09 February 2012

Just finished reading

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James.*

In the author's note prefacing the story, P.D. James apologizes for involving Jane Austen's characters in a murder. She quotes Austen (from the final chapter of Mansfield Park)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
James concludes her apology by saying

No doubt [Jane] would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.

As much as I admire Miss Austen (and I have been a Janeite for decades), I must respectfully disagree with Ms. James. Her "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice, which begins some six years after the marriage of Elizabeth to Fitzwilliam Darcy echoes Austen's style so well that at times I had to remind myself whose work I was reading.

Our story begins as Mrs. Darcy and her household are preparing for the annual ball in honour of Mr. Darcy's late mother, Lady Anne. Little do they know that Elizabeth's flighty sister Lydia (who, along with her husband Mr. Wickham, is persona non grata at Pemberley) is planning to crash the party.

Lydia turns up at the Darcy's door in a speeding, barely controlled coach, screaming that her husband is dead. On their way to drop Lydia at Pemberley, Wickham and his friend Denny had a disagreement so intense that Denny had jumped out of the carriage and Wickham had gone after him. Hearing gunshots, Lydia had immediately assumed that Wickham had been killed and directed the driver to go immediately to Pemberley.

I must confess to being somewhat disappointed that Lydia's husband was fine. It was Denny who was dead; being the only other person present, Wickham was charged with the crime. Such a turn of events caused all kinds of turmoil to this Janeite: is the admittedly immoral Wickham really capable of murder? The Darcys believe not, and set about to prove his innocence.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel is James' descriptions of life in the early 19th Century, and the amount of detail that she imparts about the day-to-day activities of not just the Darcys, but their servants, their families and their peers. The description of Wickham's trial and its aftermath is particularly interesting.

Like P.D. James' more typical works, her paean to Jane Austen is well-written and -constructed, and completely absorbing. If Miss Austen were to read it, she just might approve.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to my sister-in-law for the gift of this book.

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