As most everyone knows who knows me, I am a Jane Austen fan. I have been a fan from about age 20, when a friend gave me a very old (early 20th century) volume of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, with illustrations by Hugh Thomson, gold-edged pages, an embossed maroon cover, and a ribbon place marker. I read it over and over, loving the illustrations, and the feel and look of the book, until it fell apart. I still have the book. I’ve put it away (at least temporarily) where I can do no further damage to it. But I miss it. Even writing about it, now, I miss it.
I am just finishing what has become an annual ritual – rereading the six novels upon which rests the Austen reputation. Wondering, again, which is best and why. My favorites vary from year to year, with Emma and Pride and Prejudice usually competing for top billing: Emma for its superb simplicity of plot and setting, beneath which resides a masterly spider web of complexity; Pride and Prejudice for its enormous energy, its brilliant dialogue, its humor and readability. I have just about worn out my current paperbacks (Oxford World’s Classics), and am looking forward to purchasing a brand new set of six.
While embarking on this latest reread, I picked up a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), written by P.D. James, another Austen fan of long standing. Although I’m not a great reader of mysteries (and inevitably put Dorothy Sayers at the top of my favorite mystery authors list), I’ve followed James’ career for some years now, read several of her books, and watched a few of the PBS productions based on her novels.
At any rate, I read Death Comes to Pemberley with mixed feelings. I love good adaptations and updates of Austen. I thought Clueless was a wonderful modern-day movie adaptation of Emma. And Emma Thompson’s script for Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility was excellent. But I draw the line at inventing a sequel to the novels, adding a foreign element (in this case, violence), and transporting characters from other Austen novels and incorporating them into the story. In Death Comes to Pemberley, James is guilty of all three crimes.
Pemberley is, of course, Mr. Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire which, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet visits on a summer excursion with her aunt and uncle. This is where she and Mr. Darcy rekindle their relationship, and Elizabeth first learns to love him. (When her sister, Jane, later asks her when she first knew she loved him, Elizabeth replies, “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”)
In James’ sequel, it is 1803, six years after Austen drafted her first version of Pride and Prejudice (1796-1797). Elizabeth and Darcy are preparing for an annual ball when Lydia, the youngest of the five Bennett sisters, charges into Pemberley in a coach, and in hysterics, claiming that her husband has been murdered on the grounds of the estate.
As James works her way through to the conclusion of the mystery, she is, as always, very literate and true to her surroundings, the historical setting, the characters, and – in so far as it’s possible – Austen’s dialogue. But the fact is, she brings a crime of violence into the particularly non-violent realm that Austen created.
This is, perhaps, nitpicking. After all, in her own ‘Author’s Note,’ James apologizes to “the shade of Jane Austen” for the liberties she took, concluding, “No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.”
I heartily agree.