Death Comes to Pemberley (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James, 2011
304 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
March, 2012

In her newest work, P.D. James, the great doyenne of murder mysteries, plies her talents in the service of Jane Austen. The result is a combined period novel, romance, crime novel, and court room drama.

The novel, which takes place six years into the Bennet-Darcy marriage, opens with a summary of events from Pride and Prejudice. In reconstructing those events, James chooses a wry perspective—that of the gossip-prone neighbors, who feel certain Elizabeth had her cap set for Darcy all along, especially once she'd seen the sumptuous grounds of Pemberley.

The gossip is James's way of alluding to a line from P & P, in which Eliabeth tells Jane—in jest (?)—that she fell in love with Darcy once she saw his grand estate. It's a line that many, even scholarly critics, have pondered for years. And it's a question that pervades Elizabeth's own thoughts in this new novel.

Twice Elizabeth wonders whether she would have married Darcy "had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney," or like Wickham, poor without expectations. "She was not," she knows, "formed for the sad contrivances of poverty." (One wonders, of course, who is.)

Sadly, Lizzie's sparkling wit is nowhere to be found here; instead, James takes us inward, where we discover a somewhat unsettled mind. Watching Georgiana and a suitor, Elizabeth envies their new love:

...that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation and hope. It was an enchantment she had never known.

Darcy, too, entertains disturbing thoughts—about the burdens of running a large estate and his obligations to Wickham, his former nemesis and now brother-in-law. And though he adores Elizabeth, he broods about his decision to marry her, a decision "in defiance of every principle which from childhood had ruled his life."

I realize I've said nothing about plot. Simply, there's a crime committed: it's solved, of course, with twists and turns—somewhat obvious—along the way. The fun in this book isn't solving the mystery but seeing how James handles the characters from Austen's most beloved novel.

Be sure to re-read the original first; then have a good time identifying the many allusions—not just to P & P, but also to other Austen works.

See our Reading Guide for Death Comes to Pemberley.

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