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This half term I have actually managed to be rather productive - three books read and one finished! Not much work done, but I think reading takes the priority. Finishing a book that I have been struggling through for months allowed me to finally move onto a book I'd been waiting to read and had finally got for Christmas; Death Comes to Pemberley. I've never read anything by PD James and I was only intrigued because I loved Pride & Prejudice so much and wanted to find out what happened next...
The book is sent in 1803, 6 years after Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet tied the knot. They are now happily settled in his estate, Pemberley, and along with her sister Jane, are preparing for the yearly ball. However, the evening before the ball is disturbed by the arrival of their sister, Lydia, during a storm, screaming that her husband Wickham had just been murdered in the woods on the estate as they travelled there. From that moment on, the story is very different from the dancing and merriment Elizabeth and Darcy had planned on.
Rather than the romantic novel that a lot of us know, this return to Pemberley is a murder mystery. However, it is not a very violent or gruesome one - I don't know whether it is PD James' style, or if it is her trying to stick to Austen's tone, but it fits well with the style of Pride and Prejudice.
To be honest, I found myself reading it not because I wanted to read a murder mystery, but because I wanted to know what happened next to the characters I know and love; who else got married, who had children, where they are now - you get the idea. I was satisfied, as these details were entwined with the main plot, and actually fitted with what you would perhaps expect, give or take a couple of expectations. The plot itself, the actual murder, seemed solved from the start. A body was found in the woods at Pemberley and a confession was given by the man standing over him. However, it is not as simple as it seems. Darcy has his misgivings about the case, even though he could be said to have every right to be happy with the outcome, he strives to find out what happens. And the strange behaviour of Colonel Fitzwilliam the night of the murder leaves the Darcy's pondering if the whole case is as simple as it first seems...
I think I loved the fact that most of the characters were the same. If memory serves me rightly - and hopefully it does, there were only two or three new main characters to the plot: Henry Alveston, a young lawyer; Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, a local magistrate (like Darcy) and Bidwell, the old head coachman, who along with his family lives in the mysterious woods at Pemberley. The characters, both added and revived, seemed very true to the book; characters we already know acting in a way fans of the original book would expect, whilst new characters slot in seamlessly to this next phase. I think this clearly shows that PD James has researched the era and Austen's writing style well, to not only present an entertaining book, but to also remain as true as possible as she could to the original novel and writing style.
I found Death Comes to Pemberley a nice, easy read. It perhaps relied on you knowing some of the back story, but I imagine that even if you don't know Pride & Prejudice, there is just enough backstory there to fill you in on the key details you will need to truly appreciate the book. I managed to read the book in a day, finding it interesting and compelling enough to keep going - I think if it had been any longer I would have been bored, as towards the end I did feel it had begun to drag on (although I still wanted to know more about their lives afterwards but I suppose that is what imagination is for!)
Overall, I found it a good book that had enough mystery and events to keep the reader entertained - but it was nothing too special. I do really feel PD James remained true to Austen, or as much as she could 200 years later - but I don't know whether this is her normal style or if she has had to put a lot of work into it. I know bigger fans of Austen, or James, may disagree with me, but this is just what I found. Definitely a good book for a lazy Sunday afternoon - and for those that, like me, want to return to the world of Pemberley and the Darcy's/Bennet's.
As soon as I spotted this in the book shop, I was hooked. One of my favourite books - 'Pride and Prejudice' - now had a sequel in the crime genre? Fabulous. I had never previously read anything by P. D. James but I recognised the name and was aware that she was a popular and well-established crime writer (she is 90 years old). Could this be as good as it promised? Sadly, the answer was no, not quite.
-- Did you ever read 'Pride and Prejudice'? --
If not, fear not, as James spends the first chapter essentially recounting the plot of the original novel, with a few embellishments to bring the story up to date. (For instance, perhaps surprisingly, dull Mary has married reasonably well, while the more engaging Kitty is the sole remaining daughter at Longbourn.) This section could perhaps have been handled better. While James succeeds at conveying the necessary background information, attempting to do so as part of the story results in some rather contrived attempts at humour. This is primarily achieved, as Austen often did, by focusing on how the local gossips interpreted the events that befell the Bennett family. Of course, Elizabeth only married Darcy for his estate. Of course, no one believed that Wickham had actually intended to marry Lydia. This is perhaps funnier if you have read the original, but it does all feel a little awkwardly done. I had almost rather simply read a summary of the plot as a separate thing from the story itself so the story could have a more dramatic starting point. That said, handling information from a prequel is always a challenge and James does at least try to do this in an engaging manner. Those who have read the original, and those who haven't, should be mildly entertained by the opening chapter. Other relevant information is woven into the text relatively well at appropriate junctures and feels less heavy handed than the opening chapter.
-- So what did happen in 'Pride and Prejudice'? --
(If you have already read the book, please do skip this section.)
Essentially, Austen explored contemporary attitudes to marriage, criticising lust, condoning financial sense and encouraging the romantic attachment allied with a good dose of common sense. Most importantly for this novel, she established the characters of Jane, Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley, Lydia and Wickham. Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia are three of five sisters who must marry well as their home will pass on to a distant cousin in the even of their father's death, leaving them dependent upon the cousin for a home and financial support. Bingley is a rich young man who moves into their neighbourhood, causing much excited gossip about his marriage prospects, and Darcy is his rather rude friend who quickly causes offence at a local ball by being proud.
Jane is beautiful and modest and ultimately marries Bingley, who is a polite but rather pathetic figure who relies entirely on his close friend Darcy to tell him who he can marry and when. (In the rather wonderful revisioning of P&P that was the short TV series 'Lost in Austen' Jane actually marries someone else due to Darcy's interference and a heartbroken Bingley turns to alcohol for comfort.) Elizabeth is a rather feisty young woman who is not afraid to tell Darcy's exactly what she thinks of him when he manages to propose to her while insulting her, her family and himself. Eventually, after seeing his beautiful estate, Pemberley, she decides he is really a good man after all and they end the novel in a rather embarrassing engagement. It is embarrassing because she has spent the last year telling anyone who will listen just how odious she finds Darcy, and it appears to most of the other characters that she is simply pursuing a life of wealth through marriage. Finally, reckless Lydia runs away with a handsome young soldier, Wickham, who then has to be persuaded by a hefty financial inducement to marry her. Coincidentally, this is the same Wickham who heartlessly chased Darcy's innocent young sister, Georgiana, in an attempt to gain access to the Darcy family's money. Unsurprisingly, Darcy doesn't like him, although he is too well-mannered to spread gossip about him.
Crucially, Austen's style is satirical and the story is most frequently developed through conversations which allow characters to reveal their true natures to the reader. Elizabeth and Darcy both learn valuable lessons throughout the novel and it is often hailed as a great romance, but it is also a rich comedy with many minor characters who provide great entertainment.
-- So what happened next? --
According to James, there has been six years of happily ever after since the events of P&P. Elizabeth has two healthy sons (the heir and the spare) and Jane and Bingley also have children and now live further away from the rest of Jane and Elizabeth's rather embarrassing family. Even Lydia and Wickham seem to have done reasonably well: he has been celebrated for his heroics in battle and they both somehow survive on handouts from unnamed sources. But of course, this is a murder mystery, so everything is about to change - or is it?
On the night before Lady Anne's ball, an annual celebration held at Pemberley, an unexpected carriage comes clattering desperately up the driveway. Out of this harbinger of doom tumbles a hysterical Lydia, screaming that her husband has been killed. After recovering from the displeasure of receiving this definitely uninvited guest, Darcy and two other males go out to investigate. Yes, there is a body in the woodland. As Lady Catherine might say, why have the shades of Pemberley been so polluted? Darcy seems to have found the murderer standing over the deceased body and admitting responsibility, but Darcy doesn't believe that he is guilty...so who is? And can Darcy prevent a wrongful conviction for murder?
In a minor additional plot twist, the lovely Georgiana has two suitors: an Earl and a Baronet. Lucky girl. Elizabeth thinks she knows who Georgiana favours, but will Darcy allow his sister to marry where she wishes? As the blurb promises that Darcy and Elizabeth's perfect marriage is "threatened" by events, it seems likely that this may be the cause. Will Darcy's pride cause trouble between them once again?
-- My thoughts --
The ineptness of the investigation was the first thing to strike me as I read: Darcy moves the body from the wood to an outbuilding on his property, potentially destroying valuable evidence, while the local magistrate accepts a rather pathetic alibi from Darcy's cousin simply because he is so respected. Writing a story set in the past allows James to make a few jokes ("I don't suppose you have yet found a way to tell one man's blood from another") which may raise a wry smile as the reader thinks about the progress we have made. I found that reading this made me feel grateful that times have changed and people are (typically) no longer automatically considered innocent due to their status. In fact, I wanted someone of high status to turn out to be guilty in this novel just so that Darcy could REALLY learn a lesson about status and morality, but James is not that daring.
Instead, the murder mystery itself is quite a disappointment. While Darcy is adamant that the chief suspect cannot be responsible, there are no other convincing contenders for the role of villain and there is no real investigation. Witnesses give their evidence, most of which the reader has already witnessed, and "justice" appears to be unobtainable. Eventually, James relies on Dickensian coincidence to allow for a shocking last minute court room announcement that actually makes little sense. I found neither the who dunnit nor the why they dunnit to be convincing. Clearly, James herself felt that this might be an issue as she has Darcy question one of the other characters about this series of events. They reassure him that it is all perfectly plausible, but I did not find it so. I like to be able to guess at the backstory and villain when reading crime fiction, and although I could guess at some of the denouement here, I felt that too much was held back and only revealed at the end. In fact, the killer is revealed 60 pages before the end of the 310 page book. When you need 50 pages of conversations between characters to unwrap the plot, it does suggest that there might be a tad too much plotting.
As this is meant to be a crime novel, I feel I ought to say more about thecrime element, but there is really very little to say. The denouement revolves around typically nineteenth century concerns: the seduction of young maidens, the difficulties produced by their illegitimate children and the machinations needed to hide them both from shame. This is all very appropriate for the period, but it does not perhaps grip readers in the same way that a more modern resolution could. It is difficult for readers today to understand the sheer horror attached to the mere thought of an unvirtuous woman. (Darcy practically chokes on his loathing for Mrs Younge, a key figure in the denouement, who blackmails young men after sleeping with them.) I think the story could have been gripping if told from a slightly different perspective. As it's written, James relies upon multiple narrators who reveal bits of the story to Darcy, but most of the main characters are denied a voice. As such, the emotions seem very muted and the tone is rather factual. I thought the crime element of this was therefore quite disappointing.
So what about the Austen angle? I enjoyed the brief references to other Austen novels (fans of Anne Elliott will be glad to hear that she is doing well, as is Harriet Martin) and the occasional comic touches that James adopted ("Although the library shelves, designed to Darcy's specification and approved by Mr Bennett, were as yet by no means full, Bingley was able to take pride in the elegant arrangement of the volumes and the gleaming leather of the bindings, and occasionally even opened a book and was seen reading it when the season or the weather was unpropitious for hunting, fishing or shooting.") However, I felt these were moments that gleamed in the dark, for the rest of the characters were rather dim.
Rather than hearing Elizabeth's voice throughout, James must use Darcy as she recounts the masculine world of the inquest and the court room. This wouldn't be a problem, except that Darcy's character is not as lively as Elizabeth's. His emotions are all guilt and concern for propriety. He simply does not create as engaging a window on the world.
Even Elizabeth has been tamed. Despite the promise of the blurb, their marriage is in no way threatened by the events of the novel. Rather than the anticipated scenes where Elizabeth instructed her husband not to be blinded by pride and to let Georgiana marry where she will, this promised plot development fizzles into nothingness. The previously spirited Elizabeth, now in charge of Pemberley's future, simply defers to her husband and hopes that he will have the sense to see what is right. The reader is cheated of even this satisfaction as one of Georgiana's suitors loses interest by the end of the novel, rendering the 'problem' obsolete. I think this is quite a serious problem with the novel as the whole appeal of Elizabeth Bennett in the original P&P was her willingness to say what she thought and her refusal to simply accept established hierarchies. Here, she actively works to promote them - when she is seen. Despite repeatedly assuring the reader that Darcy and Elizabeth are very much in love, they spend barely any time together over the course of the novel. Elizabeth is restricted to the feminine sphere (her house and her flower arrangements) while Darcy engages with the murder enquiry. I thought this was a disappointing conclusion to what had promised to be a more fiery marriage.
When the couple are reunited at the end of the novel, James seems to have panicked that there was not enough reference to P&P in the story. Suddenly, Darcy is apologising for things he said and did six years previously and Elizabeth is lovingly forgiving him. I found this rather odd, as this was all resolved satisfactorily at the end of the original novel. I also wonder how well this would work with readers who have not read the original. After all, you don't usually expect the last ten pages of a book to return to the previous novel in the series. We are also reminded at the end that the couple have two children. I did find myself forgetting this as I read; due to the fashions of the time, the children live in the nursery and their parents basically have visiting hours. This is not a criticism of James' writing as she is simply being true to the historical setting of her novel, but it is once again a little disappointing to see the revolutionary Elizabeth Bennett treating her own offspring as roughly as worthy of her attention as her plans for Lady Anne's party.
-- Conclusions --
When I started writing this review I had three stars in mind, but I have to confess that I have talked myself out of it. Although I found this perfectly readable, I didn't find it either as interesting as I would want a crime thriller to be or pitched quite as I would like an Austen adaptation to be. Fortunately, I bought my copy at a charity shop for a few pounds, but the hardback version of this would set you back £18.99 which I think is far too much for a book that one is likely to read just once and then only for the novelty value. The paperback is better value at £7.99 RRP and can, of course, be found cheaper online and in many popular shops. Chapters are a reasonable length to allow you to breathe and the font is a decent size so it is easy to read. This deserves two stars for the interesting premise and the flashes of Austenian wit, but it loses three stars for failing to really excite, interest or convince me.
Read this if:
You are a devoted Austen fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
You are a devoted P. D. James fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
You like stories set in the 1800s which investigate mysterious events without becoming gory or overly complicated.
You are able to borrow it or get hold of a cheap copy.
Avoid this if:
You have previously found yourself bored by Austen.
You dislike gentle crime fiction.
You prefer modern, high octane fiction.
You dislike lengthy, chatty denouements in which everyone 'fesses up to everything they have previously hidden.