Posted by: semkachan | January 3, 2012

Review of _Death Comes to Pemberley_ by P. D. James

I am sorry to say that my disappointment in this book runs so deep that I don’t quite know where to start. Death Comes to Pemberley received a striking amount of news and social media attention because of the previous fame of its author, P. D. James, someone unknown to me but clearly well-known to others for her mysteries. Although there are countless continuations and alternate renderings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley’s constant presence, particularly on Twitter, made me particularly interested in reading this particular continuation, and so when the stars aligned and I received the book for Christmas, I was delighted.

My delight soon changed to shock and horror, however, once I began reading. I hesitate to use such strong language, but this is indeed what I felt. The beginning, of course, could be perhaps forgiven, as it is an incredibly fast overview of the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice, presumably for those fans of P. D. James who have not read Austen’s classic. (I would be surprised if anyone who had not read Pride and Prejudice would read this book, but I may well be deceived in that notion.)

Following this plot summary, however, the book continues in this “tell rather than show” strategy, contrary to the more commonly followed “show, don’t tell” tactic used by many of today’s successful authors. Conversations which might have appeared in text are more often described secondhand by the narrator, and what dialogue does appear in-text feels as though the characters are speaking at, rather than to, one another. This is perhaps emphasized by a common authorial rule that James does follow: never to follow the verb “said” by any kind of adverb. While this is usually a good rule, this means that a vast majority of the dialogue of each character begins with “X Character said,” followed by a long uninterrupted speech/monologue. Because of this, we get little sense of the characters’ true relationships with one another.

This brings me to the most glaring fault of the novel: the extreme dissimilarity of the characters in Death Comes to Pemberley to those known and beloved in Pride and Prejudice. Not once in the entire novel does Elizabeth show her strong, witty, humorous side. She is nothing more than the nondescript lady of a manor house who simply responds to the things happening around her. Similarly, Darcy is reduced to a simpering idiot who loves his wife more than she loves him. He is easily swayed by others and shows almost none of his characteristic pride and aloofness.

Colonel Fitzwilliam, who in Pride and Prejudice I found to be a lovable, affable man, comes across in Death as a conniving, almost evil man who is out to marry Georgiana for her money and status, much as Wickham sought to do all those years ago. Although there are passing references to his “changing” once he received his title, the change is so major as to be unbelievable as the same man. Although his actions, in the end, are shown to be somewhat altruistic, it is too late for his reputation to be saved and he comes across as a very unlikeable, unrecognizable version of himself.

I have read reviews that suggest that the more minor characters are better carried off, but I would have to disagree to an extent. Jane, ever kind and ever patient, is difficult to misrepresent, as is the one scene in which we see Lydia, in which she is, perhaps unsurprisingly, hysterical. Wickham, however, although the circumstances in which the murder takes place is, as others have mentioned, in line with his character in Pride and Prejudice, he is shown in so many conflicting lights as to make his character merely confusing. He is portrayed in such a way so that we can neither condemn him nor forgive him, and yet we are not sure why. His sister is simply another confusing piece of the puzzle that could have been left out (although she does bring to mind the equally annoying character of Mrs. Smith in Persuasion).

A final criticism of the book must be James’s insistence in showing that she has done her research, even when it adds nothing to the story. An example of this is as follows:

“Darcy said, ‘If Denny had died in the woodland by a known hand or by accident, it would be right for Mrs. Darcy or myself to send her a letter of condolence, but in the circumstances that might be ill advised and even unwelcome. It is strange how even the most terrible events have social implications and it is good of you to pass on this information, which will, I know, be a relief to Mrs. Darcy. . . .” (181).

This appears at other times, particularly in matters of law towards the end of the book, at which times of course it is more forgivable as this is, ostensible, James’s strong suit.

I will not go into the strange use of commas and the use of British spellings in words such as “colourful” but the American use of “Mr.” rather than “Mr” (periods are not used after such titles in British English). I apologize for the generally scathing nature of this review, but I must concur with an earlier reviewer when I reiterate that “if it had been written by someone without James’ reputation as a mystery writer, it never would have seen the light of day.” (To see the whole review by Dana Fisher, aka @quiltedlibrary, click here: http://networkedblogs.com/seWO4.)

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Responses

  1. I knew her name was familiar — I wasn’t crazy about “Children of Men” either. Still, I wouldn’t have imagined the repeat offenses of sacrilege you mention (against Austen doctrine, anyway). How could Colonel Fitzwilliam be anything but lovable? Or Lizzy anything but witty? Great review!


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