Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

This is how I see it. Living to 91 is an achievement in itself, let alone write a book at that age. I admire the adventurous spirit of P. D. James, sailing out to new waters at this stage of her career. This is her first attempt at creating an Austen sequel, a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction. So, how do I reconcile the flaws in this book with her previous acclaimed mystery works?  Let’s just say… the editor did it.

Take for example the error in referring Darcy as an Oxford man, who had actually gone to Cambridge, and with Wickham too. The ubiquitous redundancy of retelling, or the irrelevant details such as taking an inventory of how many candles are lit in which room.

Or, this dialogue between Sir Selwyn’s, the magistrate, and Darcy, as Darcy goes to his home to report to him a body is found in the woodlands. Are lines like these necessary? I find them incredibly amusing. Greeting Darcy, Sir Selwyn says:

Please sit. That chair with the carved back is said to be comfortable and should hold your weight.”

Since it was the chair Darcy usually occupied he had every confidence that it would. He seated himself and told his story…

The book begins with an epilogue detailing the story of Pride and Prejudice framed by a Jamesian view. It then starts off with the Darcy household preparing for the annual Lady Anne’s Ball at Pemberley, a tradition honouring Darcy’s mother ever since he was a child. A screaming Lydia comes charging in, uninvited, manically hysterical. Somebody has shot her dear husband Wickham, she claims. A search party led by Colonel Fitzwilliam soon takes action, and a body is found lying in the dense woodlands on Pemberley grounds. Wickham, very much alive, is seen hovering over it, blood stained and drunk. The episode comes early, the rest of the book is the revealing of the facts, whodunnit and why.

This is no CSI. The body is removed once found and brought back to Pemberley. Wickham, the key witness also now the key suspect, is washed clean of the blood on him, given a sedative, and is deep asleep when the magistrate arrives to question him. The later inquest at Lambton and final trial at London’s Old Bailey sound like child’s play when compared to, what comes to mind for me, Dicken’s Bleak House trials.

Simple, straight forward, not much mystery to it. But readers get to be entertained by James’ literary rendering and imagination of all the main characters from Pride and Prejudice, six years after it has ended in Austen’s hands. Darcy and Elizabeth now are parents to two boys, Fitzwilliam, 5, and Charles, 2. Readers so fond of their courtship would be disappointed at not seeing them together much in the book. Georgiana still lives in Pemberley, has two suitors, Colonel Fitzwilliam and a young lawyer Alveston, who seems to have a much higher chance.

At the end, we see the problem that has given rise to the motive of the crime neatly resolved by … Harriet Smith, who is married to farmer Robert Martin, no kidding. You’re right, that’s the Harriet Smith who used to go to a successful girl’s school run by Mrs. Goddard in Highbury, and the farmer Robert Martin who is a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Knightley. All characters from Emma. This part reads like a parody. But we ought to be familiar with this sort of things by now in our current culture, a total mash-up.

All in all, I say, don’t resist your curiosity. Despite its flaws, and if you don’t take Austen or James too seriously, this just could make one great escape from all the demands of rationality in your daily routines.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

For all Jane Austen / Pride and Prejudice fans, this review from The Guardian is a must-read.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James”

  1. I am glad you were able to be entertained by it Arti. I just couldn’t like it no matter how hard I tried.

    .
    Stefanie,

    Yes, I’ve read your succinct 1 star review on Goodreads. This book certainly is ‘out-of-character’ for James. So, I blame it on the editors… 😉

    Arti

    Like

  2. And sometimes a great escape is all I’m really after! I am curious, so may read this when the mood strikes.

    .
    JoAnn,

    Curiosity… yes, that’s what prompted me to read it despite the negative reviews. Hope it’s a great escape for you.

    Arti

    Like

  3. I’ll have to have my daughter read your review. She is a Jane Austen buff…

    .
    Ellen,

    Thanks for the referral. 😉 Maybe she’s read it already?

    Like

  4. I’ve made my way through most of P.D. James’ books (trying not to devour them all when there won’t be any more) and was so excited when Death Comes to Pemberley came out. I was a little discouraged by some of the reviews, but agree with you that just enjoying her way with words is worth it. So it’s still on the TBR list ;-). Thanks for sharing your take.

    .
    nikkipolani,

    I like how you said “trying not to devour them all when there won’t be any more”. That just sums up how highly acclaimed her previous works have been. I’d be interested to know what you think of it after reading.

    Arti

    Like

  5. Ah! Only 8 a.m. and I’ve had a revelation! There’s a blogger whose name I see now and then – it’s something like “After You, PD”. Something like that. I always was just a little curious, but never thought much about it. Now I suspect that it’s an homage to PD James!

    I must confess yet another lack – I’ve never heard of PD James. But I’m amazed at the achievement of writing anything at age 91, let alone another book.

    After I finished reading your review, I felt as though I’d just seen another episode of “Keeping Up Appearances”. I liked the show, so that may not be all bad, but on the other hand, PD James might have been hoping for a different sort of response!

    .
    Linda,

    You know, I was tempted to use this as the opening of my post: “Bad publicity is good publicity” It may be surprising to James and her publisher, the reception of her Austen sequel just might not be what they’ve hoped for. 27% of the ratings on Goodreads are 1 or 2 stars out of 5. So I think this is a relatively positive review. Indeed, despite its shortcomings, I’ve enjoyed her literary style, albeit at times too redundant. What were the editors doing (or not), I wonder?

    And FYI, here’s some info on P. D. James.

    Arti

    Like

  6. Thanks for a good review of this — I still want to read and explore it (and may brush up on P&P first — it’s been awhile — but it does sound like a bit of a romp and after all the heavy history I’ve been reading lately, maybe a pleasant diversion before I launch into a bio of Waugh. I have always liked James’ other work so I’m willing to spend the time for a turn of phrase in a favorite period. But alas — that editor should have Austened up first!

    .
    Jeanie,

    You know what, to her credit, James has repeated the synopsis of P & P many times in this book, so you really don’t need to ‘brush up’. In a way, that’s good for those who haven’t read P & P or have forgotten the details. I’m afraid though, this book really ‘shows her age’. Again, not her fault… the editor did it. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  7. It’s so you, Arti, to find something nice to say about this book, which has been pretty much condemned by the other reviews I’ve read. You’re a kind person. I’m not a great mashup fan at the best of times, and haven’t ever read any of the Austen ‘sequel’ books by contemporary authors. I like the originals too much! And I do love PD James’ crime fiction, and haven’t yet read them all. It is a huge achievement to write a novel at 91, though, I completely agree!

    .
    litlove,

    I mean truly, isn’t it the responsibility of the editor to go through the manuscript, checking for errors, redundancy, and ways to improve? Not that I’m too kind to help her shift the blame. I’d read a couple of her mystery novels years ago, my impression was they were intricate and well-executed, albeit her style could be a bit … umm… loquacious. 😉

    And don’t we all love the inimitable originals? Alas, without anymore from dear Jane, we’ve to settle for sequels, how sad.

    Arti

    Like

  8. Thank you for saving me this read! Unlike other readers of yours here, I had not read any reviews. A huge Austen fan, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of the “sequels” . . . and I sure wish she were still writing. I would like to try PD James though, and I think I must recommend her to my 70-year-old brother who had just begun reading fiction for the first time, and then he fell and broke his hip! I guess we know what he will be doing for a few weeks. And he loves mysteries!

    By the way, sorry about the bad link for anyone outside the U.S. in my post (Elizabeth Bishop’s poem). How ethnocentric! I found another site, which I hope will work. Otherwise, the name of the wonderful poem is “Filling Station” and no doubt you can find it too.

    .
    Ruth,

    For us Janeites, no sequels can come close to the works by Austen herself. Settling for sequels only reveal how much we miss the originals.

    I must check out Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, esp. this one you recommend. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad link, or that it’s ‘ethnocentric’. I’d say, maybe more a sign of ‘protectionism’. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  9. Great review Arti … I agree with a lot of what you say though not sure the editor deserves the blame but perhaps s/he does. I certainly got irritated by the redundant/repetitive telling of things – both from P&P and from within the story. How many times were we told about Darcy’s great grandfather’s suicide?

    Love your quote re the comfortable chair. The language was generally just too stilted. I think she should not have tried to write in early 19th century style.

    Like

    1. WG,

      Oh, that’s just a convenient way for me to pass the blame to the usual suspect: “The butler did it.” However, I just thought it’s the editor’s job to edit, to check errors (Cambridge not Oxford), to eliminate redundancy, to tighten the work. Or maybe in this case, the editor is being extra kind and gentle with the author. 😉

      Like

  10. I just read this book in two evenings time. Throughout most of the book, I felt like the people in it were just random people who happened to have the same name as in P&P. What bothered me was the shots, which kept being mentioned in the testimonies but then nothing happened with them – only one little mention somewhere. Also, the whole premise was false. The whole story could develop because Wickham was not accepted at Highmarten… except, you know, he was – From memory, “they both visited the Bingleys so often and for so long that even Bingley’s good humour was overcome and he proceeded so far as to talk about telling them to leave”. So yeah… I’m afraid this one is not going to end up on my bookshelf, it will very quickly end up with a second-hand shop.

    Like

    1. Irid,

      Guess it doesn’t work this time… but a brave try at 91. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Hope to hear from you again. 😉

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s