As a general rule, I avoid what I consider unauthorized sequels to famous works—especially those that I love. In the last decade, there have been an absurd amount of novels along these lines for Jane Austen’s works and I have avoided them almost entirely. But having heard only good things about the 2013 television adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberely and recognizing the name of author P.D. James, I decided to make one of the rare exceptions to my general rule—and after all, I do like most twists on fairy tales and there are amazingly interesting novels like Wide Sargasso Sea (with its origins in Jane Eyre) and plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (with its origins in Hamlet), that I thoroughly enjoy. I feel that the novel, Death Comes to Pemberley falls somewhere between those and what I usually see as glorified fanfiction (which is not a criticism of fanfiction; when I say ‘glorified’ like that, I’m referring to books that would be considered ‘only fanfiction’ if the authors hadn’t found publishers and profited monetarily from them).
It has been six years since Elizabeth married Mr. Darcy and became mistress of Pemberley. As they prepare for the annual ball—referred to as Lady Anne’s Ball in honor of Darcy’s mother, who started the tradition—a terrible storm strikes along with tragedy. Elizabeth’s unfortunate and presumptuous youngest sister, Lydia, arrives in a carriage the evening before the ball, hysterical and claiming that her husband, Mr. Wickham, set out into the woods after their friend, Captain Denny, who first stopped the carriage to be let out, and that she fears one or both of the men must be dead having heard gunshots. When Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and a third gentleman set out to search for the pair, they discover Captain Denny dead and Wickham in a terrible state over his friend’s body, blaming himself for the man’s death. Bringing Wickham and the body back to Pemberley, Darcy must summon the proper authorities to deal with the inquest and the general suspicion that Wickham had more to do with Denny’s death than he’s willing to admit, dragging Darcy and Pemberley into the thick of things and notoriety once more.
Part of why I was interested in this book was the fact that it was written by P.D. James. Known for her crime novels, Death Comes to Pemberley is actually the last novel she published before her death. I was intrigued to see what someone with that kind of background might be able to do with such famous characters. In reading the novel, her crime fiction background is clear—the circumstances of the crime itself and how that plot is eventually resolved are tidy and I feel that I learned a lot of how the British criminal justice system at the time worked for the upper classes. But there was a lot of heart that felt like it was missing from the novel.
The characters—both Austen’s original characters and James’ creations that inhabit the text alongside them—felt stiff in a way that doesn’t feel right for something inspired and borrowing so heavily from Austen. There were efforts within the text that simply felt obligatory—a number of purely tangential ‘where are they now’s that weren’t woven into the body of the story as cleanly as I would have thought. Similarly, James made an effort to tie the characters of Pride and Prejudice to characters from Austen’s other novels—the Elliot family from Persuasion and the Knightleys from Emma stood out most obviously to me, though I believe there were a few others that were more subtle. Because so much focus was on the procedure of the inquest and trial—which were almost exclusively viewed through Darcy’s perspective—there was an almost tedious and repetitious feel to the story followed by an incredibly convenient culmination and resolution.
Part of what made Pride and Prejudice so notable—for me, as an avid fan of the novel—was the way we got to see the characters interact with one another and the glimpses of their relationships; Elizabeth and Jane, Elizabeth and Charlotte, Elizabeth and Darcy, Darcy and Bingley, etc. Though the characters are mostly there, they aren’t shown discussing much of anything. There’s very little straight dialogue and far more of their interactions are told to the reader instead. We see Darcy and Elizabeth’s appreciations for one another from their perspectives but it’s almost always when the characters were alone or at least in the other’s absence. That was, perhaps what surprised me most about this novel—how little the reader gets to actually see of Elizabeth and Darcy together (it’s a dynamic I’m guessing was adjusted and expanded a bit more for the television adaptation, which I am as eager as ever to finally watch).
The novel ultimately felt stiff, like the characters were paper dolls rather than the real thing. It wasn’t as disappointing as it could have been but it wasn’t as compelling as I was hoping either. I’ll have to read some of P.D. James’ other novels with entirely original characters to see if it’s just something about her style I find flat or if it is simply the fact that it’s because these characters aren’t completely hers.