P.D. James Does Justice to Jane Austen

Reviewed by Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, Dec. 09, 2011

What a treat! For all those Jane Austen fans who thought they had nothing more to hope for but another weird aberration along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, here is a story to savour.

Unlike many of the writers of the countless spinoffs that followed the 1813 publication of Pride and Prejudice, P.D. James captures the cadences and storytelling quirks of Austen, paying homage to the original author while adding her own touches as she signals the impending disasters in her mystery.

Her charming descriptions of the English countryside give way to “unwelcome disorder,” then overt menace – “the familiar and well-loved landscape looked alien [albeit uninhabited by zombies], the river winding like molten silver … mysterious and eerie, where nothing human could ever live or move.” As the title foretells, death comes to Pemberley.

The story, as usual in Austen’s tales, is far from simple. There is a large cast of characters, each with his or her own past, interests, fears and prejudices, but James manages to sketch all the inhabitants of the legendary, enviably rich house, its masters and servants, and the surrounding families and friends who are to do their part in planning the grand annual autumn ball at Pemberley.

Readers of Pride and Prejudice will be familiar with the main actors: the witty, practical yet affectionate Lizzy, now chatelaine of Pemberley; the arrogant yet caring Darcy; the dashingly villainous Wickham; and all the Bennets (Lizzy’s parents and sisters) who slide through these pages pursuing their own goals and exhibiting their preoccupation with wealth and its trimmings, as well as their fondness for one another. The supporting cast of servants get its due – and don’t miss the details or you will have to return for bits you may have overlooked.

The tale begins to take on definite Jamesian tendencies when a hysterical Lydia (Lizzy’s sister, now Mrs. Wickham) arrives at Pemberley, uninvited, in a lurching chaise, screaming that her husband has been murdered. Colonel Fitzwilliam (family friend and relative) and Darcy go to investigate in the estate’s dense woods and find that, indeed, murder has been committed, but the body is not Wickham’s, but that of his friend, Captain Denny. Wickham himself is discovered bloody and incoherent with grief and alcohol.

I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I won’t reveal any more. Suffice to say that there is a murder investigation. There are numerous suspects, a court case that allows the author a chance to recreate the judicial proceedings of Austen’s day, several false leads and a solution that does what Austen liked her own stories to do: “restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with the rest.”

P.D. James told The Daily Telegraph that she decided, after finishing The Private Patient, her most recent mystery, that she would combine her “two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen.” It is wonderful to know that James, at 91, is as much the mistress of her material now as she was when she wrote Cover Her Face, almost 50 years ago. I read it in the early seventies and quickly followed with all her Inspector Dalgliesh books.

If I have any complaint about Death Comes to Pemberley, it’s that the book is not long enough.