Pride, prejudice and murder

 

CRIME: Death Comes to Pemberley,By PD James Faber, 310pp. £18.99

‘WHO CAN QUIT young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?” The question George Eliot asks at the end of Middlemarchseems ideally directed to readers of Jane Austen’s fiction. Sequels to Austen’s novels appear with such unnerving frequency that it is clear many readers long for the continued company of some of the best-loved characters in English literature. Pride and Prejudicealone has spawned more than 100 sequels, with Elizabeth Bennet’s own recent company ranging from aliens to zombies.

By these standards, PD James’s murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberleyis notably respectful, driven by the author’s lifelong love of Austen’s work as well as by her distinguished career as a writer of crime fiction.

Violence rarely appears directly in Austen’s work, but its presence – as with the flogging of the private soldier so casually introduced into Pride and Prejudice– can be overlooked only by wilfully complacent readers. Here, death comes to the heart of Pemberley, home to Mr Darcy and his bride of six years, Elizabeth, nee Bennet.

Arriving unexpectedly, in the middle of a storm that evokes the Gothic trappings of Northanger Abbey, Elizabeth’s errant and now distraught sister Lydia announces that murder has been done in thick woodland on the estate. A search party hastily mounted by Darcy and Col Fitzwilliam finds Lydia’s blackguard husband, Wickham, kneeling, bloodied, over the body of his companion, Capt Denny, crying, “He was my friend, my only friend. I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him! It’s my fault.” But did he? The investigation that follows reaches its climax in a jury trial five months and 150 pages later – though the 60 pages that remain may cause readers to wonder whether the full story has yet been told.

By the end, Death Comes to Pemberleyshould please admirers of PD James and Jane Austen alike. The former will find a crime mystery investigated and solved, the latter plentiful amusement as the novel, set in the winter of 1803-4, knowingly compares early-19th-century and 21st-century mores and legal procedure. Throwing chronology to the winds, it brings not only Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins but also Mr and Mrs Knightley, Harriet Smith and her husband, Robert Martin, and Sir Walter Elliot into the tale, gratifying those attached to Anne Elliot with news that her husband, Capt Wentworth, is now a distinguished admiral.

The playfulness has a purpose. Pride and Prejudicearguably boasts the most celebrated opening sentence in English fiction: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” PD James’s response is perfectly judged in tone and content: “It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.” So, while Pride and Prejudice offers a version of the 18th-century marriage plot, Death Comes to Pemberley is very much a book about life after marriage in early-19th-century England.

Readers expecting to find Darcy and Elizabeth canoodling, or the heroine doggedly following up clues, will be disappointed. Instead, we have a more interesting book, about the separate spheres, public and domestic, men and women inhabited after marriage. The investigation of murder is an unsuitable job for a woman, and Elizabeth will play no part in it. And while the novel’s sunlit closing scene finds Darcy and his wife (unusually) in each other’s company, the carefree laughter of Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, hand in hand with her husband-to-be, serves to remind the reader of the difference between the period of courtship and the state of matrimony.

An entertaining murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberleycomments more sombrely on the social constraints convention imposed on married women in (and far beyond) the early 19th century, in fiction as in life.


Ian Campbell Ross is professor of 18th-century studies at Trinity College Dublin. He recently co-edited Elizabeth Sheridan’s The Triumph of Prudence over Passion(1781)