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The number of "sequels" there are to Austen's six novels (P D James herself says there are more than seventy) can be seen either as a homage to the original author or the height of folly. Why, we might ask, meddle with near-perfection? Especially when the modern author is, as in this case, one of the most highly-regarded crime fiction novelists writing today? The temptation to finish SANDITON is a strong one (see Reginald Hill) but launching the characters of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE into a new and later life would seem questionable.
The attraction for James as a mystery writer might seem clear enough. The traditional British mystery has many of the same elements as are found in Austen - the sharp sense of class and position, the hard-headed respect for money, even the peculiarly insulated lives of the characters, who often seem wholly oblivious to the injustices, or even the simple events, of the wider world. Couple all this with the challenge of thinking oneself into the mind of the undoubted master of the classic British social novel and you can see why James might be drawn to trying her hand at yet another sequel to P & P.
Well, how did she do? Amazingly well on the whole. DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY is a solidly-plotted mystery, developed within the constraints of the time in which it is set, in this case, 1803, six years after Elizabeth and Darcy were married. Elizabeth now oversees the running of a large house and is the devoted mother of two healthy sons. Both she and her husband are very alert to both the responsibilities and the burdens that their privileged position entails. All of the other Bennet girls save one are married, and Mrs B is content. As for Mr B, little is said.
As she has done before, Elizabeth's sister Lydia, wilful and undisciplined, and her dubious husband Wickham threaten the tranquillity of the Darcy establishment. Shortly after she turns up in hysterics on the Pemberley doorstep, a dead man is discovered in the woods, with Wickham standing over him, apparently confessing to murder. If the Darcys are to maintain their influence and position, a rapid solution, one preferably exonerating Wickham, must be found.
In an age before any scientific forensics, even before any real police force, exist it will take a clever detective indeed to get to the bottom of things, and, sadly, there is none on the scene, so the sort of careful policing that James details in her Dalgliesh novels is not available. Instead the resolution must come about through revelations that might have appeared to Austen as a bit sensationalistic.
Lovers of Jane Austen will be curious about how well James is able to continue in the spirit of her model. They should be aware that James is far more interested in Darcy than in Elizabeth, who has little more than a walk-on role. Although he is happily married, Darcy still has nagging doubts about the suitability of the match he has made. "[H]e had married in defiance of every principle which from childhood had ruled his life, every conviction of what was owed to the memory of his parents, to Pemberley and to the responsibility of class and wealth." This reflection comes late in the novel and does not endear Darcy to the reader (or at least to this one), especially as we learn quite a bit about Darcy's inner life and next to nothing about Elizabeth's. True, he will come in time to re-evaluate the actions he took (in both books) that were motivated by these "principles," but all that happens in the Epilogue and Elizabeth is not really instrumental in any changes he undergoes.
It is almost as though, in interpreting Austen in the light of what followed in her wake, James has propelled Darcy forward in time in the direction of Mr Rochester while banishing Elizabeth to languish in the obscurity of coverture.
Writing in the Telegraph last month, James observed: "I hope that my novel will give as much pleasure to readers as it did to me in the writing and that they will have the added joy, as did I, of returning once again to Pride and Prejudice." Reading DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY certainly provided me with considerable pleasure as well as prompting me to think once again about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as well as the uses to which crime fiction may be put.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2011
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