For persons like me who are die hard Pride and Prejudice fans and love PD James, and look at texts critically, Death Comes To Pemberley is a dream come true. PD James is an established detective fiction writer who is not running out of ideas and hence her choice at a retake on Pride and Prejudice is not like a Bollywood remake of cult films when directors take the lazy way out by recasting older milestones. If she has chosen the immortal Pride and Prejudice, it is with a purpose; like a detective herself she has pried into what seems to be perfect and utopian and looked for dark shadows that lurk otherwise held through ages as the perfect romance and the perfect marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy. The idea of the novel, Death Comes To Pemberley is not so much to write another detective novel by merely using Pemberley as a backdrop as much as it is to internalize the Austenalia, write in the author’s own voice and while doing this recover through the very same doubts that Jane Austen herself infuses into her novels while closeting her characters into happy homes and warm hearths.
Jane Austen’s novels on hindsight are in fact the perfect setting of crime. Detectives often do best when set in enclosed spaces; either it is the idyllic English village depopulated by war conscriptions, or by death by epidemics, or just abandoned as farming economies collapse or sometimes they are luxury cruises on the Nile or the elaborate properties like the Hollow. In these villages where nothing seems to ever happen or in those palatial abodes where all is always well, crime seems to thrive the best as a contrast to utmost normalcy and serenity. Jane Austen, to a crime fiction writer inhabits just those worlds that are as listless nothings as the ones mentioned above. Her novels are therefore natural settings for crime fictions.
Pride and Prejudice is the pinnacle of Jane Austen; no wonder that it has survived the best. Its characters are sharp profiles out of Sense and Sensibility and then drop off to emerge as Emma. Only Persuasion purports to be different despite the all is well ending. In all these novels, the author gives us a distinct feeling that she is writing in two voices, one conformist and the other cynical. PD James catches the latter and then rewrites Pride and Prejudice by extending it to the present work under discussion, namely Death ..
Is the present novel under discussion as being a sequel to Pride and Prejudice? A sequel is an aftermath of the events presupposed to have been concluded within a particular piece of work and in whose resolution the author of the sequel is dissatisfied with. The sequel says that the story is far from being over and that there is unresolved karma whose loose ends need to be tied up. The Uttar Ramayan is a case in the point because it explores Rama’s fragility of mind, something that sticks out like a sore thumb even as celebrations explode in Ayodhya at the conclusion of Rama’s exile and his victory over Ravana in what is said to be the final war. Death at Pemberely tries to address unresolved issues, whether Lydia is all that wrong after all, whether Elizabeth Bennett at all has the perfect romance, was Darcy as much of an idol as he is made out to be. To these questions that arise as fatal doubts to readers like me who read Pride and Prejudice whenever and wherever I find the opportunity, PD James has tried to write a reply.
PD James raises the fatal doubt over Pride and Prejudice, was the Elizabeth and Darcy romance as great as it has been accepted by us as one? It had none of the free flowing spontaneity of Georgina’s or the hopeless head over heels syndrome of Bingley and Jane’s. Hers was a romance based more on a sense of challenge, ensconced in repartee and resistance, the last of which emanates from a denial of attraction. Elizabeth was also fighting herself when she disliked Darcy, a way to perhaps tell that she better distance this hopelessly attractive man before he rejects her advances. She could not have loved Darcy for what he was because they really never interacted. Theirs was a romance of inklings and not of intimacy and perhaps a free intimacy was not possible since there was an overriding element of being overwhelmed. The marriage of Elizabeth to Darcy was the end of a long of arduous journey between two persons helplessly attracted to each other and yet fighting it within themselves to deny the allure. The marriage is such a neat and a tight conclusion that the reader can only imagine for the two as happily ever after; where does such a final and certain conclusion leave any room for speculation except as cracks that the marriage encounters. The cracks do appear in Elizabeth’s slight envy of Georgiana’s laughter in love, a state of free spirit that her romance has never known, a feeling that she quickly smothers down with her intensely rational and rationalizing self. Elizabeth immerses herself in her role as the incumbent mistress of Pemberley.One cannot but feel disappointed with such a cardboard cutout of Elizabeth but Gita and I felt that there could be no other way.
The other crack appears when we see Darcy as a non performer; apart from walks in the park and being a model husband, and a proper master of an inherited property, he really has little sense of agency. He almost slyly follows Elizabeth with his famous “eyes” and then approaches Elizabeth with a straight proposal for marriage without any effort at courtship. What he “arranges” for Lydia is because he has the reigns of Wickham in his own hands and he has money. There has been more activity around Bingley, Wickham and even Colonel Fitzwilliam than around Darcy. PD James insists in her carboardization of Darcy’s character that there never has been and nor can be any much more out of a man who is so well ensconced in his property and social class that he is entrenched into a deep passivity of fulfillment. Ditto same for Elizabeth after marriage.
One fantasizes that Elizabeth should have been the detective, snooping around, intuiting and then logically rationalizing. But this too is not to be. Elizabeth is too absorbed and preoccupied in her role of a mistress of Pemberley and the wife of a prize catch that she seems to have lost the personality traits amidst keeping up traditions such as Lady Anne’s Ball. She neither has the autonomy nor the leisure to hone her own personality after her dream marriage to a dream man, not so much because she loves him but because he is such a desire for other women nor so well aligned to the morals and manners of the contemporary society.
Wickham turns out to be just as one expects him to be; the story is not so much about Wickham really. Instead, the story is about Lydia, a woman who, by the dint of her devotion to a wild and hence attractive man as her husband, must face and continue to face ill consequences of her impassioned choice. I don’t think I noticed this nuance while reading the book. For me, this comes as an afterthought.
As a story of crime and detection was too straight-line, passive voiced and obvious and neat. The murderer after all turned out to be a man who would die a natural death and Wickham would be absolved of all charges; and the detection brought about through the practice of the confession. One wonders why PD James seems to have at all conceptualized this rather watered down story when she herself is such a renowned writer of crime fiction? This should not be an observation on the author but rather this is the question to be addressed.
In a manner of a detective let us look deep into the author and her present work. It is her intention to peer into Pride and Prejudice, into its world, inside Pemberley to look what is systematically pushed under the carpet. That hanging of a poor boy on false charges that absolved a gentleman makes us wonder whether it was after all not Colonel Fitzwilliam who was the killer, whether or not it was he who, being rejected twice once by Elizabeth and then by Georgiana did not take out his frustrations on a poor tenant’s daughter? Was Wickham, also like the executed poor boy an easy target, easier because of his inherent waywardness? The death of Wickham’s half sister brings into the story a sharp contrast with the genteel relation between Darcy and Georgiana and the passionate devotion of an older sister for her half brother. The devotion of a sister to a brother suddenly raises a doubt in my mind, whether Wickham was not the victim of a class war, because with a strongly devoted family behind him, his wonderful manners, his sharp mind and his charming and seductive ways, he could have moved up the social ladder and as easily slip into the upper echelons of the society, a la Eliza Do Little honed by Prof Higgins? Indeed Wickham and Lydia’s emigration to America a land known for its equality away from the class divided and class conscious England is a hint for us to pick up the real story that PD James is investigating, namely that of the cracks in the polished veneer of Pemberley.