I feel it incumbent upon me to start this review by stating that I am not in the habit of reading Jane Austen re-writes, prequels, sequels, etc. It has been my fixed opinion that Austen is sufficient unto herself and that she ought not to be tampered with. However tempting it may be to dwell in imagination on the connubial felicity of Emma and Mr Knightley, or Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, I have never felt inclined to spoil my pretty flights of fancy by ploughing through the bungled efforts of others at imitating Austen. To do so, I have always felt certain, could only lead to exasperation and disgust.
Like many a belief of this kind, mine contained its fair share of prejudice – for I had never sought to confirm it by actually reading one of the despised books. Then, a few weeks ago, I came across an interview of P. D. James on her latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t say anything stupid either. And for the first time, I felt interest stir within me. Here was someone who was intelligent, who obviously understood Austen, and who had established a solid reputation as a novelist. Perhaps I was being a bigot and a snob, and thus depriving myself of a great deal of fun. All of a sudden, I longed to get my hands on Death Comes to Pemberley. It was only a matter of days before I had purchased a copy.
Elizabeth has been Mrs Darcy and mistress of Pemberley for six years. The elegance and refinement of Pemberley have not disappointed her, nor has Mr Darcy’s affection. In turn, she has done her best not to disappoint either, fulfilling her many social and domestic duties with courage and skill – including providing the Darcy name with an heir and a spare. She can count on the support of the housekeeper Mrs Reynolds, the friendship of her sister-in-law Georgiana, and frequent visits from those dearest to her: her father, her aunt and uncle Gardiner, and most importantly, her sister Jane. All in all, she is a happy woman. Then, who should intrude again upon this quiet and contented family nucleus but Mr Wickham, bent as usual on causing everyone a maximum of embarrassment. This time, Wickham is accused of murder. Worse, the murdered man was found on Pemberley ground. All of a sudden, life is a trifle too exciting: Lydia arrives in hysterics, Colonel Fitzwilliam is behaving very oddly, magistrates and coroners come and go at all hours of the day and night, and two of the under-parlour maids choose this very moment to start a rumour about ghosts in the woods. Mr Darcy, however much he may dislike Wickham, cannot view the prospect of his brother-in-law being hanged for murder without considerable anxiety, all the more so as he happens to believe Wickham is innocent. He and Elizabeth devoutly hope that Wickham will be cleared before the scandal tarnishes the Darcy name.
Much could have been done with such a subject. Unfortunately, Death Comes to Pemberley does nothing to live up to its author’s reputation as a mistress of the detective genre. The story went round in circles, with witnesses repeating their evidence over and over again, without ever bringing to light anything new – or even vaguely open to interpretation – which would have created suspense or set the reader speculating about a possible second culprit. Until the last hundred or so pages, when everything seemed to happen at once. The novel would definitely have benefited from some additional editing, in order to tighten the plot and retain the reader’s attention. As it was, I yawned my way through most of it. The style did nothing to alleviate the tedium, for though it managed to pastiche the patterns of eighteenth-century prose with a modicum of success, it contained none of Austen’s famous wit and sparkle, and the overall effect was pedantic rather than amusing. I’m afraid that far from converting me, Death Comes to Pemberley did everything to reinforce my prejudices against Austen-inspired fiction.
© Florence Berlioz 2012