Re-working a classic, with murder

Like Janeites everywhere I asked for ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ by P.D. James, for Christmas. How could I resist, my favorite characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ reworked by one of my favorite crime writers? As the publisher said: “A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.” A concept novel that couldn’t miss. Or could it?

Attracting readers (and buyers) is one thing. Dame Phyllis’s publishers in the UK and the US knew what they were doing, releasing it during the big holiday book-buying season. I just wish the experience had matched the expectations.

Nothing is awful about ‘Death Comes to Pemberley,’ but nothing is all that great either. The story begins as Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily married for six years and have two young sons (which in aristocratic fashion they love but rarely see.)  On the eve of a ball at Pemberley the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, arrives in typical fashion: in a crisis and hysterical. Her husband Wickham and old beau Captain Denny have disappeared in the woods nearby and gunshots were heard.

But before this action James feels it’s necessary to recap the entire story of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ This was unnecessary in my opinion. A classic novel, one of the most widely read in the English language, and the entire reason for the current work? It’s a fair assumption that the story is known by readers. If not, hey, go read it, people! Or watch one of half a dozen movies. The recap just made me antsy for the story.

Which would be fine if the rest of the story lived up to the original. That was silly of me, wasn’t it, to hope for an experience as magical as ‘Pride and Prejudice?’ Ah, I didn’t really, but yeah, okay, a little. The joy of the original was in the characters, their wit and charm and sparkling repartee. None of that wit and charm transmits in James’s prose. Darcy is upright and proper but little else. Elizabeth is a great hostess. Lydia is annoying. Wickham is a bad boy. But none of them live and breathe.

Even that might be okay if we were experiencing a classic PD James mystery, full of intelligent, cagy people and twists and turns. Unfortunately the entire story leads up to Wickham’s trial, mostly angst and historical facts about the English legal system. At one point James almost gives a dissertation on appellate courts. It’s just, sadly, dry as toast. And when it’s all over she favors us with a conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth to wrap things up, and wrap and endlessly wrap.

P.D. James is my hero! At 91 she is still writing novels. Maybe she’ll go back to  Adam Dalgleish and modern problems. Many writers have written continuations of Austen novels before her, and more will probably in the future. If ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is any indication we’d all do better to go read Jane’s ouevre — again. They never disappoint.

Janeites meet James-ites in ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’

Christmas gifters, word up! I’ve been a fan of P.D. James ever since my dad gave me a copy of The Skull Beneath the Skin. And I’ve been a fan of Jane Austen, well, forever. In this video interview P.D. James confesses her own love of Austen and discusses her new Jane pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley. Why write a continuation when so many others have? Jane Austen must be the most mimicked, admired, and re-imagined of authors. (I’m reading Jane Austen Made Me Do It, an anthology of Austen-esque and inspired short stories. Lots of fun, by the way.)

Dame Phyllis, Baroness of Holland Park, is the author of 20 novels. She doesn’t always write detective fiction; she also wrote the dystopian tale, Children of Men, made into a great movie. She is also 91 years old! And still writing great fiction. May she live forever.

Death Comes to Pemberley will be out December 6, 2011, in the US.

What better time to re-read Jane?

Any time is a good time to re-read Jane Austen. But midsummer, when the weather is hot and we escape to the hammock, or the cool basement, or the dock at the lake, is just about perfect. I have re-read most of the books, many times. My favorite, from age seventeen on, has been Pride and Prejudice. Every time I try to see how Jane did it, how she conjures a world, a society, a character, with so few words, such lively dialogue. Jane herself thought P & P was polished a little too brightly, that is, edited down to its core. But no one has complained about that, Jane, except re-readers who wish there was more of your lovely magic. In later years I’ve found Persuasion, her last finished novel, to have such a core of strong belief in yourself — in the character of Anne Eliot — that I’ve re-read it many times as well.

A few weeks ago V.S. Naipaul made himself famously unpopular by stating that he thought Jane Austen was sentimental. According to the Guardian: “Of Austen he said he ‘couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.'” In fact, if he deigned to read Austen he would find sentimentality is the farthest thing from her mind. Very much a child of the Age of Reason, she disdained the sentimental and romantic and was suspicious of anything relating to strong emotion, especially if it overtook one’s wits. (This is of course the theme of Sense and Sensibility, the clash of Reason and the Romantic.) A person in an Austen novel is often regarded, and described, as having the correct opinions. This is the highest praise. To be educated and well-informed, to observe the actions of others and learn from their mistakes, to think and not be swayed by silly notions like lust and glittering gowns. That is why women especially love Jane Austen: she understands our need to be taken seriously, even — especially — in a world that still includes people like V.S. Naipaul.

The Washington Post ran an article Five Myths About Jane Austen recently. Worth a read for all Janeites who might come into contact with a Sir Vidia. And the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, where Shakespeare and other literary greats live on, just spent $1.6 million on the fragment of The Watsons Jane left unfinished. I’ve read a version finished by Joan Aiken called Emma Watson. (I’ll read almost anything related to Jane.) Aiken’s version was disappointing; I should have known better. You could tell just where Aiken took up the story; there were all sorts of calamities like overturned coaches. In Austen one talks about overturned coaches but they never actually happen. The world outside can be frightening, full of war and death and accidents. But inside one of Jane’s books life is sane and incredibly safe, women are valued for their minds and opinions, and men are (mostly) gentlemen. That’s why we keep going back.