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A murder-mystery tribute act

by
02 November 2012

Richard Lamey relishes Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

ISTOCK

THIS book takes place a few years after the end of Jane Austen's immortal novel Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are happily married with two sons, relishing family life in their great Derbyshire house, Pemberley.

All is elegant beauty and delight. The servants are loyal and grateful, their best friends are near by, two boys are in the nursery, and Mr and Mrs Darcy are more devoted to each other than ever. Preparations are being made for the county's social highlight of the year, Lady Anne's Ball, when a coach bursts out of woodland in the middle of a storm, carrying an unexpected guest and news of gunshots and murder.

The field of sequels to favourite classics, written decades or centuries later, is becoming crowded. Some of them are inevitably more successful than others, and there are few more painful things than witnessing characters whom we have come to love and believe in being twisted out of all recognition by a tribute act.

Death Comes to Pemberley starts slowly and self-consciously. Partly, this is because P. D. James seems to be trying too hard to echo Jane Austen's rhythms and phrasing, and partly it is because the first chapter is a (surely unnecessary) synopsis of Pride and Prejudice. There can be few people who have not read Jane Austen's book who will read Baroness James's - and there can be even fewer who have not seen either the 1995 BBC TV series or the 2005 film.

The first chapter is worryingly leaden, but James finds her confidence as soon as the murder mystery begins. The coach arrives at speed at Pemberley's door: "lurching and swaying down the woodland road towards the house, its two sidelights blazing like small flames".

Its advent causes alarm and fear in Pemberley, but it does something different to the author. From that moment, shes relaxes, and gets on with telling the story, and with solving the mystery. Few authors do that more confidently and more enjoyably than she does.

It becomes a murder mystery, and one that we immerse ourselves in because it threatens the contentment and optimism of people whom we already care about, as if this tragedy had happened on the doorstep of our friends. We need to know what happened, because we need to know what it will mean for the happiness of the great house of Pemberley, and for Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, who fell into love, almost despite their best efforts, in Pride and Prejudice.

The book works partly because it is, at heart, a murder mystery, and we know that we are in safe hands when it comes to the author. It also works because her books feel comfortingly traditional.

Much crime fiction today rejoices in unthinkable horror, presenting a world in which violence and inhumanity are the norm, in which one man, vastly out of his depth, stands between us and hell. The veneer of civilisation and compassion is thin. Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsson, and their kind assume that we live in a dark dystopia; they relish the depths of depraved horror, and focus on grisly murder scenes.

P. D. James does not fit into this fashionable (and in its own way gripping) world. Death Comes to Pemberley succeeds because she believes what the title suggests: that there is a structured, beautiful, meaningful, purposed world (embodied by Pemberley in 1803), in which occasional tragedies happen. They are not the dominant thread, and she is fascinated by the way an ordered world responds to sudden violence.

What will happen when death comes to Pemberley? What will happen when the investigation challenges the hallowed assumptions of loyalty and decency, and when secrets are threatened with exposure? What will people stand by, and what can change?

In this context, adding murder to the structured and seemingly unchanging world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy is a happy union. James believes that the world is fundamentally ordered and decent, and so does Austen. They both address the question how society and individuals respond when their cherished assumptions and beliefs are questioned: in Pride and Prejudic, by realising that people are more complex than we would like; in Death Comes to Pemberley, by an act of violence in the moonlit woods.

Devotees of Pride and Prejudice can relax. James is no iconoclast. Instead, she uses the great affection in which Darcy and Elizabeth are held (Pride and Prejudice is the second most loved book of all time, according to a BBC poll in 2003) to heighten what is at stake in the book.

This time, Darcy has more to live for, and is far happier: he has grown into himself. And Elizabeth, whom James clearly adores, is more caring than ever. Yet, at the heart of this story is a great love, a great marriage, in which each partner is made better and more human by the other.

We long for them to flourish. We long for them to be protected; for their best intentions to be rewarded; for their blissful lives to be sustained; for them to grow old together, surrounded by their children and their friends.

  It is giving little away to say that the great hope with which Austen ended her novel is brought a little closer at the end of this one.

The Revd Richard Lamey is about to be licensed as the Rector of St Paul's, Wokingham, with St Nicholas's, Embrook, and Woosehill Community Church, in Berkshire.

Death Comes to Pemberley is published by Faber at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-571-28817-5.

 

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY - SOME QUESTIONS

How successfully does P. D. James replicate the style and language of Jane Austen?

How close to the original characters are P. D. James's portraits?

Have you read other sequels of classic books? If so, do they live up to your expectations? If not, why have you chosen not to read them?

"It is generally accepted that divine service affords a legitimate opportunity for the congregation to assess not only the appearance, deportment, elegance and possible wealth of new arrivals to the parish, but the demeanour of any of their neighbours known to be in an interesting situation ranging from pregnancy to bankruptcy" (page 153). Does church still fulfil this function? Where else do people do this nowadays?

Does it work that the first part of the book focuses on Elizabeth, and the second on Mr Darcy?

Colonel Fitzwilliam wishes to marry Georgiana. Why is Elizabeth uneasy about this match?

How unchanging is the world of Pemberley? Does Elizabeth's twinge of regret on p. 298 amount to anything?

"Let us look on the past only as it gives us pleasure, and to the future with confidence and hope" (Elizabeth, p.308). Is such an attitude possible? Is it desirable, or even Christian?

Do you think Wickham and Lydia manage to live "happily ever after?"

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. It is published by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-044766-8).

Book notes
Effi Briest is a carefree 17-year-old, whose parents marry her off to Baron von Instetten, a man 20 years her senior, who had once courted her mother. She moves with her husband to Kessin, but is unhappy and isolated, living in a house that she believes to be haunted. The arrival of Major Crampas, a friend of her husband, changes things, however, and he and Effi embark on an affair. Years later, after Instetten and Effi have moved to Berlin and had a child, he discovers letters from Crampas, revealing the affair. Effi is banished, and sets up home with her faithful servant. Finally, she becomes ill and returns to her parents.

Author notes
Theodor Fontane was born in 1819, the descendant of French Huguenots, and brought up on the coast of Prussia, before moving to Berlin. He trained as a pharmacist, but later became a full-time writer and journalist. For several years, he worked as a foreign correspondent in London. His work includes poetry, reviews, autobiography, travelogues, and ballads. His first novel, Before the Storm, was published when he was 58; 16 others followed, including The Woman Taken in Adultery in 1882 and Effi Briest in 1895. He died in 1898, and was regarded in the 20th century as the finest realist author in Germany, particularly lauded for his sympathetic depiction of women.

Books for the next two months:
January: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
February: Christ in the Wilderness by Stephen Cottrell

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