It is a truth universally acknowledged that every sequel written by a professed fan of the original is regarded with (at best) suspicion or (at worst) derision. If however, the original novel was written by Jane Austen and the ‘sequel’ is the work of P.D. James, the general reaction – at least in my case- was confusion.
When Austen wrote that Pride and Prejudice was ‘too light and bright and sparkling’ and could benefit from ‘anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight [to the rest of the text]’, I’m fairly certain that she didn’t seriously intend for the shades of Pemberley to be polluted by murder. Nor did she want Elizabeth’s conversation to become blander than a boiled potato. But more on that later..
Six years after Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy, preparations are well underway for the annual Lady Anne’s Ball. However, the night before Lydia Wickham arrives dramatically at Pemberley, screaming that her husband has been murdered in the grounds.
A search party finds Wickham alive and kneeling beside the corpse of his friend Captain Denny, who has it seems been murdered. In the absence of other suspects, Wickham is to be tried for his murder. But Mr Darcy and his cousin, the Colonel Fitzwilliam are convinced of his innocence. Can they save Wickham from the hangman’s noose or has his fate already been sealed?
Although the opening has not received many favourable reviews. I rather enjoyed it. The retelling of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Lizzy’s ex-neighbours in Meryton and her family’s guesses and suppositions adds a delightfully gossipy and small-town feel that is evocative of Austen’s work. And if as some cynics might point out, it was less evocative and more ‘cut and paste’, look at all the possibilities for this section. I for one shall be inviting my Regency-fan friends over for a ‘spot the quote’ (tea-) drinking game as soon as I get hold of the audio-book.
The light-hearted style of the opening remained fairly Austenesque with echoes of Austen’s voice appearing from time to time, for example in the description of Doctor McFee:
‘He had early learned that a patient’s relatives are less trouble if they are kept busy in the sufferer’s interest and had devised concoctions whose efficacy was in proportion to the time taken to prepare them’.
Darcy’s character and internal monologue were well-written and showed almost entirely believable motivations for his behaviour. I say almost because of the emphasis placed on Mr Darcy’s and his sister’s sense of duty towards and attachment to Pemberley. Whilst the sense of duty these characters would have been raised with would have been great, the constant references to it slowed the pace of the story and stretched credibility at times.
Elizabethon the other hand is slightly… dull. By that I don’t mean that she has become the sort of paranoid and superficial nitwit that some sequels have made her out to be. Merely that she is not as vivacious as in the original, although I suppose that having a dead body in the house would decrease the number of witticisms uttered by the inhabitants.
Death Comes to Pemberley wasn’t entirely what I had first expected: it was not a novel that saw Mr and Mrs Darcy super-sleuthing it around Pemberley/ Derbyshire and the plot was weaker than in James’ other work. Nonetheless the majority of the characters were well-written and the story flowed very smoothly (apart from the occasional ‘Pemberley owns my soul’ paragraph).
Despite my criticism of parts of the book, I found it worth a read as it took me back to the world Austen created very convincingly (look out for references to some of Austen’s other novels in there!). It also gave a depth to Mr Darcy’s character and ‘background’ that was both believable and enjoyable to read about.
And it was wonderful to see James, one of the most brilliant crime-writers in English Lit., transformed into a fan-girl who admits at the very start that if Austen had decided to write such a story that she would have ‘done it better’.
Wild Night In’s Verdict? Wavering towards win.