PD James and Jane Austen: A quick peek

PD James

Who is P.D. James?

Jane Austen

James is one of Britain’s most distinguished novelists, known primarily for her detective novels starring Adam Dalgliesh, poet and Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Now that she’s married Dalgleish off, she’s writing in a different mode, and has penned a crime-novel sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

A list of James’s 21 books—starting with Cover Her Face published in 1962, includes non-detective fiction (The Children of Men, 1992); literary review (Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009); and autobiography (Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, taken from her diaries of the years 1997-1998 and published in 1999).

James has enjoyed most of Britain’s highest literary recognitions: awarded an OBE in 1983, she is a life peer, appointed to Britain’s House of Lords in 1991; she  is a member of and has served as chair of many arts and literary societies, and has been awarded honorary degrees by seven universities. She travels regularly for book signings and promotions, and is a frequent guest on literary television and radio. She is over 90, and still writing.


Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden starred in a 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice.

Remember Pride and Prejudice?

If the book  title alone doesn’t ring bells for you, think of the 2005 film starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden, or before that the 1995 TV six-part mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Firth was so seethingly sexy in this role (who can forget the scene in which he plunges into the lake beside Pemberley then strides dripping to the house) that the makers of Brigid Jones’ Diary (2001) named the hero Darcy. You can see some scenes on U-Tube, or get the 6-part miniseries at the library or the video store. It’s a treat.


The background to Austen’s storytelling

In order to understand both Pride and Prejudice and Death Comes to Pemberley, it’s essential to understand the social context for women. Without a husband, a woman without inherited

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle starred in a 1995 TV series of Pride and Prejuidice.

money would be forever dependent on her parents or other relatives. The push for marriage, preferably marriage with money (the facts of a man’s bank account precede his every arrival in every Austen setting,) are understandable only in the face of the inability of respectable women to earn their own living. Marriage was a career as well as a survival strategy.  Educated women could work as governesses, and a few did earn money as writers or artists—but neither option presented long-term security.

On the other hand, an enormous number of working class women were “in service,” that is working as maids, cooks, housekeepers, barmaids, prostitutes; or as inn-keepers, miners, fishers, farmhands, dairywomen—all jobs that were seen as lacking in the refinement required of a “lady.” They had some independence, but often were at the mercy of brutal working conditions. In this period of gradual upward mobility in a time of industrialization, the striving for that upwardness was unapologetic, open and, to our own world, shockingly strident.

It is this quest for both money and respectability that Jane Austen saw with such clarity. In it she found her voice as a writer who, without being at all revolutionary, gently poked and prodded at the foibles of her fellow men and women of the “respectable” gentry and rising middle classes of professionals, soldiers, clergy and industrialists.


The age

Death Comes to Pemberley opens in 1803. To put this into context, this was just before Lewis and Clark set off on their expedition to the Pacific, and a few years before David Thompson travelled through the Big Eddy to Boat Encampment. It’s the age of Napoleonic wars, of Jefferson in America, of Turner in painting, of Beethoven in music, of Fulton, Larmarck and Dalton in science. Gas streetlights are about to be introduced in London. In private homes of every size, candles light the night, fires are what warm the hearth and water comes out of a pump usually not inside the house.

Three books by PD James