Sunday, December 16, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of Death Comes to Pemberley by Carrie Wasinger

A Review of Death Comes to Pemberley: A Novel (Knopf 2011) By P.D. James
Carrie Wasinger
"Chatsworth House"
PHOTO: David Ooms

Originally Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical

The literary body is suffering from Jane Austen reflux. Pride and Prejudice just keeps coming back to us, in ever more caustic  forms. Journey to your local Barnes and Noble, and you will find yourself in the land of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Mr. Darcy’s Bite having passed through the forgettable villages of A Wife for Mr. Darcy and Mr. Darcy’s Undoing along the way.

What accounts for this contemporary fascination with a narrative that’s nearly two hundred years old? The ladies of the nation’s book clubs may answer as one, like a Greek chorus: “The epic romance speaks to the very marrow of the modern woman! Darcy is our ideal husband, a hero unknown among modern men!” Well ladies, first, I suggest you cut back on the chardonnay. Then, I ask: have you read Austen? Because epic, she is not. Romantic? Not even.

Austen’s novels are finely-wrought, sophisticated acts of rhetorical prowess that peek into the complexities of a social moment that we post-moderns cannot hope to know because it no longer exists. To put it simply, hers was a society built, very carefully, on character. To read Austen for the ebb and swell of romance is to mistake Simon and Garfunkle for Green Day.

As a much-needed antidote to Austen reflux, acclaimed mystery novelist P.D. James brings us Death Comes to Pemberley, the latest in the string of novels to fantasize about the post-nuptial events of Pride and Prejudice. Kicking the salivary glands of both Austen and James devotees into high gear, the novel attempts to marry two of the more antithetical impulses of fiction: the gritty, darkened world of criminal misdeeds and the carefully ordered rhetorical discretion of Georgian England. Death Comes to Pemberley sets out to remind us that the world of Pride and Prejudice (zombies notwithstanding) values reason and prudence above all else. All the beloved characters from the original are brought back to teach us that we should value reason and prudence, too.

The novel opens a handful of years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. On the eve of the annual Pemberley ball, a coach madly races through the estate’s woodland to deposit the estranged Lydia Wickham on the doorstep of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, her sister and brother-in-law, where she hysterically announces that her husband is dead. Darcy and his male guests tromp off into the night to investigate, only to discover Wickham, fully alive, leaning over the corpse of the Wickhams’ close friend, Captain Denny. The only thing more distasteful to Darcy than having the Wickhams on his hands again is the possibility that Wickham may be convicted of murder, which would entail scandal on all present and future generations of Darcys. To his credit, however, Darcy cannot bring himself to believe in Wickham’s guilt and sets out to ensure that justice be done.

PHOTO: Herry Lawford

From the first page, the reader of Death Comes to Pemberley can’t help but admire the adroitness with which James has adopted Austen’s prose style. James’s sentences, like Austen’s, unwind stealthily, with the pacing and phrasing that promise a satisfying bite of sarcasm at the end. But mere imitation is not James’s intent. In contemporary mysteries, forensic science often takes point in solving the crime. Death Comes to Pemberley takes place in a time before blood-typing and ballistics. The trial of Wickham, which occupies the last third of the novel, must therefore turn on evidence of character, not science. What is said about a person, what a person says about themselves, what is deliberately not said—these all conspire to create character, good or bad. The novelist’s job of drawing character becomes as important for this text as the magistrate’s job of ascertaining guilt or innocence. 

Austen presaged later novelists by gifting her primary characters complex, evolving psychologies. James does justice to the rakish George Wickham, who is neither more nor less dissolute than when we last met him. But elsewhere, there are problems. Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, who could cut as deeply as a Ginzu knife with a well-placed remark and make us love her even more, has been replaced by James’s dowdy Elizabeth Darcy, who maintains a zombie-like attachment to both prudence and Pemberley. Indeed, the opening scene of the novel, in which Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin, acknowledges to Elizabeth his aspiration to Georgiana Darcy’s hand, is all about Mrs. Darcy biting her tongue. (The ladies’ book club Greek chorus shouts “Nooooo!” into the unresponsive heavens.)

Darcy is more tolerable. Here James improves on the original. Permitting readers inside Darcy’s proud head in a way that Austen never contrived, James encourages us to understand gentility as it was likely experienced at the time: a complex system of patronage in which benefactors (like Darcy) and dependents (like Wickham) were symbiotically linked. In this way, James returns us to an unfamiliar era when democracy was largely untried and older political forms ordered all ranks of society—forms which depended for their success not on popular vote, but on the character of the individuals invested with power.

To that end, James has created a few new characters. The first is the second contender for Georgiana’s hand, the young lawyer Henry Alveston, a thoroughly modern type who interprets for us the intricacies of early 19th-century British law. The second, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate to whom Darcy turns over the execution of local justice, is by far James’s best addition to Austen’s world. We meet him ensconced in his smoking room reading a tome, not unwillingly disturbed from his quiet, intellectual evening by this local tragedy. To Darcy’s eyes he represents “the embodiment of the law.” As Sir Selwyn’s is the only dialogue to approach Austen’s playful banter it comes as a welcome relief, yet his character is not much developed beyond this point. Colonel Fitzwilliam on the other hand, an original of Austen’s, receives so much development from James that he might as well be brand new.

In a move no doubt intended to spare her audience, James has largely exiled Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the margins. Even Lydia gets less airtime than one would expect, considering her husband is on trial for murder. With them has also gone much of the comic intensity of Austen’s universe, leaving no buoyant idiocy to offset the morbidity of the murder mystery and no disgraceful thoughtlessness to relieve the morality of the respectable characters. In Austen’s world, Lydia’s promiscuousness and Lady Catherine de Burgh’s narrow-mindedness make Jane’s chastity and Bingley’s tolerance enviable qualities. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Jane comes off as perfectly vanilla and Bingley as an undiscerning dunderhead who exists simply so that Darcy can tell him to look after the women.

Chawton House: Once the home of Jane Austen's brother, it is now a library dedicated to the study of early English women's writing.
PHOTO: Herry Lawford

Less forgivable is the novel’s almost complete abandonment of those remarkable scenes of formal and informal social gatherings—the dinners, balls, musical evenings, and the like—that gave Austen a chance to pit her characters against each other and see what emerged. In Austen, the best and worst of human nature are revealed in conversation. James seems shy of such moments, preferring to let readers enter the thoughts of individual characters or give us only brief, unsatisfactory, often redundant dialogue. As a result, the plot slows, but doesn’t thicken. If Austen’s characterization is a landscape, full of peaks and valleys, James’s is a vast flatland, monotonous and rather dull.

But perhaps this is too harsh criticism; following in Austen’s footsteps is no easy matter, and after all, the novel of manners is not James’s milieu. Having penned the Adam Dalgliesh series for 50 years now, James is the uncontested queen of contemporary British mystery fiction, and setting a murder mystery in the world of Pride and Prejudice is a true stroke of genius. The mystery genre emerged in the 1840s, only thirty years after Austen’s major work, and in many ways, Austen flirted with its elements. Pride and Prejudice and Emma both turn on secrets that come to light unexpectedly, and Northanger Abbey, a sendup of the 18th-century gothic novel, is all about finding secrets where there are none. Moreover, it makes sense to set a mystery in Austen’s universe precisely because Austen drew the morality of that universe so carefully. Detective fiction—particularly of the kind at which James excels—endures because it both disrupts and reassures: if the criminal is a figure for corruption, the detective is a figure for the satisfying execution of justice.

Sadly, Death Comes to Pemberley steals away that satisfaction. Although Darcy shows early promise as a possible amateur sleuth, no proper detective figure ever emerges from the story. The plot is never twisty enough and the characters never corrupt enough to really disorder the novel’s moral universe. The revelation, in true Austenian fashion, comes by way of a letter that has the disappointing effect of exonerating just about everybody. Consequently, the resolution feels as tepid as the scandal, and the narrative positively limps to a close.

There are bright moments in the novel. Although as a mystery Death Comes to Pemberley may disappoint, as an escape from the absurdity of Austen reflux, it is a welcome addition to bookstore shelves. What the novel really offers, however, is a nostalgic retrospective of Britain on the threshold of industrialization. As such it reminds us—even through its failings—that good character is everything.

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