A Paean or a Lament?

[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2011]

…Younger sons cannot marry where they like.”

…“Is this,” thought Elizabeth, “meant for me?”

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

At the time she had wondered whether the remark had held a warning and the suspicion had caused her some embarrassment which she had attempted to hide by turning the conversation into a pleasantry. But the memory of the incident had been far from pleasant. She had not needed Colonel Fitzwilliam’s warning to remind her of what a girl with four unmarried sisters and no fortune could expect in marriage…The warning might have been necessary but it had not been well done. If he had never entertained the thought of her it would have been kinder had he been less openly assiduous in his attentions.

—P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

Into the current overabundance of books about, based on and borrowed from Jane Austen’s novels now marches P.D. James with Death Comes to Pemberley. It is six years following the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, and on the eve of Pemberley’s annual ball commemorating Darcy’s mother, a body is discovered in Pemberley woods. Victim and suspect are both well known to you, as is the plot, which includes an almost case file exposition of crime scene, investigation, inquest and trial. Really, it’s sort of Law and Order:UK, circa 1803. BUM-bum.

It’s more than a simple whodunnit, of course, and much more than the “if this goes on” kind of speculative fiction for readers wondering what happened after the Darcys left the church. James obtrudes bloody murder into the pleasant, ordered world of Elizabeth and Darcy, and uses this conceit to examine the legal system of that time. Georgiana’s suitor, the lawyer Alveston, says, “I can well imagine the reaction of an English jury to the proposal that their decision should be challenged by three judges,” thereby foreshadowing (and perhaps condemning) the endless appeals process in modern day courts. The jury foreman is found after the verdict to be prejudiced against the British army. Voir dire, anyone?

If the last-minute confession is a little opportune, the portrait James draws of English law and English country life of that time is made no less vivid thereby. Much rich flavor comes from her opinions of the choices made by the characters in Pride and Prejudice. There was always a price to be paid for Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth after he had made her sister to Wickham by marrying Wickham off to Lydia. However well-intentioned, not to say self-serving, here that choice comes home to Darcy with a vengeance. While Fitzwilliam inherits an earldom, he loses his brother, his good character and the girl in consequence. One does not insult Elizabeth Bennett with impunity, not in James’ world.

There are also wonderful little snapshots of the lives of other Austen characters, including Captain (now Admiral) Wentworth and Mrs. Knightly. Nostalgia for an England that was, for an English literature that was, for an English legal system that was wafts up from every page. James is an idealist, but a humane one, and her genius is to embrace all three in a novel purporting to be crime fiction. My one regret is that Wickham, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, wasn’t the victim here, and I do think it unkind of James to have disposed of him in…well, let us leave that until you have read Death Comes to Pemberley for yourself. You will thoroughly enjoy your visit herein.

And just for fun, the lake scene where Colin Firth strips down in the 2001 BBC version of Pride and Prejudiced

I just had a thought. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a BBC dramatization of Death Comes to Pemberley with the same cast?

[Update in 2014: Done, unfortunately not with the same cast.]

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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