Untimely, but gentlemanly, Dying


P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

London: Faber & Faber, 2011. Pback 310 pages. ISBN 9-780-57128358-3. RRP $29.99


I’ve had to have been persuaded to read Jane Austen; despite the enthusiasm of some friends for the 19th Century novelist, I have been put off by her high style and the brittle world she builds of English class distinctions at the end of the 18th Century.

I was anticipating the next police procedural of P.D. James, a modern stylist and great crime writer, and I admit to some disappointment when I read the advance publicity for Death Comes to Pemberley: an amalgam of a Jane Austen novel and a crime thriller.

Elizabeth Bennet has married Darcy and settled at Pemberley. They have two sons in the nursery and their marriage is a happy one. Each year, Pemberley Hall is the scene for a grand ball, named in honour of Darcy’s late mother, Lady Anne. Pemberley is thrown into disarray on the night before Lady Anne’s ball by the bloody death of an army officer in the estate woods. The scene needs much untangling as Wickham, a man never to be received at Pemberley is found kneeling over the body, drunk, and exclaiming that it is his fault that his friend is dead. Wickham is married to Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, and causes ongoing distress to the Darcys by living irresponsibly beyond his means. Darcy as a paterfamilias has in the past been obliged to pick up the tab.

In the subsequent investigation and trial, family loyalties are stretched to breaking point, and Pemberley looks set to be shamed for generations to come, until the final resolution, which – in Jane Austen fashion – is a set of happy outcomes for all.

James’s writing is so good that I was drawn into this complex web of family relationships and intrigue and enjoyed this novel almost as much as her other crime novels. (I don’t think she can better Death in Holy Orders – but then, I’m a priest!)

I was amused that Darcy consulted his wrist-watch and Elizabeth her bedside alarm clock: they were needed to establish times of alibis. The year in which Death Comes to Pemberley is set is 1803, well before the mass production of wrist-watches and the miniaturisation of alarm clocks. Darcy, as a gentleman, would much more likely have a pocket watch, if any time-piece on his person, and Elizabeth would more likely be used to consulting a maid who might know the time from a large hall clock. I can’t help feeling there’s a joke element here. P.D. James is too careful to have simply made a mistake.

The incongruity of the time-pieces emphasise how complete the world is that James has created. I believed her portrayal of reactions to death among the British upper-class of the time. I suspect Baroness James has some nostalgia for a time when gentlemen lived on their estates and as magistrates kept good order in the realm.

The downside to this nostalgia is that Death Comes to Pemberley lacks some of the social edge of James’s earlier novels. This has been a divertissement, and a thoroughly enjoyable one, but I do hope she returns to more modern settings if we are blessed with future novels.

Ted Witham

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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