Jan-Feb 2012: Book Review - Death Comes to Pemberly

Death Comes to Pemberley
by P D James
Faber & Faber
Reviewed by Nilesh Bakhle

P D James’ admiration for the writing of Jane Austen is well documented and when she decided to write her next novel as a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice”, my curiosity was well and truly aroused. I thought it would be interesting to see how Jane Austen’s genteel world would react to the business of death and the motives that lead to it, which is the hallmark of James’ work.
To do justice to James’ intentions in writing a sequel, it is necessary to read the earlier work and what strikes one immediately is that despite “Pride and Prejudice” being written in the early 19th century the themes are universal and find resonance with us even today. The writing style, though of an earlier age, is lucid and conveys exactly what the author intends. One then starts to have a glimmer of understanding of the fascination that James’ has with it and this increases the anticipation with which one starts to read ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ ends with the engagements of Elizabeth and Jane Bennet to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley respectively and ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’ is set six years hence where both marriages have duly taken place. As is clear from the title, the story is centred around the Darcy estate of Pemberley. In typical James’ style the stage is set with the preparations at Pemberley which precede the holding of the Lady Anne’s Ball, an annual event much looked forward to by the social set in Derbyshire.
However, on the eve of the ball, there is an unexpected visitor in the form of Mrs. Lydia Wickham (sister of Elizabeth and Jane and married to the black sheep of the earlier novel, Mr. Wickham). As events unfold, we understand that Lieutenant Denny (a friend of Mr. Wickham) who was travelling with Mr. and Mrs. Wickham to Pemberley has been murdered in the Pemberley woods and Mr. Wickham is the chief (and only) suspect. Social propriety dictates that Mr. Darcy extend all help towards the defence of Mr. Wickham and all the house party at Pemberley (Ms. Darcy, the Bingleys, Lieutenant Fitzwilliam and Mr. Alveston) are drawn into the ensuing investigation. There is also an earlier connection between Mr. Wickham and Ms. Darcy which is the cause of unspoken tension between Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.
Till this stage, the novel is true to the style of Austen to the extent that it seems like a natural extension of the earlier work. However, once the action shifts to London for the trial of Mr. Wickham, the touch of James is unmistakable. The novel now steps into more familiar territory for James, as motives are uncovered and skeletons tumble out of closets.
The need for maintaining historical integrity leads to the trial bearing little resemblance to how we envision courtroom scenes in the modern day. We rush headlong from deposition to deposition and before we know it the trial has ended. The denouement is swift and unexpected, quite unlike a James novel which may be strewn with red herrings but also offer insight to the solution as we progress.
Most of the primary characters from the earlier novel are present here, though I was disappointed at the Gardiners not having a more central role and Mr. Bennet making an all too fleeting appearance.
Though there is a murder and there is some mystery around what has happened, this is not a classic detective story since there is no detective (official or unofficial) and the action unfolds more like a chronicling of events. James’ has tried to stay true to the idiom of Jane Austen, but for readers familiar with James’ earlier work, this transition is not necessarily a smooth one. On the whole, one cannot but admire the manner in which P D James has addressed Pemberley and its inhabitants, though it seems a trifle self indulgent (only in intent and not in execution).
Both novels, read together, could well end up being taught in university courses as an object lesson in writing style.
It is probably very difficult for any novelist, let aside one of the stature of P D James, to stifle their own voice and write as if the spirit of another writer is inhabiting them, and purely for that alone, reading “Death Comes To Pemberley” is an enlightening experience for the reader. It evokes exactly the same atmosphere as the earlier novel and someone who reads it without knowing when it was written could well think that it was a sequel written by Jane Austen herself.
Highly recommended.

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