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Messing with Jane Austen
Jane Austen is my favourite author. Pride and Prejudice is a book that I read at least once a year. While spirited Elizabeth Bennet is to me more than just a fictional charactershe's a friend.
So when I ripped open the courier's parcel a few days ago and found a fat, yellow book, I was jubilant. Death Comes to Pemberley promised both hours of unalloyed enjoyment and the opportunity of catching up with old acquaintances. For P D James - mistress of the classic crime novel, and herself an ardent Jane Austen fan - has written a murder mystery set in the exquisite, mannered world of Pemberley.
Elizabeth and Darcy have been married six years and have two sons in the nursery when the book opens on a chilly October morning. The household is in a bustle because it's the eve of Lady Anne's Ball, a sparkling event in Pemberley's annual calendar.
The former coachman Thomas Bidwell is busy polishing the family silver. The pastry cook has planned an array of tarts and delicacies to tempt the ladies. Quantities of almond have been grated for the potent and popular white soup. Elizabeth and Georgiana, Darcy's younger sister, have decided to fill the house with pink and white roses and geraniums
Strange, then, that bold, vivacious Elizabeth should seem so careworn and conventional. Even more unexpectedly, Darcy seems stripped of his arrogance and acuity and has been given a new persona that is about as interesting as a sheet of cardboard. And though the couple takes routine walks together and mopes about the past, the marriage seems dull and joyless. Is this disappointing future for Elizabeth and Darcy deliberate? Or is it just an outcome of tired, indifferent writing? It's difficult to tell.
Gradually, a cast of familiar and unfamiliar characters assemble in this subdued mansion. Elizabeth's lovely sister Jane and her goodnatured husband, Bingley, arrive to a warm welcome. With them is the ambitious and handsome lawyer, Henry Alveston.
Georgiana has grown into a self-assured and lovely young woman and is being wooed both by her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam as well as Alveston. The unspoken competition between the two men creates an oppressive atmosphere - and dinner is an uneasy affair heightened by an angry wind, "a malignant force, seeking every chimney, every cranny, to gain entrance".
The desultory group is about to retire for the night when Darcy suddenly looks out of the window and sees a chaise lurching through the windswept park - a sinister sight that brings to mind "a spectral coach of legend flying soundlessly through the moonlit night, the dreaded harbinger of death". The coach stops outside Pemberley and Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth's youngest sister, tumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered. A little while later the search party that ventures into the wild, dark woodland, stumbles upon a grisly scenario.
The stage is set for a prolonged nightmare and a humiliating trial. Strangely, given that observant Elizabeth would have made such a perceptive sleuth, she has little to do but play obedient helpmeet. Instead, the thin mystery is solved not by sharp thinking, but by convenient confessions and rambling explanations.
Given that Death Comes to Pemberley is written by a crime writer known for her clever plots and twists, this is a huge let down. And just as it fails to work as a mystery, so also it fails to work as a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly, the novel is loaded with details about the England of the early 1800s, but this is poor compensation for the fact that James understands and cares so little about the inner lives of her characters. Especially characters that are already such beloved figures in English literature.
Readers unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will find this novel quite pointless. While those who love Jane Austen's classic will find it utterly unsatisfying. What a pity that such a good idea has gone so wrong.
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