Archive for December 26th, 2011

December 26, 2011

P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

I’ve enjoyed what P.D. James I’ve read in the past. And Death Comes to Pemberley was far superior to many of the Austen adaptations I’ve read, but I’m still at a loss to explain the number of positive reviews it seems to have had. Everyone but me is wrong.

I wrote a short piece explaining my woes for the Left of Cool column. An edited version of that column appears below.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that all articles related to Jane Austen must open with some variation on the first line of Pride and Prejudice. Another truth is that Austen is brilliant. This is strenuously denied by some wrongheaded people, but she is read and loved widely enough for them to pale into insignificance.

So it’s not surprising that there have been so many Austen-derived works of art written and filmed over the years. Lots of perfectly respectable writers (Joan Aiken, who featured in this column last week) have written what is basically fanfiction, and much of it is very good.

In recent years, though, there’s been something of a deluge of literature based on Austen’s work – including versions that include Zombies, Sea-Monsters and Mummies, an entire series featuring Austen herself as a detective, the T.V. series Lost in Austen, the film Becoming Jane, the book (and soon to be film) Austenland. It’s all getting a bit excessive.

P.D. James’ contribution to this vast body of literature is a murder mystery and a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years and had two children. The Bingleys (Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband) live on a nearby estate, and all seems to be going well. Until, the night before a ball that Lizzie plans to host, her younger sister Lydia shows up, hysterical and screaming about murder. A body is found in the woods, and to all appearances Lydia’s husband Wickham is the only possible culprit.

As a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley is not bad at all, with a satisfyingly twisty plot based on minor characters from the original text. The shift in genre affords us a glimpse of other parts of Austen’s world. Pride and Prejudice moves between a series of estates of varying sizes – here we see the cottages of the tenants of these estates, the prisons, and London’s criminal courts (much of what goes on would have been considered decidedly unfit for publication in Austen’s own time).

James’ novel is very clear about where it is situated in history. Characters discuss such subjects as the war, the changing role of women in modern society (Mary Wollstonecraft gets a mention), and the efficacy of the legal system. It’s clear that the author has done her research beyond a mere familiarity with Austen’s work.

Yet this ultimately becomes more of a flaw than a benefit. Because it seems unlikely that many people who are unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will be picking up Death Comes to Pemberley this Christmas – most of those interested in reading the book will be people who have already read, engaged with, and loved Austen’s work. We don’t need long recaps of the plot of the earlier work; nor do we need to see the main characters thinking over and analysing their own actions in Austen’s original text; we know. As for the politics and the war, these things are present in Pride and Prejudice for those who have looked closely enough. Austen is simply less blatant about it all. “Show, don’t tell” is a rather tired piece of literary critique, but in this case I feel that it is applicable. The only sense of Austen’s England as a complex, vital place comes from James’ characters telling us what a complex, vital place it is.

Moments that are targeted at people who are already Austen fans do occur – there are cameos from characters who appear in Emma and Persuasion. But these moments are few and far between, and like everything else they lack depth.

I’m not an Austen purist and have often enjoyed books and films that bounce off her novels and examine her world. But such works generally meet the reader as equals and take for granted that she is capable of participating in this game. James gets behind a podium and attempts to explain Austen to us; and the only thing we learn is that she lacks the earlier author’s lightness of touch.

 

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But I know there are some great Austen-derived works out there. I’m fond of John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus”, in which Mary Bennet meets a young scholar named Victor Frankenstein. Suggestions for others in the comments, maybe?