Title: Death Comes to Pemberley
Author: P.D. James
Date Started: July 12, 2015 Date Finished: July 19, 2015
Rating (out of 5): ★★★
Every book has a story: C’mon now. This book has the word “Pemberley” in the title. We all know this Jane Austen fanatic was going to get to it! And my childhood reading career was all about Nancy Drew, so Pride and Prejudice with mystery-solving is a perfect equation for me. When Death Comes to Pemberley first came out, almost everyone I knew made a point of telling me about it–my love of all things Jane Austen is no secret! Unfortunately I never got around to reading it until, one magical evening a few months ago, the miniseries was posted to Netflix. I knew about the book. I knew I should read the book first… but I couldn’t help myself. I watched it all in one sitting, swept up in the great performances and lovely cinematography. And then I quickly bought and read the book to free myself of guilt.
At eleven in the morning of Friday 14th of October 1803 Elizabeth Darcy sat at the table in her sitting room on the first floor of Pemberley House.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anything inspired by Pride and Prejudice must start with a ball. Settled and happy in their marriage, Darcy and Elizabeth are preparing to host the annual Lady Anne Ball, a highlight of the social calendar for many of the surrounding families. Pemberley is full of the activities of servants inside and out preparing for the occasion, and early guests Charles and Jane Bingley, with their guest, lawyer Henry Alveston, and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrive a night ahead of festivities. But this peaceful reunion is doomed to be interrupted with screams of murder (spoiler alert… death comes to Pemberley) from none other than Mrs. Lydia Wickham herself, arriving unexpectedly in a runaway carriage, possessed with hysteria and a story of gunshots in Pemberley woods.
This sets off a great search for Wickham and his friend, Captain Denny, in the thick, dark woods. Darcy cannot help but think about his long and complicated relationship with Wickham and how it has come to hauling the man bloody and delirious back into Pemberley after several years of banishment. Elizabeth is distracted by her considerations of Wickham as well, not only as her brother-in-law, but as a man who had once intrigued and charmed her. She puts her focus to Georgiana, who has the greatest reasons of them all to be disquieted by this turn of events.
Darcy assumes his role as head of the house even in crisis and ensures he sets all the gears of the law in motion with full transparency to keep his household and guests out of suspicion and gossip. Despite his efforts, Darcy’s hopes are not to be granted. Instead, his family is dragged into the thick of a murder investigation that brings into question not only what happened that dark night in Pemberley woods, but also events surrounding Darcy and Elizabeth’s own romance.
“We have all sinned, Mr. Darcy, and we cannot look for mercy without showing it in our own lives.”
I have not read any other books by PD James, but she easily assumed an Austen-esque voice for Death Comes to Pemberley. For all its heavy subject matter (which she owns up to in the Author’s Note as being out of harmony with Jane Austen’s own goals when she said “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can”), the story has a lot of that Austen wit and many in-jokes with Pride and Prejudice and other works of the Jane Austen canon. For all my love of Pride and Prejudice and much of the fanfiction it has produced, I have not ready many that take place “after the wedding,” as it were. I very much enjoyed the scenes that showed Darcy and Elizabeth in not only the romance of their marriage, but the respect of their partnership.
Unfortunately once the novel moves from Pemberley to London for the trial, Darcy and Elizabeth’s moments together become very few. It’s not that I don’t find Darcy an interesting character in his own right–the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman books are among my absolute favourites–but I found that I wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth together more and more after being so delightfully spoiled in the first half. I’m going to go against the bookworm party line and say that I preferred the way the miniseries adapted this part of the novel. Even when it was impossible to keep Darcy and Elizabeth in the same room, it kept Elizabeth more immediately involved in the mystery and not just as a consultant to Darcy’s theories. The miniseries also explored the drama that George Wickham’s sudden appearance back in their lives caused in not only Darcy and Elizabeth separately, but in their relationship. The miniseries also had a very sweet interpretation of Georgiana. (According to my dear Chris, she’s now his favourite Georgiana). Praise Eleanor Tomlinson.
Death Comes to Pemberley really had me in the beginning, but as action drifted farther from Pemberley and farther from Darcy and Elizabeth as a unit, it started to lose me. I’m sure the intensively detailed courtroom scenes are more in keeping with PD James’ usual fare, but I longed for the drawing room conversations and intriguing garden walks. A murder mystery was certainly an interesting place to take our dear Darcy and Elizabeth, and this is much more to my liking for Pride and Prejudice sequels (no offence to all the smut…). But the real key to a Pride and Prejudice sequel is Darcy and Elizabeth, and Death Comes to Pemberley became all Darcy as a player in a Regency-era Law and Order.
Any recommendations of your favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptations are most heartily welcome!