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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
January: The Paris Wife by
February: Christ in the Wilderness by