A Literary Classic Revisited
Jane Austen is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved names in the ambit of literature. It comes as no surprise that her works, despite the passage of time, remain among the most beloved works of literature. They are often part of every discourse on literature. They are classics for a reason. These books have also inspired other writers, some even using them as a mantle upon which they wove their own works. All six of her works, for instance, were used for a literary project called The Austen Project, an ambitious undertaking by HarperCollins that involved established authors rewriting Austen’s novels to situate the literary classics in modern times. In the process, the modern interpretation will make the books appeal to contemporary readers. The books were also adapted into films.
The books also got individual retellings. Her first published novel Sense and Sensibility, for instance, was used in a mashup parody novel by Ben H. Winters, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. But among Austen’s works, it is perhaps Pride and Prejudice that is considered her most popular and more critically studied. The love story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy has inspired several retellings and adaptations all over the years. Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary is among the many novels that drew inspiration from Pride and Prejudice. But not all works inspired by the classic straddled the same romantic path that the original did. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) mashed up the classic with zombies and horror adventure fiction.
But what are the odds of the literary classic being situated in a work of mystery fiction? Enter Phyllis Dorothy James, a British writer who has risen above the ranks to become a household name within the ambit of British detective fiction. Taking elements from her comfort zone, James interwove Pride and Prejudice with the elements of her favored genre; this is a step away from the typical romance and the mash-up zombies. British literature for sure is a powerhouse in detective fiction. It has produced some of the most popular names in this genre: Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple by Agatha Christie. P.D. James’ – as she is more known – detective-cum-hero came in the form of a police commander and poet named Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh, however, was no prominent presence in James’ modern take on the literary classic.
“The atmosphere was not helped by the tempest outside. From time to time the wind howled in the chimney, the fire hissed and spluttered like a living thing and occasionally a burning log would break free, bursting into spectacular flames and casting a momentary red flush over the faces of the diners so that they looked as if they were in a fever.”~ P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley
James’s take on the literary classic transports the readers to October 1803, six years after the events covered in Pride and Prejudice which resulted in the union of two of the most renowned characters in the vast world of literature. Six years into their marriage, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth have comfortably settled down in the vast Darcy estate, the titular Pemberley. Elizabeth has slowly embraced her role as the mistress of the palatial grand manor, winning over the servants and the locals. Her vivacious presence seems to have revitalized the entire estate. This she did while, at the same time, fulfilling her role as a mother to the couple’s two sons, a five-year-old and a two-year-old. After all the obstacles they had to hurdle, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam’s union is growing stronger than ever. There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary at Pemberley, possibly the zenith of the Austenian universe.
As the story moved forward, James was reintroducing the readers to characters they first met in the original story. The Prologue recapped the events that transpired in the book that inspired this novel while, at the same time, serving as a primer for readers who have not or are yet to read the classic. In the neighboring Highmarten estate, Elizabeth’s sister Jane was also having the time of her life with her husband, Charles Bingley, and their three children. The two sisters and their families often spend dinners together. The Bennet patriarch also occasionally makes his presence felt, dropping by to visit his favorite daughter and his grandchildren. Meanwhile, Georgiana, Darcy’s younger sister is now in her early twenties. Georgiana was still unmarried and took residence in Pemberley. However, two men were courting her, Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam and a young lawyer named Henry Alveston.
When the story commenced, the Darcys were preparing for Lady Anne’s ball, an annual event that the couple host annually at their manor in honor of Darcy’s deceased mother. On the eve of the ball, while everyone was busily prepping the manor for the grand event, an unexpected guest arrived. From the woodland that flanked the manor emerged a carriage running at full speed. Rushing out of the carriage was Lydia, the younger sister of Elizabeth who was depicted as a prodigal daughter. Inconsolable, Lydia was shrieking, screaming murder: “Wickham’s dead. Denny has shot him!”. The Wickham she was referring to, of course, was her husband, Lt. George Wickham who she came along with, along with Wickham’s friend Captain Martin Denny; both men were not situated in the carriage. With Lydia’s entrance, the harmony at Pemberley was disrupted.
None of the trio was invited to the ball; this was despite the fact that most countryside families were invited to the ball. and her husband. Wickham, and by extension, Lydia were basically persona non grata at the estate after Wickham’s attempt to elope with Georgiana when she was still fifteen. The smooth-talking but scrupulous Wickham was once a friend of Darcy. The lack of invitation, however, did not preclude the Wickhams from deciding to gate-crash the ball. However, on the way to Pemberley, while the carriage they were riding was straddling the woodland road leading to the Darcy estate, Wickham and Denny figured in an altercation that ended with both men alighting from the carriage and into the woods. The sound of gunshots soon permeated the air and before she knew it, Lydia was in Pemberley, hysterical.
“And now the glade was before them. Passing slowly, almost in awe, between two of the slender trunks, they stood as if physically rooted, speechless with horror. Before them, it stark colours a brutal contrast to the muted light, was a tableau of death. No one spoke. They moved slowly forward as one, all three holding their lanterns high; their strong beams, outshining the gentle radiance of the moon, intensified the bright red of the officer’s tunic and the ghastly blood-smeared face and mad glaring eyes turned toward them.”~ P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley
Sure enough, a body was found in the woods by a search party composed of the two Darcys and Alveston. Death has certainly come knocking on Pemberley’s doors. The ball was promptly canceled as an investigation into the death ensued. On the surface, the case looked straightforward; there was even a confession. But, more often than not, what seemed straightforward is not straightforward at all, especially in a work of detective fiction where the mystery is the key component. This became apparent as the story moved forward, with more details and information coming to light. To add layers to this blanket of mystery that shrouded the story was the eerieness of the Pemberly woodland, the fabled Darcy curse, and tales of haunting that have become synonymous with the Pemberley woodlands.
Beyond the mystery, what floats to the surface was the beauty of James’ writing. Her language made up for an atmospheric read. She did a commendable job of capturing the atmosphere while keeping the tension on high. Her descriptions made the woodlands surrounding Pemberley come alive. She breathed life into the inanimate. This is notwithstanding the pressures that often come along with every attempt of retelling a beloved classic; the expectations can be quite high. She managed to incorporate her brand of prose into Austen’s brand of writing; the final result was an engaging read. All throughout the story, James’ command at steering a work of mystery fiction – she has a prolific career that produced nearly twenty works belonging to this genre – was palpable.
The story, however, does not reduce itself to a mere work of mystery fiction. An Austen-inspired novel will not be complete without the undertones of a subject that is often associated with Austen’s oeuvre, one of the major foundations of her works: the concern about who was going to marry who. The marriage prospect for Georgiana was one example but we also read about the same concern involving Bingley’s sister. On the fringes, Elizabeth was a silent spectator witnessing her sister-in-law’s courtship, all the while cognizant that the possibility of Georgiana choosing a partner due to love is virtually nil. Georgiana, after all, was subservient to the wishes and the approval of her brother. The entry of Elizabeth into the world of Pemberley set into motion a chain of events that subtly challenged Pemberley’s conservative views. The changing landscape of the 19th century, which saw the growing recognition of women’s rights and the various professions, knocked on the door of Pemberley.
While the book had bright spots, it didn’t take long for the book’s cracks to float to the surface. While the story can be riveting, the mystery was a little undercooked, to say the least. The book was a period piece that provided details of the 19th-century British legal system and how criminal cases were resolved during the Regency Era. The details, however, came in spurts and, at times, abruptly. On the other hand, the plot, overall, was thin, falling on the weight of the book’s lofty ambition. As the story advanced, it slowly descended into a monotonous and repetitive pattern. In a last-ditch attempt to redeem the story, there was another attempt at mystery toward the end of the book. The attempt, however, fell short and was disorderly.
“The New World is not a refuge for the indolent, the criminal, the undesirable of the old, but a young man who has been clearly acquitted of a capital crime, has shown fortitude during his ordeal and has shown outstanding bravery in the field of battle appears to have the qualifications which will ensure his welcome.”~ P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley
It seems that the book worked primarily because it relied on the value of nostalgia. It was lacking wit and humor, elements that Austen’s prose is renowned for. The dialogues were inane and stilted, barely leaving any impression. As a storyteller, one cannot discount James’ talent but Death Comes to Pemberley was, overall, bland. It was, from the onset, a blunder and she was not able to elevate tIt did not help that the characters lacked the vitality that Austen breathed into them. They were reduced to mere caricatures, shells of what they used to be. Not a single character stood out. Not a single character was believable or relatable. Not a single character left a deep impression. It was also glaring how the two heroes of the original book had little interaction. For a book that attempts to capitalize on an existing narrative, it crumbled.
Pride and Prejudice, without a doubt, is one of the most beloved works of literature. It transcends time and has even inspired several books and writers over the years. Over two centuries after its publication, it still tickles the imagination of both readers and writers alike. As a continuation piece for this literary classic, Death Comes to Pemberley fell short. It failed to capitalize on what the literary classic has accomplished. It was a blunder that has done little to elevate Pride and Prejudice. Any attempt to expand an existing and beloved narrative comes along with its own set of pressures and, unfortunately, James failed in her attempt. The book crumbled on the weight of the ambition; the vision did not make it across as the story was bland and dry. It was a botched attempt to mimic one of the most renowned titles in the history of literature.
Characters (30%) – 13%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%
I first encountered British mystery writer P.D. James over a decade ago when I received one of her works as a gift from one of my aunts. During that time, I was engrossed in works of suspense and mystery fiction. Unfortunately, it would take over a decade before I would again encounter the works of the British writer. I managed to obtain two more of her works; I was driven by my first experience with her prose. Giddy to reexperience the prose of James, I made Death Comes to Pemberley part of my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. I was basically shooting two birds with one stone. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that the book was inspired by Pride and Prejudice; I failed to make the connection. Imagine my surprise when I started reading the book and realized that it was inspired by a very familiar book in the world of literature. Now I am intrigued as the book was an extension of the story of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; I think many will agree that we are all curious about what happened to our favorite literary characters after the pages have closed. I found the prologue a little didactic even though it attempts to apprise non-Austen readers about the classic. The backstories could have been seamlessly woven into the story. Nevertheless, I moved forward. I found the story falling short of my expectations. I barely felt the presence of Elizabeth; it is like she faded into the background. I wasn’t fond of the book but I am glad I was able to tick off another book from my unread books pile. I am considering reading Devices and Desires if only to contrast this forgettable experience.
Author: P.D. James
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publishing Date: 2011
Number of Pages: 310
The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are two handsome and healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered.
About the Author
Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park was born on August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England but grew up in Cambridge. She attended British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls but she was forced to end her formal education when she was 16 due to lack of funds; her father also did not believe in the value of higher education for girls. She had to work and, at the same time, take care of her younger siblings; their mother was committed to the mental hospital. For three years, she worked in a tax office in Ely before finding a job as an assistant stage manager for the Festival Theatre in Cambridge.
On August 8, 1941, James married Ernest Connor Bantry White, a medical student and future physician. They had two daughters. White participated in the Second World War but returned home from wartime service mentally deranged. He spent much of the rest of his life in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, James worked in hospital administration and, after her husband’s death in 1964, became a civil servant in the criminal section of the Department of Home Affairs. In the mid-1950s, she started to write and in 1962, she published her debut novel, Cover Her Face. The book featured investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. James would publish thirteen more novels with Dalgliesh as the primary character, with the last one, The Private Patient, published in 2008. The majority of her Adam Dalgliesh novels were adapted into television series or films.
Among her standalone novels are Innocent Blood (1980), The Children of Men (1992), and Death Comes to Pemberley (2011). The last book was her last published novel. James also published short stories and works of nonfiction. For her prolific career, James has received several accolades. She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. On February 7, 1991, she received a Life peerage, Baroness James of Holland Park, of Southwold in the County of Suffolk. She was also made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1983. She also received several honorary doctorates and fellowships from various prestigious institutions. Her novels were also nominated and shortlisted for various literary prizes.
James passed away on November 27, 2014, in Oxford, England.
This book was a massive fail for me. It started out very promising, but the writing was so uneven, and the mystery didn’t take off at all. Horrible!
This is fun to read; I use a yellow highlighter to mark all the words that come from Austen’s book. Sometimes, it’s just a few words; sometimes a sentence. I know the story so well that my memory catches it every time James takes us right back to the words of P&P.