After reading Pride and Prejudice last month, we wanted to follow on with the critically well-received modern sequel, P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. Set 5 years later, Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley return, along with Lydia, Wickam, and a double-handful of new characters, who all get embroiled in a murder most foul. James adopts an Austen-esque style, with its focus on social class, reserved morality, and formal language – though not quite as formalized or complex as Austen’s.
The first, sizable part of the book is devoted to recounting those events in Austen’s classic which will be salient to the new mystery. James also sneaks in some critiques and praise of the original work by giving this recap from the point of view of town gossips, revealing to us how the less charitable members of Austen’s world might view the people and events of Pride and Prejudice. Book club members noted that readers unfamiliar with Austen’s work may be misled by the cynical treatment of the more sympathetic characters like Elizabeth and Jane, but also noted that the wrong is quickly righted once the current action starts and we see just how good a person dear Elizabeth is.
Which leads us to the issue of characterization, and whether James remains true to the characters we know and loved from the first book. In general, book club members gave James mixed marks. The men of the novel come out well, if a bit flat. Of note was how Darcy seems reduced to merely acting out of a sense of obligation, with little of personal motive or action. Elizabeth, however, seems significantly different from the earlier work. Her wit is muted out, and she seems proper to a fault. We missed dear Elizabeth. Jane and Bingley seemed much the same, but were motivating characters in either book. Meanwhile, some other characters, especially wicked characters, seemed exaggerated – especially our shocking, troubled Lydia.
The social mores and expectations were well represented, with James capturing much the same sense of how society worked as Austen had, though the slightly modernized language did not so well convey the intricacies of pre-Victorian thinking. The murder plot was well arranged, with a twist that only a few of us saw coming, and the social commentary is presented both overtly and more subtly as we seen the investigation play out. Who gets asked the tough questions, who has their answers verified, and who will be asked questions at all – all depend on class and station, from uncritical deference toward the master to appalling inconsideration for the servants. This is not a Poirot-style mystery. It’s a social and literary criticism, and, given the characters’ presumptions, it’s a wonder the crime is solved at all.
But it is a good mystery. Club members enjoyed it, and certainly appreciated what James had done with Austen’s world – though, of course, the original was better.
Next month, on December 13th – just one day before the new film premiers – we’ll be discussing J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit! We would love to be joined by any of you Tolkien fans and regular Fantasy readers, to help add context and depth. This will be the club’s first fantasy book in a while (as well as our first children’s’ book), so we need your insight!
See our website for details and future book picks. The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 8 pm, at The Heights, 8001 Dale Ave. Please join us!