Finally, with a break available between book club books and lecture books, I was able to indulge in a book that I has been on my shelf since its publication day. I am an over-the-top fan of P.D. James as anyone who knows me can attest. I am also an Anglophile who loves Jane Austen. Put the two together and I am a very happy camper. Baroness James is also an Austen aficionado who reads and rereads her on an annual basis. In Death Comes to Pemberley the best of both worlds converge.
It is six years after Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have wed. They have two sons and live comfortably on his estate. The novel opens on the evening before the Lady Anne Ball as all at Pemberley are caught up in the preparations. After a simple dinner Darcy and Elizabeth gather in the music room with a few guests to enjoy Georgiana's music. It is a light-hearted evening until Lydia Wickham arrives unannounced and uninvited in a state of panic and utter disarray. She had been traveling with her husband and a Capt. Denny to Pemberley where she intended to crash the ball. On the course of the journey Wickham and Denny disembarked their chaise and wandered into the Woodland where Lydia heard shots fired. Immediately, she demands the driver to speed on to the manor house. Darcy assembles a search party and they are off to the woods where they find a dead captain and a very drunk George Wickham, who utters what could be a confession. And so the stage is set for the novel's plot. James, out of her 20th century element, does not have a Dalgleish to conduct the investigation and so must rely on the the primitive judgments of the local magistrates to shed light on the murder and discover the murderer. Selwyn Hardcastle, a magistrate, remarks to Dr. Belcher:
“I take it that your clever scientific colleagues have not yet found a way of distinguishing one man’s blood from another?”
What is remarkable about the book is not its mystery, although it is a good one, is the reverence paid to Jane Austen through the words of P.D. James. You can envision the Derbyshire estate this is Pemberley, feel the animosity of Elizabeth and Darcy toward Lydia, understand the loving relationship of the the Darcys as well the culture and custom of the time period. We are given a window through which we can see more of the Darcy family and the growth of each of the characters. Yet the reader is also treated to the words that we have come to expect from the 20th & 21st century James:
"We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs. Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?”
In addition, although set a century later, one can see the legacy of Austen in the manners and actions of another manor estate, Downton Abby. I would suggest that any reader who has not read Pride and Prejudice recently, brush up on the characters and action of that novel. Characters, innuendos and references will elude the reader that has forgotten the relationships of Austen's works. There have been some lukewarm reviews of the book, but I disagree. It is not Austen and it is not James, but it is a wonderful amalgamation of the two. Are you ready to tackle Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. James?