Friday, 24 August 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D James

Oh my. Well. According to a fan (boyfriend's mother) of this author's normal work, this book is well below her scope of writing intelligence. And indeed if I were to judge all her mystery novels on this one, I'd judge them all very simple and easy reads. As it is, I know this is an homage, and not to be taken seriously.

I will begin by saying that for all the criticisms I have, it was a 'lark' of a read, as Lydia would have put it. It's just a bit of fun, quite honestly. As all prequels, sequels and "diary" entries written using Jane Austen's world are.

I shall start with the Prologue: It annoyed me, actually. Whilst it neatly summarised which daughters had married and to whom, and where they were all living, she also took the liberty of recapping what had happened in Pride and Prejudice through the thoughts and perceptions of the habitants of Meriton - that is, Lizzies 'plan' to ensnare Darcy from the start and Jane's good fortune etc etc.
In fact, she does this a lot with unexplained events - she has Lizzy recall her relationship with Charlotte Lucas, and how it has deteriorated, and perhaps the "revenge" she and Mr Collins had upon Lizzy by somehow letting Lady Catherine know about Darcy's supposed plans to propose. P.D. James does have a point with this one, actually, but at the same time, it's just mystery-writer getting all psychoanalytical on us.

And then on into the main story. It is the day before Pemberley's annual Lady Anne Ball. It is a ball that began as a birthday party for Darcy's mother and has become a great tradition. As the key guests we care about arrive for dinner the night before - Jane and Bingley, Colonal Fitzwilliam (now also a Viscount!), Georgiana, a lawyer friend - we are told warmly about the happiness of the Bingley and Darcy marriages. Yay.

But this familial happiness is about to be threatened! There is a chaise coming at high speed to the doors of Pemberley and a distraught Lydia Wickham has fallen out of it screaming that her beloved George Wickham had been murdered!

And from there, the mystery begins. There isn't too much mystery. It is clear that P.D James is attempting to make the murder case as much based on circumstantial evidence as possible - an easy feat in a world where there is no real forensic evidence and local land owners are magistrates (Yes, Darcy is a magistrate - though he calls on another magistrate to take control of things, as he is a key witness.)

We have the typical suspicious behaviour of certain guests - one is more addressed than the other. And of course there is a twist at the end of the murder trial which explains everything to the key players (but not entirely to the courts cause obviously we don't want scandal to be brought upon the house of Pemberley).

The ending, for me, was unsatisfactory. Perhaps if it were longer and less of a hobby-style fanfiction, P.D. James would have done the genre (and herself, according to boyfriend's mother) justice. Aside from that, she broke a rule I think writers should always adhere to: she made a cross-over reference with another Austen book.

I am fine with the necessity to invent character pasts a bit, and their futures, to flesh out characters Jane Austen never felt the need to. That's normal. I am not ok when authors cross-over the books of the author they're writing for, when the original author never did.  Barbara Wood, one of my favourite authors, has a very subtle "cross over" with Virgins of Paradise and Green City In The Sun - but only because they are set in the same time, for part of it, AND it was a tie to a medical publication made by a main character in GCITS.

Jane Austen never merged the worlds she created, and I highly doubt that Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper of Pemberley somehow knows the housekeeper or head maid or whatever of Mr and Mrs Knightly at Donwell Abbey. It was a very clunky and obvious cross reference, in my opinion, and spoiled the already weak ending for me. It was purely to tie up loose ends, and it was unnecessary to name names the way she does. (Harriet Smith and Robert Martin also get a look-in in this speech)

And then there is the Epilogue. I'll be honest, I felt exasperated. It honestly felt like a reprise of Pride and Prejudice, where Darcy and Elizabeth explain their past behaviours and apologise and self-agonise over and over once she's actually accepted him.

Which brings me neatly to another point I noticed about the book: P.D. James liked to throw in the odd phrase here or there that a character was known for having said, however I honestly think that they were largely taken from the BBC t.v. series of Pride and Prejudice - and why not? It was an excellent series and far truer to the book than any of the crap Hollywood came up with in the Keira Knightly version (seriously: when a film quotes just *one* line from such a well known book, you know it's a bit of a loose take).
It just amused me that the fan service was to the television-watching fans and not to the book readers. I've read the book many times, starting when I was 11. I have had the t.v. series in the background of my childhood since 1995, and then when I watched it myself over and over since I was about 10. I know it pretty damn well, I have to say.

And that is why I enjoyed reading this book - for all the silliness it is - the references made to past behaviour and what it could be like now.
I had a great titter over a letter from Lady Catherine to Darcy and Elizabeth. In it, she mentions that she would send her lawyer, but he is currently employed in the "long-standing boarder dispute with her neighbour" - I preferred to interpret this is an attempt of a restraining order on Mr Collins.
And also Elizabeth's reminiscence of the way Charlotte Lucas/Collins managed Mr Collins in order to make him a more bearable husband - obviously, in neither book nor t.v. series do we see the scene described, but as well as being a joke at Mr Collins's expense, it was actually highly plausible!

I did begin to criticise out-loud the fact that Catherine made any reference to Elizabeth in the letter at all - yes, it was to do with Darcy's in-laws through Elizabeth, but given how Jane Austen left the relationship between Elizabeth and Catherine, it was incredibly out of character. I know it's been 6 years, but even so. This however does get explained and I guess it was a good enough reason.

Another criticism was the very occasional language anachronism that occurred. The key one being that Mr Darcy says that something was/is "totally inappropriate". I do not think, in 1803, that the word "totally" was used in that way, if at all. IF he were to adverb the word "inappropriate", then he would have said "wholly", in my opinion, but whatever, P.D. James is not from the same time as Austen was.

Otherwise, yes, this book was a fun read, as a big fat P+P fangirl. It shouldn't really take the average bookworm very long to get through this, even if you only read a chunk before bed each night. It's light, and the language, though trying to capture the essence of Austen, isn't alienating or stuffy.  As Mr Bennet says (in this book, not the original), it was "succinct]ly but no doubt accurately" written.

My overall rating? 3/5 - I liked it, and I'd probably read it again if I felt like it in the future, but it's not necessarily as 'brilliant' as the on-cover newspaper critics claim it to be. It IS however one of the better Pride and Prejudice fanfics I've read. Certainly MUCH better than Mr Darcy, Vampire.

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