re the right tools for the work she wants to do.

    • May 2, 2012 11:24 pm

      Yes, I was thinking that it’s something about the intention that makes the difference but it’s hard to define in black and white words. The “critique”, the questioning, is certainly part of it … but is to necessarily always quite that.

      Is Ransom a critique? I loved it as a piece of writing but I still haven’t fully resolved for myself the why of it. I mean I can give some reasons why, but I’m not fully convinced they are enough. And yet, the writing and the evocation of the characters are wonderful. Perhaps that is enough. I probably won’t forget his Priam …

      • May 3, 2012 6:32 am

        Simone Weil called the Iliad “the poem of force” and Malouf’s book is against that kind of “force” so, a person might be able to compare those two ideas and make an argument for Ransom as a critique, but I think you’re right, “critique” is too simple, although your “questioning” is a good word, a better word because it’s less oppositional (it sounds less like criticism). Could you say that books like Ransom and Sea ask questions of the original, and Death doesn’t? I get the impression from your review that James just wanted to borrow the characters and have fun with them

        • May 3, 2012 8:48 am

          yes, I think we’re getting there … I think we could say that about those two and not Death. This would be fun to write up … If one had the time to put into it.

  12. May 5, 2012 4:00 am

    What can we add? I can’t think of any Questioning Author who tries to imitate the style of the original author (Rhys, from memory, never tries to get close to the Bronte voice, Malouf never tries to be Homer, but James, you point out, has that imitation-Austen “had exacerbated a disagreement common in marriages …” etc) but should we call that a defining characteristic of QAs, a giveaway, a sure sign of the true QA, or just something these particular QAs do that non-QAs (Sequellists) can do too and still stay non-QAs? If you wrote about the original characters with a different style would that constitute a QA Book on its own? Is that enough?

    • May 5, 2012 10:30 pm

      That’s almost becoming a tongue twister DKS. But no, I don’t think it’s enough. I think non-QA authors can use their own style and still not turn into QAs but that’s theoretical as I haven’t read enough non-QAs to prove it. What about you?

      • May 6, 2012 2:30 pm

        I think as soon as we tried to lay down a rule like that we’d find an exception and have to toss it out again. “Questioning” is still the only description that seems to work. The Questioner looks at the original and says, “What are we taking for granted?”

        • May 6, 2012 10:51 pm

          Yes, I think we’ll get ourselves in knots if we try to apply too many rules … so let’s stick with “Questioning” and your question “What are we taking for granted” is probably the main one.

  13. May 6, 2012 9:48 pm

    I’ve read a few P&P sequels and spin offs, some I’ve enjoyed, some I really haven’t liked. I tend to enjoy them as a genre though. I can see why you (and lots of others it seems) don’t like them, and of course that’s fine, but I don’t see that they do any great harm. They keep Austen current I suppose. Did you see the review in the SMH of a book called On Rereading this week? The author compared movie adaptations to rereads. That is true at some level too. And perhaps they serve as “gateway” reads? And people become curious and go back and read the originals. I haven’t read this particular one yet, but did buy it and do have it sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting.

    • May 6, 2012 11:03 pm

      Oh thanks for joining in Louise. No, I don’t think they do harm though some JA people get very irritated by people using her name to make money. I don’t feel so strongly. And, as you say, it keep her name to the forefront.

      No, I didn’t see that review but it sounds like the book one of the bloggers I like to read, Stephanie of So Many Books, recently wrote about. It sounds like something I’d like to read. The movie adaptation argument sounds intriguing and would be fun to explore a little further. I wonder if anyone has ever done research into audience behaviour re books and their movie adaptations?

  14. Ruxandra permalink
    July 12, 2012 1:22 am

    You got it right. My feelings exactly.

Trackbacks

  1. Pride and Prejudice « Meet Cute
  2. Review: Death Comes to Pemberly « Ribbons of Romance
  3. ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D.James | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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