Monday, June 25, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Reviewed by Jeanne
It seems to be a truth universally agreed upon that a beloved novel must have sequels, even if the original author is disinclined to produce such; hence the host of books employing Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in roles of courtship (yes, again), marriage, parenthood and zombie slayers.
When I first heard that P.D. James was going to add to the multitude of books about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, I vacillated between excitement and apprehension.  I do love Pride and Prejudice but I have not loved any of the sequels.  They’ve all missed the mark for me in some way, and most dreadfully. I have also greatly enjoyed P.D. James’ two mystery series, especially the Adam Dalgleish.  I hoped Pemberley wouldn’t prove to be Baroness James’ Waterloo.
As the book opens, everyone is anticipating Lady Anne’s Ball, a tradition begun by Mr. Darcy’s mother.  Guests—including Mr. and Mrs. Bingley—will be arriving, silver must be polished, flowers arranged, food prepared, entertainment arranged, rooms readied, and so forth.  On the eve of the ball, everything is disrupted by the arrival of an hysterical Lydia, Elizabeth’s silly and self-centered sister, crying that her husband is dead.  A search party is sent out into the night, where Wickham is found alive but blood-covered and kneeling beside the dead body of his friend, Captain Denny.  Wickham’s drunken assertion that he’s killed Denny doesn’t help matters one whit, especially as he later says he didn’t actually bash Denny’s head in, but proving either claim is a matter for the trial.
While I can’t say this book is an utter triumph, I do think that it comes closest to sustaining the tone of the original of any that I have read.  What it doesn’t do—and frankly, can’t do—is recapture the intensity of the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth.  They’re seen here as a settled married couple, still in love with one another but now more bound by duty and obligation to family and dependents than to passion.  I found it an entirely believable situation.  Some authors have sought to enliven their sequels by having characters repeatedly casting aspersions on Elizabeth’s character, thereby forcing Darcy to rush to her defense as a declaration of love or have some other occurrence to drive a wedge between the two lovers in order for them to continually break up and reconcile, a sort of “As Pemberley Turns.” 
James is also constrained by the need to explain some social differences between the times that Austen would not have needed to do as well as treat certain characters a bit differently.  For example, servants are presented more as individuals than they were in Austen’s work, partly to explain situations and relationships. (I can foresee a time when children all receive schooling via computer in their homes and a future author, writing a story set in 1970, would feel it necessary to explain who the school bus driver is and why parents blithely send children out to get on a bus with a comparative stranger.) Also, social relationships are much more important and reflect on both parties:  the fact that Wickham isn’t received at Pemberley isn’t a simple social snub, but an indictment of his character.  
On the plus side, James does much better than most at hinting at Austen’s humor throughout the book, with little social observations enlivening the descriptions and action. For example, she writes about Elizabeth’s acceptance as Mrs. Darcy:  “Within a month a consensus had been reached:  the gentlemen were impressed by Elizabeth’s beauty and wit, and their wives by her elegance, amiability and the quality of the refreshments.” Some mystery fans have complained about the solution, but I see it as a reflection on how things would have been resolved in a novel at that time, before certain mystery conventions were accepted.  I do feel she has a solid grasp of the characters and can believe in the futures she has postulated for them, and she doesn’t endlessly retell the story of Elizabeth and Darcy except in those details which pertain to the story at hand.  (The phrasing used ends up being just a bit contagious, rendering it somewhat dangerous for one to read before one undertakes the task of writing a review or even a shopping list lest it seems one is being paid by the word as was Dickens.)
Is this a book to treasure?  Maybe not, but I wouldn’t be adverse to reading it again and that’s more than I can say for most of the Austen homages.

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