By Leslie Savage
P.D James and Jane Austen — what a combination. In Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James pays a literary debt to Jane Austen, and embarks on what could be a risky business, even for a hugely successful writer: a crime-novel sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Traditional detective novels show us that murder raises the stakes in the interplay of family life. A crime scene permits no privacy. Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James’s chief detective inspector, says that murder can usually be connected to one of the Ls: Lust, Lucre, Loathing and Love, and in a murder investigation, everything, all the Ls, are made public. That’s why it’s such an appealing genre for writers: readers get to know everyone’s secrets.
Surprising (to me at least, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice revolves around the same themes: lust, lucre, loathing and love. The novel starts with the now famous sentence:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Thus in one phrase Austen joins love to lucre, and in so doing establishes the central conflicts that engage most of her characters, one way or another. She also, in this one sentence, sets up the understated ironic voice that poses social convention and received ideas against the rationality and truth-seeking for which her age would, in the long run, be remembered.
Austen’s book shows us how a good man could, despite the demands of social class and convention, bend the rules and marry the girl of his choice — for love. Elizabeth Bennet is that girl. She’s the daughter of an impoverished but educated gentleman, meaning a man who doesn’t work for a living. For Elizabeth, marrying money is desirable, but not, she learns, at the expense of self-respect. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the hero, is the owner of Pemberley, a large and productive estate in Derbyshire, and Darcy has, as is common knowledge, an annual income of 10,000 pounds a year — like being a billionaire, today. So there we have lucre, and love. We’ll see where the loathing comes in, and the lust.
In an 1800s aristocratic household, privacy had very different connotations than today. In a world where servants attended every waking moment of the lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth, or even in the small Bennett household overrun as it was with five grown daughters whose lives overlapped physically if not emotionally, privacy had more to do with thoughts and feelings than with the public world of action. There was little privacy about money, but a respectable woman would refer to “that ill of which we cannot speak” rather than a girl’s abduction or seduction by a lover known to all. Yet lust pervades Pride and Prejudice. For it’s clear that it’s not only marriage the Bennet girls seek: the younger girls in particular are much taken with the attentions of the soldiers in town, and vice-versa, for reasons not associated with money at all. Lust was both forbidden and constantly present, in its very proscription and in the far-reaching conventions that ruled social intercourse between men and women of marriageable age.
For Jane Austen, the tensions of storytelling often have to do with the characters’ inner and outer lives: why is Darcy, when we first meet him, so disagreeable, haughty and sullen? What is going on with him, as he gradually falls in love with Elizabeth? What is it that convinces Elizabeth that he is the model of goodness and generosity that eventually compels her love? And it is the intersection of public event and private that makes the story so compelling. And although Elizabeth is from the start an admirable, intelligent and precisely spoken young woman, Darcy’s attraction to her, from their first meeting on, is also a physical one. He is essentially a shy man, somewhat wary of women, without the joviality and good nature of his friend Bingham. But in Elizabeth’s company he is soon rendered almost speechless with love or lust or both. When they meet by chance at Pemberley, she realizes this, and is speechless herself with a combination of embarrassment and attraction. The success of the television mini-series is iin part how adroitly Firth and Ehle convey the pounding emotion of their meetings with few words. The adjective smouldering seems the only apt word, trite as it is, to describe Firth’s performance.
As for loathing: in Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham, Darcy’s childhood companion and the son of Darcy’s father’s estate manager, abducts Lydia, Elizabeth’s sister. He has, earlier on, tried to do the same with Darcy’s sister Georgiana — hence the loathing. Darcy, in love with Elizabeth, rescues Lydia from a fate worse than death and pays Wickham to marry her — partly from charity, but motivated more surely by his love for Elizabeth — and above all the knowledge that if he is to marry her, she must not have a sister fallen to the worst scandal a respectable family can endure, that of the loss of virginity of one of its daughters by a scoundrel who later abandons her. Morality was seen as inborn, and a lapse of virtue by one family member stained all.
In Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James imagines Darcy and Elizabeth now happily married, living at Pemberley Hall in Derbyshire with their two boys ages four and two. They are preparing for a ball when disaster strikes.
Disaster comes in the same person as it did in Pride and Prejudice — in the character of the loathed George Wickham. Married now to Elizabeth’s feckless younger sister Lydia, Wickham is now Darcy’s “brother” — the in-law distinction was apparently not recognized in the 1800s. And although Wickham dares not visit Pemberley, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is a regular though unwelcome visitor. A death occurs, and Wickham is charged and convisted of murder, and sentenced to be hanged. As in Austen, the key to the plot from then on is the interplay between what is known and what is secret.
The outcome is the pleasure of reading the story, revealed only in the final pages, and I won’t spoil it for you — only to say that love, lucre, loathing and lust all play their parts. Court actions take up many pages, and it’s interesting though not rivettingly so to learn how the courts operated in England in 1803. But the real interest is sustained — though in an understated way — by the ongoing development of the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth as they face the trials, just as dreadful in 1803 as they are today, of family members of an accused murderer facing the realities of the law and its ponderous unveiling. What are they both thinking, as Elizabeth’s sister’s husband again threatens to undermine the Darcy’s family’s good name? Does love prevail?
Place and character are two of the most important conditions, James tells us in Talking About Detective Fiction, that set apart a really good crime novel from one that’s merely a distraction. These, of course, come ready-made in Death Comes to Pemberley. Beyond setting and character and even plot, though, James believes that the strength of good writing, and the voice of the narrator, are critical to good detective fiction. She also quotes Raymond Chandler. Readers think they care about action and plot, Chandler wrote, but “What they care about, and what I care about, is the creation of emotion through dialogue.”
This is of course what Jane Austen was so good at. The original characters, though caught by social nicety at every turn of their observed lives, exist in constant emotional turmoil. The conflict is between the desire to live expressively in the moment and the need to control emotionality with common sense and self-discipline.
Death Comes to Pemberley from a crime novelist’s point of view, is an experiment: does the usual conflict between what is private and public come into play in any new and different way once death enters the lives of the Darcy and Bennet families?
I think the answer is that yes, we learn more about Darcy and Elizabeth as they face the death that has occurred in their woods—connected to all four of the L’s. I’ll leave you to find out how James develops their characters beyond what Jane Austen did, but with this caveat: to understand the full impact of what the Darcys learn about love, you have to understand the age they live in, and for that, you may have to get acquainted all over again with Pride and Prejudice.
The prologue to Death Comes to Pemberley will reacquaint you with Pride and Prejudice, and it’s written with such delicious irony that it’s hard to resist the proposal. Of course, the ideal is to read Pride and Prejudice first—or watch the tv mini-series, all six delicious episodes.
In a review of Jane Austen’s masterpiece just yesterday in The Guardian, one writer starts off by quoting Thomas Carlyle: “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.” In Death Comes to Pemberley, lust, loathing and lucre all play their roles, but in the end, this is a book about love. PD James, crowned so many times as the queen of crime writers, and capable of the most gory and brutal, as well as subtle and nuanced, of plots, turns out to be a romantic after all.