The Baroness takes on Austen

Death Comes to Pemberleyby P D James

Novels that take on the classics have a chequered history, and will always be subjected to increased scrutiny to see if they live up to the premise.  Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Gone with the wind, for instance, have all had prequels, sequels and adapations written with varying degrees of success. Published this week is Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes mystery too, House of Silk, which sounds irresistible. 

Austen is of course another author ripe for the treatment, and over the years Pride & Prejudice has had more than its fair share of homages. P&P & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, which spawned a tide of monster mash-ups, was actually rather fun (my review here); another trend-setter inspired by P&P was Bridget Jones Diary

Published today comes a new sequel to Pride & Prejudice, Death comes to Pemberley,  written by the one and only Baroness P D James, and it’s a crime novel.  James is a fan of Austen, and in a recent Guardian article, she apologises for appropriating Austen’s characters into a murder investigation, but said, “It has been a joy to revisit Pride and Prejudice and to discover, as one always does, new delights and fresh insights.”

If anyone could fuse P&P with a murder mystery, the Baroness, now in her 90s, is the woman to do it, and to paraphrase Sir Bruce, ‘Doddery, she is not’!

A clever prologue summarises the story of the original novel and reminds us of the main characters. Then the action shifts from the Bennet’s home at Longbourn to Pemberley six years after P&P closes. Elizabeth and Darcy now have an heir and a spare in the nursery, Elizabeth has happily settled as mistress of the manor and Darcy is a local magistrate. The Bingleys have set up home close by, so Lizzie’s beloved sister Jane is always at hand.

It’s the night before the annual Pemberley ball held in honour of Darcy’s late mother, Lady Anne. The Darcys and Bingleys are having a quiet family dinner. Uppermost on Elizabeth’s mind is Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana; she appears to be falling for the Bingley’s young house guest, Henry Alveston, a young lawyer from London. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is also there, and he is hoping that Georgiana might look his way.  Elizabeth muses…

It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour: the time when she and the Gardiners were visiting Pemberley and he unexpectedly returned and they walked together in the gardens, and the following day when he rode over to the Lambton inn where she was staying to discover her in tears, holding Jane’s letter with news of Lydia’s elopement. He had quickly left and she had thought never to see him again. …

… And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was difficult to envisage Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honesty compelled an answer, Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

We all knew Lizzie was a material girl at heart.  Then a commotion occurs to stop the dinner party in its tracks. It’s a chaise, rattling out of the woods (the back entrance to Pemberley). The driver reins the horses to a halt, and out of the coach spills Lydia, saying that her husband Wickham is dead!

Whilst none of us would be sad to see the last of the dastardly Wickham, or indeed to suffer much of Lydia’s histrionics, to have him killed off in the opening chapter would be to miss endless opportunities for more arrogance and bad behaviour on his part. Darcy, together with Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Henry Alveston, form a search party, and they do find a body, but it’s not that of Wickham. Indeed, initially, he appears to have been the perpetrator and although in a real state is taken into custody.

I’m not going to tell you more about who died. But it is entirely fitting to the setting for Wickham to be involved up to his armpits in the intrigue surrounding the events that happened that night. One of Darcy’s colleagues on the local bench is called in to take charge of proceedings, and of course the ball has to be cancelled. Darcy, as Wickham’s ‘brother’ through Lydia’s marriage, is reluctantly, but dutifully, drawn in to support Wickham through his imprisonment and impending trial. As owner of the land on which the murder was committed, Darcy is also involved at every step of the investigation. There were other people abroad that night though too, and we become intrigued to find out what they were doing in those hours of darkness.

The main story really belongs to Darcy, and through her intimate knowledge of the source material, PD James, is able to flesh out a lot of the back story between him and Wickham. Darcy plays a sort of Dr Watson to the succession of investigators, but having a foot in both camps, as he finds out answers, more and more layers get peeled away from Wickham’s shell, and we gradually get a real feel for Wickham the man. Meanwhile, Elizabeth in her roles as wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, ministers to all her charges, including the staff who are all very fond of her. She has the knack of finding out little confidences, which help everything to add up in the end and provide the complementary side to Darcy’s more robust stance.

All that remains is to decide whether James has cracked it. I believe she has. She knows her Austen, and the characters have authentic voices. Darcy and Elizabeth feel totally familiar. The only character missing is Mrs Bennet, and I at first I couldn’t decide whether that was a blessing or an opportunity missed to enliven the process, but after further thought she wasn’t missed much. We also get a good picture of the Regency judicial process and as to whodunnit – I didn’t work it out, having fallen for one of the red herrings.

Crafted with consummate skill, Death Comes to Pemberley works both as a crime novel and Austen sequel. I loved it, and hope you will too. (9/10)

* * * * *
My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James, pub 3 Nov by Faber, Hardback 320 pages.
Pride and Prejudice (Oxford World’s Classics) by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith
Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel by Helen Fielding
The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

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20 thoughts on “The Baroness takes on Austen

  1. I wouldn’t have considered reading this until I read your post but now I am intrigued and will have to add it to my list, although I probably need to re-read P&P again before I do as it has been quite a time since I read it!
    Thanks for the review.

  2. This sounds wonderful! Thank you so much for the review as I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it otherwise, not that I need to add any more books to my wish list, but still…

  3. I am SO relieved you liked this Annabel! I love both P&P and P.D. James so I was going to read this anyway, but it’s good to know that it works and that you enjoyed it:)

  4. I really like PD James’ writing but am more of a Bronte than an Austen girl at heart so I have hovered over this for quite a while. It might make it onto the Christmas wishlist.

  5. I heard the Baroness on the radio the other day and how alert and on the ball she sounded! She gives hope to us all I think.

    I am sure this is a marvellous book but as I’ve not read the Austen, I would probably miss much of the background and references. I’ve read many of James’ Inspector Dalgliesh books but am not sure I’d get enough from this one. Shame.

  6. Liz, Tom – If you’ve ever since the TV series of P&P you wouldn’t necessarily need to read the book to enjoy this. Despite James’ writing being pretty much authentic Austen in style, it was great fun to read.

    Sakura, Mystica – hope you enjoy it if you do get to read it.

  7. Even since Colleen McCullough’s disastrous “The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett” I’ve feared famous author’s homages to Austen. But you give me hope!

    I so wanted this to be good and was anxiously waiting for the brave bloggers with advanced/review copies who would take the bullet for me 🙂 Glad to see it wasn’t the case 🙂

    • Of course I could be wrong Alex… But I will look at the other reviews this weekend and see if we agree! Whatever they say, I really enjoyed it.

  8. I am really looking forward to this one. In a strange sort of way I think it may turn me back onto a little Austen-fest. JA’s books don’t quite do it for me as much as I somehow feel they should, I always feel I should try harder to ‘love’ them.

    • DGR, I have a confession to make … P&P is the only JA I’ve read. I am familiar, however, with all the TV adaptations the best of which are wonderful. Any excuse to get Colin Firth in breeches into a blog post has to be acted upon don’t you agree?

      I have long planned to read Persuasion to see if the book lives up to my expectations, as I loved the BBC version with Ciaran Hinds so much, (Rupert Penry-Jones as lovely to look at too in the other side’s version).

      This book was such fun though, and I always felt in safe hands. I hope you enjoy it too.

      • Great confession Annabel, my favourite sort:-) I get a bit further through Persuasion each time before I abandon it but have managed the others, perhaps we should set ourselves a little blog challenge..Persuasion to read Persuasion or something!

  9. Hooray! I was pleased that P D James wrote what she wanted to write but not sure if even she could pull it off. So glad that you think she has.

  10. I recently read my first P.D. James novel and enjoyed it a good deal, but I’m still really leery of Austen spin-offs/adaptations. I haven’t enjoyed any of the other prequels/sequels that I’ve read, and while I do think that taking the characters and putting them in the setting of a murder mystery is a bit of a new twist (though there is, of course, Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series which is somewhat similar), I just don’t know if this one would work for me. I tend to find that when I’m having an Austen craving, I’m better off just reading (or re-reading) one of her original works.

    • This is where I have an advantage Steph having only read one of JA’s novels, but seen all of the films/TV adaptations! The mystery wasn’t a stretch for me, and it was done very well indeed.

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