Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, but not Jane Austen

Last month, I was disappointed in a failed attempt at Jane Austen imitation, in my post Another Jane Austen Knockoff. This month, I'm impressed by P. D. James's efforts in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

The book picks up a few years after Pride and Prejudice leaves off. Darcy and Elizabeth are happily married, with two young sons. Elizabeth has risen to her role as Mrs. Darcy, and the household staff respects and admires her. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and have introduced a new friend into their circle: Henry Alveston, a London lawyer, soon to inherit his father's title. Georgiana Darcy, still at Pemberley, is being courted both by Alveston and by Colonel Fitzwilliam, their cousin and onetime admirer of Elizabeth.

The household is in the midst of preparations for the annual Harvest ball, to which much of the surrounding landowners and townspeople are invited, when a traumatic event occurs. Late on the eve of the ball, a carriage comes barreling down the lane, carrying Elizabeth and Jane's youngest sister Lydia, who is in hysterics. Lydia tells them she was on her way to the ball, accompanied by her husband, George Wickham, and his friend Captain Dennys. En route, Dennys and Wickham got into an argument and stopped the carriage to continue it outside. A little while later, Lydia and the carriage driver heard gunshots, and immediately left for the safety of Pemberley. A search party is sent out, and a dead body is found in the woods... but where is the murderer?

The most fascinating thing about this book is how very Austen-like it is. It's really astonishing. I've read all of Jane Austen's novels, and this book reads like Austen risen from the grave. The language, the level of description, the habits and temperaments of the characters are all en pointe. The story builds the same way, with unexpected climaxes and even the "dirty little secrets" that Austen incorporates into all her novels (i.e., Mr. Willoughby's affair with Brandon's young charge in Sense and Sensibility). The one concern I have is why this book was billed as a mystery. If it is a mystery, then all of Austen's work is mystery. The only difference is that the question in the book is centered around a murder, not around a marriage. But the plot structure adheres to a more literary novel like Pride and Prejudice itself, not to any Agatha Christie-like framework.

I've never read any P. D. James before, but she does such an extraordinary job with the near-impossible task of imitating Austen that I'm going to have to try some of her more original work. I am very impressed!

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