Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James, has to be the ultimate example of a novel that was successful simply by capitalising on another author’s fan base. Fan fiction that ended up being published, and alas, ended up as a BBC television series, is essentially what Death Comes to Pemberley is – not great writing, not a lot of substance, but hell, it contains characters that we love, so why wouldn’t we give it a read?

An unofficial follow-up (i.e. not actually written by Jane Austen) to the beloved classic Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley is set six years after Pride and Prejudice concludes. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are loving life and loving each other, with two children that exist but are conveniently never around. Elizabeth is now the head of Pemberley, and though she has faced the evils that is the upper-class, she has finally found her rightful place in the Darcy household.

Basically, things are going great. As they usually do before a murder mystery occurs. On the eve before their annual ball, surrounded by their close friends and family, the Darcy household is shocked by an unannounced visit…Lydia, shrieking at the top of her lungs that a murder has taken place. As the men of the house go into the woods to investigate, they discover a drunken, confused Wickham (still the arch-nemesis of Darcy), clutching the corpse of his friend…and claiming that he is responsible for his death.

Now, before I go any further, I will admit that it has been years since I read P&P and since then, I have read and watched Bridget Jones’s Diary more times than I can count. As a result, I continually pictured Mr Darcy as Colin Firth and Wickham as Hugh Grant. What’s worse though, I also constantly had in mind this image whenever Mr Darcy got frustrated at the gall of Wickham. These images were somewhat distracting, although I do stand by the argument that Helen Fielding’s adaptation of P&P is far more intelligent, witty and entertaining than anything else that has come on the market. Including Death Comes to Pemberley.

While the idea of revisiting beloved characters is good in theory, it is terribly difficult to actually pull off. There is always room for another Mr Darcy in literature, or another Elizabeth Bennett for that matter, but P.D. James’s attempts in this novel were poorly executed. Though she tried to imitate the formalities of Austen’s 1800s writing, it was a mere shadow of the great author’s style. There was none of the finesse, the irony or even the thinly-disguised contempt that Austen held for her society. One of the problems of attempting a modern-day sequel to a Jane Austen book is that it completely fails to capture what is the essence of her novels. Though Jane Austen is considered the original writer of ‘chick lit’, her novels, particularly P&P, deal with class and gender issues, and how a woman is essentially reduced to a pretty sidekick to her husband. While P.D. James tried to address some of these issues she, well, failed miserably.

The other problem with this book was that it was a murder mystery set in the 1800s, but without the style, politics or ideals that come with that time. As a result, the plot came across as slow, clunky, boring, and at times, melodramatic. As a reader of the 21st century, it was frustrating to read about the lack of forensics or police ability to even attempt to find the killer, but as a fan of history, it also didn’t contain any authenticity of how a court case may have occurred during that time. Instead, we’re left with a rather unimaginative crime novel that capitalises on well-known characters to create a storyline.

This book has received good reviews, and it kept me entertained enough to want to read until the end, but overall it felt like a sell-out: James knew that she would generate sales based on Austen’s prestige, regardless of the quality of the writing. While it is also nice to re-visit characters outside of their original novel, I think it is a guilty desire that should perhaps stay in the realms of fan fiction. Unless the author has used the outlines of a storyline, as Helen Fielding did rather well with Bridget Jones’s Diary, it can easily read as clunky and unauthentic, not to mention as though the writer is trying to make a bit of extra cash.

I wouldn’t recommend Death Comes to Pemberley. If you’re a fan of P&P, there are many other ways of getting your Mr Darcy fix. If you’re at a loss, just re-watch Bridget Jones’s Diary like I plan on doing, making sure to re-enact the opening scene on your couch at home.

Have you read Death Comes to Pemberley? Are you a fan? Would you read a sequel to a classic, even if it wasn’t written by the original author? Let me know!

death comes to pemberley by p. d. james

Death Comes to Pemberley – (image taken from http://www.csmonitor.com)

 

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