Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

I’m always wary of reading a book which continues on from another author’s work, purely because every writer is different, which makes taking on another author’s work potentially impossible. And this doesn’t take on just any author’s work; this book takes on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, one of the most popular works of literature ever written. But somehow, James has managed to continue on from Austen’s novel in a way which modernises the world Austen constructed. I’m not altogether sure how James manages this, but she somehow pays homage to Austen’s novel while standing apart from it to establish her own story. I think that’s why this novel is quite refreshing, because James retains her own writing style while keeping in mind the style of Austen’s work too. In my opinion, this is the mark of a very good writer.

Death Comes to Pemberley picks up six years into Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage. They are happily settled at Pemberley with two sons and frequent visits from Jane, Bingley, and Mr. Bennet to please them. But as is typically the case, this blissful tranquillity never lasts. Soon they become embroiled in a murder investigation which throws the house into emotional turmoil and uncertainty. Relationships are tested and the reader is kept guessing as to who the guilty party may be.

I haven’t read any of P. D. James’s other works, but surprisingly enjoyed this quirky little narrative. It was gratifying to satisfy my curiosity as to the lives of Austen’s characters beyond the conclusion of Pride & Prejudice, even though we’ll never know if Austen would have agreed with James’s portrayals of her characters. I liked the marrying of this classic with the uncertainty and tension of the crime and thriller genre. It’s not something I would normally read, but I’m glad that I picked it up. If James’s novel has achieved nothing else, it has made me more open to reading crime/mystery/thriller novels because I thoroughly enjoyed her book.

In particular, I liked the way James explored the different relationships between Austen’s characters in more depth. Amidst the doubt and fear stirred up by the murder investigation, we see each character in a different kind of light. The complex relationship between Darcy and his wife’s family is explored in more depth, and we get to see how this affects his and Elizabeth’s marriage. The pressure of the murder investigation brings out all the small cracks and crevices in the connections between Austen’s characters which makes for a very compelling read. Particularly the conflict which grows between Darcy and Elizabeth as she begins to worry that Darcy regrets their marriage because it has linked him to Wickham as a brother-in-law.

It was also fascinating to further understand the way things worked during that time period, for instance getting to see Darcy’s responsibilities and duties as the owner of Pemberley. In Austen’s novel, the reader was restricted to Elizabeth’s point of view, but in this novel we get to experience more of the other characters at crucial moments. James’ third person narrative is a lot more flexible and follows the perspective of different characters at different instances throughout the book. Ultimately, this gives the reader a lot more access to the characters, which is always a good thing.

With regards to Elizabeth, the much-loved Austen heroine, it was interesting to read of her new role as the mistress of Pemberley. Encounters like the ones which take place between Elizabeth and the servants give us a different kind of insight into Austen’s world, and that’s what I really liked about this work. It would have been easy for James to skirt over the basics of Austen’s world, but instead she delves into areas of the story that Austen didn’t really focus on in much detail.

Overall, I would recommend this novel to others because I genuinely enjoyed the read. There’s a real danger of readers going into this expecting something identical to Austen, but that’s an unrealistic way to approach this text. I would recommend going in with an open mind, because this really is a unique novel which makes for an enjoyable read.

 

* If you did enjoy James’ novel, it’s also worth watching the 3-part TV series which aired in 2013, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys. I saw this before reading the book and enjoyed it equally as much as the novel. The casting is great, and it’s always interesting to see how texts are translated into different mediums.

November Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

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