‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ by P.D. James
By Michael Dirda,
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a restless reader in possession of a quiet evening must be in want of a mystery. Should that reader, moreover, happen to be a devotee of “Pride and Prejudice” or an admirer of the detective stories of Baroness James of Holland Park, more commonly known as P.D. James, or ideally of both, one may safely surmise that “Death Comes to Pemberley” will be the must-have present of the holiday season. In its stately yet witty pages, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy (the latter nee Elizabeth Bennet) find themselves caught up in a murder case, one complicated by romance, a family curse, ghostly apparitions, dark doings and, not least, the reappearance of their old nemesis, Mr. Wickham. What’s not to like?
Six years after the marriage of Mr. Darcy to Miss Bennet, the couple are happily settled at Pemberley. They have two healthy sons, ages 5 and 2. In nearby Highmarten reside Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, and their three children. The two families often meet for dinner, and old Mr. Bennet regularly visits his favorite daughter, usually spending most of his time happily ensconced in the library. Having quickly won over the servants and the local people, the new mistress of Pemberley has brought a springlike vitality to the household and grown to love her new life.
When the novel opens, it is the day before Lady Anne’s ball, the great yearly celebration honoring the memory of Darcy’s mother, and Elizabeth is worried. Not about the ball itself, but about Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. Once nearly ruined by the smooth-talking and unscrupulous Wickham, Georgiana is now a handsome but quiet young woman in her 20s. In recent months, it has grown clear that two very different men have fallen in love with her: Darcy’s cousin Col. Fitzwilliam and a young lawyer named Henry Alveston. Georgiana would never marry without love, but, as Elizabeth knows, neither would she marry without Darcy’s approval:
“And what if it came to a choice between Colonel Fitzwilliam, his cousin and childhood friend, heir to an earldom, a gallant soldier who had known Georgiana all her life, and this handsome and agreeable young lawyer who admittedly was making his name but of whom they knew very little? He would inherit a barony, and an ancient one, and Georgiana would have a house which, when Alveston had made his money and restored it, would be one of the most beautiful in England. But Darcy had his share of family pride and there could be no doubt which candidate offered the greater security and more glittering future.”
That night before the ball, the Darcys, Bingleys, Col. Fitzwilliam, Alveston and Georgiana gather for a rather subdued dinner:
“The atmosphere was not helped by the tempest outside. From time to time the wind howled in the chimney, the fire hissed and spluttered like a living thing and occasionally a burning log would break free, bursting into spectacular flames and casting a momentary red flush over the faces of the diners so that they looked as if they were in a fever.”
This “Northanger Abbey” mood grows even more gothic when a coach suddenly emerges from out of the night, careening drunkenly as it races toward the front doors of Pemberley. “Elizabeth and the rest of the company crowded to the window and there in the distance saw a chaise, lurching and swaying down the woodland road towards the house, its two sidelights blazing like small flames. Imagination provided what was too distant to be seen — the manes of the horses tossed by the wind, their wild eyes and straining shoulders, the postilion heaving at the reins. It was too distant for the wheels to be heard and it seemed to Elizabeth that she was seeing a spectral coach of legend flying soundlessly through the moonlit night, the dreaded harbinger of death.”
And so the nightmare begins.
While many writers have composed sequels to the various Austen masterpieces, James manages to preserve the flavor of “Pride and Prejudice” while also creating a fairly good whodunit. Some aficionados of the detective story will almost certainly guess big chunks of the plot, even if the details may be somewhat elusive. No matter. This is a novel one reads for its charm, for the chance to revisit some favorite characters, for the ingenious way James reworks — or resolves — old elements from Austen. At one point, for instance, we learn that Wickham was briefly employed by Sir Walter Elliot (see “Persuasion”), and two characters from “Emma” provide a solution to one of the subplots. Nearly all the minor characters are sharply drawn. Consider the distinctly Sherlockian Dr. McFee:
“His reputation as a sinister eccentric was also not helped by his having a small upstairs room equipped as a laboratory where it was rumoured that he conducted experiments on the time taken for blood to clot under different circumstances and on the speed with which changes took place in the body after death.”
At times James channels quite perfectly the tone of her famous model. There are the Austenian bons mots: “Since even the most fastidious among us can rarely escape hearing salacious local gossip, it is as well to enjoy what cannot be avoided.” We are regaled with a long letter from the wonderfully insufferable Lady Catherine de Bourgh and hear in some detail about the latest vulgarities of Mrs. Bennet. James even includes a page or so about the married life of Austen’s greatest comic character, the Rev. Mr. Collins who, when learning of the crime wave at Pemberley, prophesies “a catalogue of disasters for the afflicted family ranging from the worst — Lady Catherine’s displeasure and their permanent banishment from Rosings — descending to public ignominy, bankruptcy and death.”
As the novel advances, James quietly stresses the tension between the conservative, established traditions of Pemberley and the changes issued in with the dynamic 19th century, among them the growing recognition of women’s rights, emendations to the judicial code and increasing regard for the professions. But James hardly neglects Austen’s great theme — who will marry whom? Take Bingley’s sister:
“It was generally known both in London and Derbyshire that Miss Bingley was particularly anxious at this time not to leave the capital. Her pursuit of a widowed peer of great wealth was entering a most hopeful phase. Admittedly without his peerage and his money he would have been regarded as the most boring man in London, but one cannot expect to be called ‘your grace’ without some inconvenience, and the competition for his wealth, title and anything else he cared to bestow was understandably keen.”
P.D. James is now in her 90s, but one need make no allowance for age to enjoy “Death Comes to Pemberley.” It is a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.
Death Comes to Pemberley By P.D. James Knopf. 291 pp. $25.95