April 2012 Meeting: P.D. James’ Death comes to Pemberley

Prepared by member Mary

Many thanks to Marilyn for providing her comprehensive notes to guide our discussion.

With 20 previous novels to her credit, P. D. James’ reputation as the greatest living writer of British crime fiction is well established. For this novel James decided she would be “self-indulgent” and “combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen, by setting my next novel at Pemberley.” James said she was “concerned to write a true detective story with the clues to the truth of what happened available to the reader and, I hope, an ending that is both believable and satisfying.” Unfortunately, in our view, the novel is neither believable nor satisfying.

As there was no regular police force in Britain in 1803, there is no modern-day detective like Inspector Adam Dalgleish to lead the investigation. It was the duty of local magistrates to investigate a crime and bring the accused to trial. The evidence is sparse, and contaminated by amateurs. The few clues available are either ignored or not followed rigorously, and in the end the mystery more or less solves itself. This is very disappointing for fans of James’ detective fiction as the novel does not follow the accepted genre of a “true detective story”.

Ponderous descriptions contrast the ordered world and domestic bliss of the Pemberley household with the gothic atmosphere of the crime scene in the Pemberley woodland. We were irritated by numerous repetitions of background stories, particularly the suicide of the reclusive great-grandfather, and the unfortunate young man hanged for poaching. In Darcy’s mind these past events still reflect poorly on the honoured name of Pemberley and serve to over-emphasise his heightened sense of duty and his guilt that in marrying Elizabeth he has once again placed Pemberley’s good name in jeopardy. Some members commented that Darcy’s angst gives a postmodernist twist to the story.

Many of the characters from Pride and prejudice are altered to varying degrees, but Wickham remains the arch-villain. His resolute silence is not for the protection of others but a self-serving bid to preserve his relationship with Lydia and the support provided by her wealthy sisters. Although it is very convenient for the plot, we questioned why Lydia remains childless, and felt that this deserved an explanation.

There are occasional flashes of humour in the style of Austen’s famous wit and irony, but for the most part the mood is sombre. Like Austen, James uses the theatricality of her scenes to advantage, although here they are more Dickensian, especially with the minor characters and in the crowded and unruly London courtroom. The in-the-nick-of-time deathbed confession is very dramatic, but seems implausible.

Thanks to Margaret for finding the very amusing “Mind your language” column from The Spectator (17/24 Dec. 2011). The columnist (Dot Wordsworth!) can’t resist playing the Downton Abbey game with this novel, i.e. spotting all the anachronisms. These are many and varied but ‘Dot’ acknowledges that it is hardly fair, as “Lady James did not set out to write the book in the language of Jane Austen”. She hopes Lady James will not be as irritated by this ‘silly game’ “as Lord Fellowes appeared to be by the Downton blunder-hunt.”

Business

  • 3 apologies were received.
  • Penguin Books Australia offered us a copy, for review on our blog, of Jennifer Paynter’s spinoff novel, Mary Bennet. Jenny volunteered to write the review.
  • Next meetings: May 19: Jane Austen’s letters – 1801-1806; June 16: Secondary sources for Pride and prejudice
  • Future meetings (dates TBD): Viewing of Prof. Amanda Vickery’s The many lovers of Jane Austen; Margaret’s report on her literary tour of SE England; and, hopefully, a guest speaker from the ANU

The meeting concluded with quotes as usual, but no quiz this month, as both our quizmaster and his deputy were “off duty”.

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