The Pain of the Present, the Unhappiness of the Past

Death Comes to Pemberley

“A brutal murder on one’s own property by a brother by marriage with whom one is known to be at enmity will inevitably produce a large congregation.”

In Jane Austen’s novels, first comes love, then comes marriage, followed by…murder? So is the case in this Austenite-inspired mystery from P.D. James. Readers find Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth and Darcy six years and two sons into their marriage, excitedly conversing with other familiar characters as they prepare for the annual autumn ball at the Pemberley estate. But things come to a crashing halt when Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, shows up uninvited, declaring that her husband—the dubious Mr. Wickham—has been murdered. Suddenly, everyone’s lives are thrown into chaos as bodies are found and truths come crawling to the surface.

Death Comes to Pemberley. By P.D. James. Knopf. 2011. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

I thought for the Halloween edition of Rachel is Reading, it would be fun to read something a little bit on theme with the holiday. The problem, however, is most of my bookshelf does not really fit into this category (I mean, unless you think complicated, contemporary romance is terrifying…which, sometimes, sure). While I was at home with my mother, I consulted her stash of murder mysteries. This one struck my fancy because of its Jane Austen source material.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in a long time, you’ll want to go back and flip through before diving into this novel because it doesn’t do any work to build the characters out for uninformed readers. There is only a short prologue describing the world Elizabeth originates from—where “the boredom of dinner parties and whist tables, always with the same company, is relieved by gossip”—and briefly the courtships of her sisters. Without context, a lot of the Austenite humor that James is trying to rouse won’t be as interesting, like the moment in Elizabeth’s head where she thinks, “It is never so difficult to congratulate a friend on her good fortune than when that fortune appears undeserved,” or the coldness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“People should make up their minds whether to live or to die and do one or the other with the least inconvenience to others.”

One character James does spend some time expanding is the brooding Mr. Darcy. He develops ever-increasingly complicated thoughts as the murder investigation unravels, how he had tried so hard to keep Wickham out of Pemberley but “he could never banish him from his mind,” rehashing the details of Wickham’s complicated past with him and Elizabeth. When Darcy comes to the realization in these thoughts that he could picture Wickham being dead quite easily, he surprises himself as much as readers who probably would not expect his character to be so dark. Still, “Every thought of [Wickham] was besmirched by terrifying images.” Alongside the murder investigation, Darcy also thinks of his great uncle and how he would feel about his life choices thus far, most especially his decision to marry Elizabeth despite her being of a lower family and class, an old theme I thought the original novel put to rest.

Frequently throughout the novel, I found myself scanning over details of the murder and instead rummaging for moments of romance and intimacy between characters, the spirit of which always lives inside Jane Austen’s stories. The fresh love here is between Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, and Mr. Henry Alveston, a young legal reformer who has come to live with the nearby Bingleys. “He is well mannered, intelligent, lively and good looking, and is therefore a paradigm of a young man,” Elizabeth notes as she watches the two of them together. “It was a moment of intimacy which enclosed them in their private world, yet reached out to a moment when self was forgotten in their common love of music...Surely they were in love, or perhaps on the verge of love, that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation and hope.” However, just like the original source material, there is the question of whether or not Alveston is a worthy candidate for marriage “without money or breeding to render him interesting.” I suppose some lessons are never learned.

Final Verdict?

🌟 1/5 — Scary Bad

This novel primarily failed for me because it never felt like I was reading a murder mystery. The details of the case are drawn out for too many pages to create any sort of suspense, and by the time the murderer (and the true victim) are revealed, I had stopped caring about the matter many pages prior. James attempts to echo Austen’s voice but it feels like a school assignment completed by a high schooler; superficial. There is also so much attention paid to irrelevant details—such as Wickham’s service in the Irish war or the particularity of cleaning china—that perhaps Austen could get away with in moments in a romance, but that in a mystery initially feel like misdirections then turn out to be fat the manuscript probably should have had trimmed in editing. The moments when the characters of the novel start to feel the lag in the mystery themselves are, however, quite humorous, such as during the trial when it is noted, “It was evident from occasional snores that the heat of the courtroom had induced sleep.”

Austen’s work had many good qualities, but I don’t think an air of mystery is ever one of them. Knowing that the characters are going to get together is key to the charm of the rom-com genre. Perhaps this is why it feels so artificial and odd to try to inject the narrative into a different genre. I wondered, with James’ note at the introduction of the novel, if she knew this, too: “Had [Austen] wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.”

Beyond the book.

Back in 2013, the BBC adapted the novel for a miniseries, which is definitely a less time-consuming manner to indulge in this fanfiction for the Halloween season. A number of big British actors make an appearance including Matthew Rhys as Mr. Darcy and Matthew Goode as the insufferable Mr. Wickham.

P.D. James passed away in 2014, but during her lifetime she published more than 20 books, most notably those in her Adam Dalgliesh mystery series. In 2010, she was interviewed for The Guardian on her 90th birthday about her writing process and her most famous series. Although I cannot say that her writing was exactly my style, I will say that I admire her dedication to her craft for so much of her life: a bit of a treat in this novel that felt otherwise filled with a lot of trickery.

See you again soon!

Rachel x