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Thread: Death comes to Pemberley

  1. #1
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Death comes to Pemberley

    Yes, there is another sequel to Pride & Prejudice, but not one of the most straightforward kind. Firstly it is written by the revered P.D. James and secondly it is not foremost concerned with what happened after Lydia, Elizabeth and Jane finally got married. Despite its subject, the death of Captain Denny who also featured in the original, it keeps an odd balance between Austen’s world and characters and the investigation of the murder in its timeframe.

    As P.D. James is herself a fan of Austen, she has written her sequel with much respect for the three things that define a good Austen read: style, knowledge of the times and a world that is always smaller than one thinks at first sight. Although Death comes to Pemberley is a spin-off from P&P, other Austen characters feature as well: Mrs Reynolds happens to know Mrs Goddard, Harriet Martin’s (née Smith) ex headmistress and Mr and Mrs Knightley of Donwell Abbey (do we need to say, Emma), Mr Wickham once worked briefly for Mr Elliot whose daughter made an advantageous match with a sea captain who has now become a famous admiral (do we need to mention that this is Persuasion?). Maybe it is to be concluded that these happen to be P.D. James’s favourite Austen novels?

    After a brief filling in about the past six years pretty much in an Austen tone of voice, in which Jane and Bingley have had three children (a boy and twin girls), bought an estate far away from Mrs Bennet and closer to the Darcys; in which Elizabeth and Darcy have had two boys; in which Lydia and Wickham still none; in which Mary Bennet made a divine match with a very boring curate who happened to find himself preaching boring long sermons to the congregation of Bingley’s estate of Highmarten; and in which Georgiana Darcy is, as it turns out, now being pursued by two suitors: Colonel Fitzwilliam on the one side and a Mr Alveston (a successful lawyer-and-impoverished-baronet friend to the Bingleys) on the other whom she clearly prefers; on the stormy night of the 14th of October 1803, the night before Lady Anne’s ball, the social occasion for Derbyshire, a chase comes riding down the road to Permberley at frightening speed so much so that Darcy cannot help asking what the hell the coachman is doing. The family run out to see what is up and who should get out but Lydia who screams they killed her husband? Of course indisposed, they take her upstairs, but a search party is organised by Darcy (who else?). Colonel Fitzwilliam briefly incriminates himself by having gone for a ride in the dark and returning shortly after the chase has arrived. Deep in the woodland they find Denny’s body and Wickham with a face smeared with blood saying that he killed his friend, his only friend and that it was his fault… To be sure, Wickham is a nasty creature, but is he really capable of murder? None of them believe so, but in the absence of a murder weapon and any other more plausible murderer, Wickham is the one, must be the killer.

    Although James’s style does turn factual, it is not a surprise. A murder mystery is factual and it should remain so, but from time to time James seems to fondly return to an Austen tone. Governesses and nursery maids commenting on children’s progress and the Bingley sisters who let the Darcys stay with them because they want themselves to be seen with them is a quintessential Austen point of view. James did not abandon her own writing style and in that at least did not try to imitate to her own detriment.

    She displays a good knowledge of the timeframe she is writing about. About servants and their feelings, discipline and ways, forms of address. When she mentions small details like Elizabeth walking along the corridor early in the morning and thinking that, even if she were to meet a maid, the latter would flatten herself against the wall and smile, she displays great knowledge that is to be respected. It is equally a funny detail that Stoughton, I believe, is cheesed off about using such good wax candles (the best) for examining Denny’s body in the gunroom. Indeed, candles were an expensive commodity and should the best bees’ wax candles really be used for such business rather than the ball?

    But, what all Austen fans want to know is, ‘How did she do with all the characters?’ I am delighted to say, pretty well. James does admit that she has read and re-read this novel, but there are enough of such people who still cannot seem to understand the characters no matter how many times they read their favourite novel. James, however, makes a good stab at it. Only Elizabeth, I found, was a little lacking, although maybe we could not picture her as the natural, respectable and at ease mistress of a large house like Pemberley. Jane and Bingley regretfully did not make much of an appearance, but of course Elizabeth did and in the six years she has been married, she has calmed down quite a lot. Probably not surprising though, if we acknowledge that she was ‘not one-and-twenty’ when she was at Rosings and she should now be about 26 and mother to two boys, SPOILER ALERT and may we say about to bring a third Darcy into the world SPOILER OVER. People change a lot in those few years and certainly becoming a parent changes a woman profoundly, even if she is only 26. Lydia, on the other hand, forasmuch as she made an appearance still seems to be the very same…

    Darcy has a remarkable inner life in this novel. Indeed, it is he and not his wife who has to deal with the business of the murder in his woodland and as such he has to face his demons: what happened to Georgiana and why he does not wish to talk about it. How he needs to confront himself with Wickham, someone who is never received at Pemberley and whom he would prefer to keep out of his life and mind forever. But as he is rich, he is compelled to help him, just as Bingley and Mr Gardiner: Wickham he is their brother or nephew and they have money. If they do not help him to escape the noose and the disgrace, then who will? With this, of course, Darcy can finally accept the past and deal with it. But the past is not only Wickham, it is also the heavy burden of duty. Reminiscent of the shock king Edward VIII’s abdication caused the English royal family, Darcy’s great grandfather forsook his duty and had a cottage built in the woodland which will prove essential to the plot. He went to live there alone with his dog, not even taking a servant to cook. When the dog got old and ill, he shot it and himself, asking to be buried with the dog. The estate has not crumbled, but Darcy is raised with that legend in mind and it hovers over his existence permanently and at some point explains why he does not regret marrying Elizabeth, but still thinks it was in spite of…

    Mr Bennet also makes a brief appearance as well as Lady Catherine de Bourgh through a letter. They are both very faithful renderings of their originals and it is a shame Mr Bennet could not stay longer, with even Mrs Reynolds commenting that he is like a friendly ghost whom you never see but you miss when he is gone…
    But now for criticism. I think James missed a chance. Since I finished the book I have been pondering over a possible part for Darcy or at least a possible incrimination for him. He could easily have had a motive to kill Wickham, he could easily have mistaken Denny for him in the dark, and it would have been great to try that, but it was not to be. Maybe James justly felt that a person like Darcy, or Colonel Fitzwilliam for that matter as well, would never be put on trial in the first place, whatever or whatever not their alibi. Fitzwilliam was briefly incriminated as he was suspiciously out on a night ride despite the storm, but that course of thought was quickly abandoned a few days later. However, I suppose Darcy could have challenged Wickham to a duel years before if he felt that was necessary… On the other hand we all know Darcy is not a killer, by no means, I can’t even see him shooting birds out of the sky (now that was missing in the novel ), but maybe James could have cast some doubt. Possibly she found that too obvious, though.

    Be the aforementioned as it may, Death comes to Pemberley was worthy of Austen and her characters and, indeed, to be sure, upon my word, I daresay, and all that, it was by no means a novel sold because it is a sequel of P&P alone.
    Last edited by kiki1982; 01-26-2012 at 02:03 PM.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

  2. #2
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    Hi Kiki!

    I am new to this forum, and I am quite happy to have fond your thread. What made me look for companions of reading in the first place was actually that I wanted to discuss this sequel of P&P!

    I agree with a lot of things you said, I found this book well written and truthfull to Austen's character and places. I won't elaborate on this point because you did it very well, I had no hard time believing I was actually reading about the same characters I loved in Pride and Prejudice, even with the respectful and light change of style.

    But the murder plot itself was for me a little tedious: as you said, the characters we know and love are actually not that much implicated in it (the biggest "scandal" of it all for them is that it translated close to Pemberley, and that Wickham is suspected), they all testifies and/or wonder what happened the night of the murder but that is all...
    As a result, the whole novel seems to be about characters wondering what happened, fearing the scandal, and not finding any new information to solve it. The murder itself looses interest, until at the very end, it is resolved in few pages by few testimonies... But by then, I felt lot of the suspens and intrigue about the murder had been lost. Like you said, no violent feelings or duels provoqued by Darcy to make this resolution a bit more exiting...

    Something bugged me a lot about women's part in the book: I know the place of women in this time tended to be a very passive one, but Jane Austen's novels are actually based on women's actions and thoughts, and in Death Comes to Pemberley, not only Elizabeth is reduced to quite a contemplating role, but there is something I can't understand about Lydia's absence in the plot. I was hoping you could venture an explanation for it, maybe something I didn't catch: if Lydia was present in the carriage the day Denny ran off in the woodland and got killed, she must have known what Wickham and him were fighting about or - when the murder plot unveils, I understood I had necessarily been a secret for her all along but - at least had some information, about what was said right before Denny escaped from the chair. Why was Lydia - one of the closest witnesses - taken away from the plot when we - readers - "listened" twice to the testimonies of the coachman and the hotel tenant? I know for the character such a distance was partly because Lydia is such a... pain, but don't you think she misses from the whole plot?

    Finally, to me the book lacked Austen's "heated moments", those moments of passion that transpire through the dialogues, through the ironies (apart maybe from one or too scenes between Alveston and the Colonel, with Georgiana present, three characters that I found James developped very well).

    All in all, I liked reading it, and I thought James did a good job recreating Austen's world. But these 3 points were misses for me... I would love to know what you - and all those who read the book in this forum - think!

  3. #3
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    I thought I'd never get a reply to this one. Maybe because it is an indulgence and no more . Not worth pondering about?

    Anyway, I'm glad you liked it.

    You are right about the intrigue and suspense. It goes quite quickly. Fitzwilliam is incriminated by being out, and straight after that, he is redeemed. I think James could have kept that up for a lot longer, at least in the minds of the characters.
    The whole thing is resolved by a letter. Although maybe because of all the resolving letters in Austen's work, that was kind of a foregone conclusion?

    James is also writing in a timerame and scene which is not eactly ideal for criminal mysteries. No fingerprints and no unfamiliar people together. Or people the detective doesn't know. I.e. a whodunnit like The Orient Express or those Poirot stories like Evil under the Sun or Dumb Witness. The Orient Express is essentially one where they are all on a train, so one in the carriage must have committed the murder as the carriage was closed and the train did not stop, but the question is who. The other two feature conglommerations of people, the former in a holiday hotel on an island where there are certain not-so-nice undercurrents. The clue is in the timing. The latter features a family and an inheritance (asking for trouble) and the dog playing with his ball on the stairs holds the key.
    The problem is that you can't have that at Pemberley. There are no fingerprints in those stories, so no real gimmicks, but the characters at Pemberley are a harmonious family here the ones in Agatha Christies novels are not. The only ones who are at odds in James's novel are Wickham and Darcy and maybe Fitzwilliam and Georgiana, but the former two never meet, apart from maybe in town, so Darcy cannot murder Wickham at Pemberley and Fitzwilliam is not going to strangle Georgiana, is he?

    James could have invited a few other characters, for example to Lady Anne's ball, but in order for them to be interesting, they need to be developed and besides, it would not have been so much Death at Pemberley anymore, but just a story featuring a few characters from P&P. A little bit like The Affair at the Victory Ball of Poirot. Very interesting, but it doesn't involve any leading characters.

    The period James writes in is also difficult. It's not only all the forensic techniques she misses (you can get many surprises using those), but also the social structure is difficult to overcome. A Colonel Fitzwilliam can be incriminated in people's minds, but invariably, even if he had committed the murder, someone else would have been blamed for it or the case would never have been solved. The point is that people with a title were never publicly incriminated. The worst that could happen was that the traces pointed to such a person and that the person or his family would hand over cash to buy the police off. The family would then ban him to another county or country in order to be forgotten about (to quash the rumours), pretty much as James did with Wickham: although he is in the end proven to be innocent, his name is soiled and they ship him off to America where he is unsoiled and thus can start a new life. Having appeared in the dock, he would never recover from that in England for the next 20 years or something. If Fitzwilliam had been guilty, the police would not have taken that seriously and thus, Death comes to Pemberley would have turned into a novel of 'how to avoid justice' instead of 'who did it and why'.

    I think, over all it was a nice read and very respectful (which you can't say about a lot of such fanfiction), but I think she would agree that it must have been difficult to devise a believable and interesting story out of that world.

    The clue in Lydia disappearing from the scene might be in the following, it only hit me after thinking about it when you remarked on that issua:
    in Downton Abbey, period drama which has been running for 3 seasons now, from ca. 1910 to 1925, at a certain point his lordship's valet is accused of murdering his wife in order to marry the housemaid Anna/Hannah? (which he has done). They know his late wife must have killed herself (with rat poison bought by him) and tried to frame her husband for it, but somewhere in the conversation, the lawyer mentions that his current wife should not be afraid that they would come and question her about what he said, etc., because a wife cannot be compelled to witness against her husband. If that were still true in the 1910s (and this period drama is pretty accurate in this respect), it must have been true in the Regency. Possibly still even now. Besides, Lydia could maybe have said Denny said, 'I'm not doing it. I won't be part of this.' But what is 'it' exactly?
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

  4. #4
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Just read the BBC is making a 3-part adaptation of this novel for the autumn/winter. Written by Juliette Towhidi (hope she's better than that woman who adapted JE and Emma) and starring Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin (from North Riding) as Darcy and Elizabeth. Hope it's going to be good. Look's OK for now, but the actors always look OK.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

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