Thursday, January 19, 2012

PD James Kills Jane Austen

Elizabeth Zelvin

Celebrated mystery novelist PD James’s new Jane Austen pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley, is the first book I downloaded to the Kindle I got for Xmas that wasn’t either my own work or in the public domain. It’s only the latest of a big enough bevy of novels to be called a subgenre—some mysteries and some I’d call historical chick lit—featuring either Jane Austen herself or her characters, most often Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, their fictional lives extended through marriage and parenthood.

The novel started well enough that I began to make notes for a possible blog post. James’s meticulous use of language and majestic pace, so out of sync with most of today’s crime fiction, serve her well as she sets her scene in Austen’s universe. She replicates Austen’s lightly ironic tone.

“The town has an assembly room...but...the chief entertainment takes place in private houses where the boredom of dinner parties and whist tables, always with the same company, is relieved by gossip.”

When social events are threatened due to the war with France, it is finally concluded that “Paris would rejoice exceedingly and take new heart were that benighted city to learn that the Pemberley ball had been cancelled.”

Unlike many of the authors who have borrowed Austen and her characters, James avoids anachronism in both language and content, beyond a few delicate references to marital love and pregnancy, on which Austen would have remained silent or even more euphemistic. It could even be argued that the lack of onstage drama—for example, there is no confrontation between Wickham, who plays a major role, and either Darcy or Elizabeth—is justified because overt confrontation would be out of character for Austen.

Unfortunately, the promise of Austenian delights is not fulfilled, nor is the hope of a good mystery. I’ve already seen one online review that perpetrated more of a spoiler than I think fair. However, I must say that there is no puzzle and no detection, that certain characters are introduced only for the sake of unwarranted revelations at the end about their role in the crime, and that James is self-indulgent in slipping in her own critique of Pride and Prejudice.

When Darcy’s sister Georgiana has a suitor, Elizabeth reflects:

Surely they were in love, or perhaps on the verge of love, that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation, and hope. It was an enchantment she had never known. It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour....If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?

James also drags in references to characters from Persuasion and Emma, who by coincidence are only two or three degrees of separation from the Darcys.

James commits almost every literary crime that new writers are cautioned against: endless backstory, telling rather than showing both character and action, lack of conflict and suspense, and avoidance of dramatic scenes or interaction between the characters in favor of tedious exposition and narrative musings. Yet within a month of its appearance, Death Comes to Pemberley had already been on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks and will no doubt remain there for some time to come. Like me, an awful lot of readers were seduced by the combined names of Jane Austen and P.D. James and will no doubt be equally disappointed. Or will they even notice?



Sheila Connolly said...

Would that we would all achieve such status that people would eagerly buy our books simply because our name was on the cover!

I have not read this book, and unless it falls into my lap I am unlikely to. But James lost me a few books ago, when her characters spent most of the book sitting in their living room talking about what had happened, what was happening, what might yet happen. I can't remember that anything did happen.

Are we to assume that James's readers love those well-established characters so much that they're willing to simply hang out with them at home?

Leslie Budewitz said...

Well. I'd been considering "auditioning" this book as my choice for my local book club. Maybe not ... .

Lesa said...

Oh, I noticed, Liz. And, like you, I was very disappointed in this book. I liked the beginning, as well. But, I was very disappointed in the character development (or lack thereof), and the ending was very poor.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm going to shock everybody by admitting that I have never cared for Austen's books. They're romance novels -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't understand their lasting appeal. I've been a James fan from the beginning, but her writing in recent years has become so bloated that it's hard to stick with. So, on two counts, I have no desire to read James's take on Austen. I wonder what made her want to write it.

jenny milchman said...

The question of how to go on writing with the kind of freshness that earned you bestseller status in the first place is an intriguing one. James has written so many books. Is she edited less these days, ie, earlier books might have fallen victim to these flaws were it not for greater editing? I think readers are willing to forgive a good three or four lesser books for a beloved author. Perhaps that's what's happening here?

lil Gluckstern said...

I think Jenny raises a good point. I have felt that way about Patricia Cornwell's books-that the author was so revered that she would not be edited very carefully. I read Death at Pemberley and found it rather flat. I was almost nostalgic for the richness of the Dalgleish books, and I think those people buying it are doing so for the longing for what James once was. She once said she reread Austen every year. So I think this was her homage to her. Bless her heart; 92 is a very ripe old age.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The other possibility is that James's great age is the problem. Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr both outlived their ability to write a coherent book, though Christie had the foresight to stockpile the ends of her story arcs for both Poirot and Miss Marple. Not saying that's the case here, just wondering.

Vic said...

I've read the book and disliked it intensely, writing in my January 25 review that had the author been a first-time novelist, the manuscript would have been thrown in the slush pile.

There was too much exposition, too many facts were wrong, and the mystery was lame. The story's poor quality is reflected on comments left on Amazon.

People should save their money.

Portugal said...

This book was a pleasant surprise. Alot of the other Austen-sequels I’ve read have left something to be desired, and I was slightly leery of the concept of a mystery set at Pemberley. The first chapter moves a little slowly through a review of P&P, but after that I haven’t been able to put it down. The mystery plot is period-appropriate and makes for an entertaining story.