Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James, 2011
A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.
It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.
Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.
Inspired by a lifelong passion for Austen, P. D. James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story, as only she can write it. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 3, 1920
• Where—Oxford, England, UK
• Education—left school at 16
• Awards—member, International Crime Writing Hall
of Fame (see below for awards)
• Currently—lives in both Oxford and London, England
Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, commonly known as P. D. James, is an English crime writer and Conservative life peer in the House of Lords, most famous for a series of detective novels starring policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh.
James was born in Oxford, the daughter of Sidney James, a tax inspector, and educated at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls.
James had to leave school at age sixteen to work: her family did not have much money and her father did not believe in higher education for girls. She worked in a tax office for three years, and later found a job as an assistant stage manager for a theater group. In 1941, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor, and had two daughters, Claire and Jane.
When White returned from World War II, he suffered from illness and James was forced to provide for the whole family until her husband's death in 1964. She studied hospital administration, and from 1949 to 1968, worked for a hospital board in London, England.
James began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, named after a teacher at Cambridge High School, was published in 1962. Many of James's mystery novels take place against the backdrop of the UK's bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the health services, arenas in which James had worked for decades starting in the 1940s.
Two years after the publication of Cover Her Face, James's husband died and she took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. James worked in government service until her retirement in 1979.
She is an Anglican and a Lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society. Her 2001 work, Death in Holy Orders, displays her familiarity with the inner workings of church hierarchy. Her later novels are often set in a community closed in some way, such as a publishing house or barristers' chambers, a theological college, an island or a private clinic. Over her writing career James has also written many essays and short stories for periodicals and anthologies, which have yet to be collected. She revealed in 2011 that The Private Patient was the final Dalgliesh novel.
James 2011 book, Death Comes to Pemberley, is a "sequel" to Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice.
Film and television
During the 1980s, many of James's mystery novels were adapted for television in the UK. These productions have been broadcast in other countries, including the USA on its PBS channel. These productions featured Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh. The BBC has since adapted Death in Holy Orders (2003) and The Murder Room (2004) as one-off dramas starring Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh.
Her 1992 novel The Children of Men was the basis for a 2006 feature film of the same name, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. Despite substantial changes from the book, James was reportedly pleased with the adaptation and proud to be associated with the film.
1971 Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction (Crime Writers' Association): Shroud for a Nightingale
1975 Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction: The Black Tower
1986 Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction: A Taste for Death
1987 Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award (Crime Writers' Association)
1992 Deo Gloria Award: The Children of Men
1999 Grandmaster Award (Mystery Writers of America)
[James's] innovation has been to transplant the dramatis personae from Austen into her own suspenseful universe, preserving their likenesses and life force…The greatest pleasure of this novel is its unforced, effortless, effective voice. James hasn't written in florid cod-Regency whorls, the overblown language other mimics so often employ. Not infrequently, while reading Death Comes to Pemberley, one succumbs to the impression that it is Austen herself at the keyboard.
Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review
While many writers have composed sequels to the various Austen masterpieces, James manages to preserve the flavor of Pride and Prejudice while also creating a fairly good whodunit…This is a novel one reads for its charm, for the chance to revisit some favorite characters, for the ingenious way James reworks—or resolves—old elements from Austen…It is a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.
Michael Dirda - Washington Post
(Starred review.) Historical mystery buffs and Jane Austen fans alike will welcome this homage to the author of Pride and Prejudice from MWA Grand Master James, best known for her Adam Dalgliesh detective series (The Private Patient, etc.). In the autumn of 1803, six years after the events that closed Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Darcy, the happily married mistress of Pemberley House, is preparing for Lady Anne's annual ball, "regarded by the county as the most important social event of the year." Alas, the evening before the ball, Elizabeth's sister Lydia, who married the feckless Wickham, bursts into the house to announce that Captain Denny, a militia officer, has shot her husband dead in the woodland on the estate. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, who purists may note behaves inconsistently with Austen's original, head out in a chaise to investigate. Attentive readers will eagerly seek out clues to the delightfully complex mystery, which involves many hidden motives and dark secrets, not least of them in the august Darcy family. In contrast to Pride and Prejudice, where emotion is typically conveyed through indirect speech, characters are much more open about their feelings, giving a contemporary ring to James's pleasing and agreeable sequel.
Readers of Pride and Prejudice know that Wickham is a thorough scoundrel, but can he really have murdered his only friend?... Most of [the] developments, cloaked in a pitch-perfect likeness of Austen's prose, are ceremonious but pedestrian. The final working-out, however, shows all James' customary ingenuity. The murder story allows only flashes of Austenian wit, and Lizzy is sadly eclipsed by Darcy. But the stylistic pastiche is remarkably accomplished, and it's nice to get brief updates on certain cast members of Persuasion and Emma as a bonus.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Death Comes to Pemberley:
(Dear Reader: Some questions, though not all, assume a knowledge of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Also, there are a few spoiler questions at the end. Be careful.)
1. Compare the "Prologue" of Death Comes to Pemberley with the "Epilogue" of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Are the two similar? Different? In what ways does James expand on Austen's version of the several years following Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage?
2. Can you point to some echoes of the original language from Pride and Prejudice in the descriptions and/or dialogue of James's sequel? Start, perhaps, with the first lines of both books.
3. What about the characters of Death Comes to Pemberley? Has James maintained their essential natures and personalities...or changed them in some way? How consistent are they with Austen's originals? Consider Elizabeth and Darcy, the Bingleys, the Wickhams, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
4. Follow-up to Question 3: James provides greater access to Fitzwilliam Darcy's state of mind than Austen permitted her readers. What do you learn about Darcy that you didn't know before? Does your opinion of him change...or remain the same as it did after reading Pride and Prejudice? If you haven't read P & P, what conclusions do you reach regarding Darcy's character?
5. When the murder is first discovered, Wickham utters, "I killed him.... It's my fault." How did you interpret his confession? Were you ready to believe in his guilt?
6. Good crime writers like P.D. James embed clues early on in their stories. What seemingly inconsequential clues are dropped that later turn out to be decisive in solving the mystery. How cleverly does James bury her clues?
7. Mystery writers also like to throw in red-herrings. Are there any false clues in Death Comes to Pemberley that fooled you, leading you to expect a different outcome?
8. In what ways does P.D. James highlight class distinctions in this work? Why, for instance, does the Magistrate Selwyn Hardcastle not wish to waste his time at Pemberley? How are servants treated at Pemberley; compare that to how they're treated at Mrs. Hurst's in London?
9. Why does the colonel speak to Elizabeth rather than to Darcy about his desire to marry Georgiana?
10. Elizabeth watches Georgiana and Alveston interact and realizes the two are in love. She reflects on "that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation and hope. It was enchantment she had never known." Why does Elizabeth think this? Is she not in love with her husband?
11. Follow-up to Question 10: When Elizabeth gazes down at Wickham, who is sleeping with "his dark hair tumbled on the pillow, his shirt open to show the delicate line of the throat," she thinks he looks "like a young knight wounded in battle." Is Elizabeth a bit in love with Wickham? She wonders whether she would "have married him if he had been rich instead of penniless." This is the second time Elizabeth has questioned her motives for marrying Darcy: wondering if she had been attracted to Darcy primarily for his wealth and position. What do you think?
12. Why does Darcy never wish to speak of the incident in which Wickham had attempted to elope with Georgiana? Why does Georgiana wish the two of them would talk about it?
13. Darcy knows that this latest scandal will threaten the family reputation. Yet he seems almost relieved that, as a result, his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, will not make an offer for Georgiana's hand. Why is he relieved? It would be a brilliant marriage for Georgiana; she would eventually become a countess.
14. An existential dread hangs over the characters at Pemberley even before the murder takes place. Elizabeth, especially, feels a deep unease, a "turmoil in her own mind." Looking from the vantage of historical hindsight, how might James be using the violent wind at the beginning of the novel as a symbol of something threatening the aristocracy?
15. How are women generally viewed in this society? How does Alveston's ideas challenge those views? Alveston mentions Mary Wollstonecraft. Who is she? You might do a little research on Wollstonecraft—a vital figure in the 18th century, whose ideas influenced future generations. (You also may be surprised to learn the identity of her daughter.)
16. Why is Lydia Wickham never questioned about what happened in the carriage between her husband and Captain Denny? Might the fact that she isn't questioned have anything to do with Questions 8 and 15?
17. Aside from ignoring Lydia, what other holes occur in the investigation—gaps that seem like missteps to modern readers steeped in police procedural novels and TV-serials? (Don't neglect the ironic quip regarding 18th-century science's inability to distinguish blood types.) What about the inquiry and ensuing trial—how does the justice system fail there? What safeguards, present today, seem to be missing in Wickham's court trial?
18. How does Darcy see his role as a great landowner? What responsibilities do the upper classes have in his society? As Darcy reflects back on his decision to marry to Elizabeth, does he believe it was a wise choice for a man in his position? How might his marriage have undermined his family's position?
19. When Darcy meets Wickham at the Gardiner's London house, what conflict does he hold with regards to proper social behavior vs. his own feelings toward Wickham? Why, in Darcy's mind, is social etiquette necessary? What was his mother's explanation for good manners? What role do manners play in modern society? Has today's culture dispensed with, or maintained, good manners?
20. What is Louisa Bidwell's chance for happiness? Is her fate a fair one? The Reverend Oliphant considers her "a highly intelligent" girl" who...
had been given a glimpse of a different and more exciting life, but undoubtedly the best had been done for her child and probably for her.
Do you agree? Why does Elizabeth, a few lines later, feel "a twinge of regret" when she considers Louisa's future as parlormaid at Highmarten?
21. What do you think the future holds for Wickham and Lydia?
22. Can you pick out the allusions to two other Austen novels—Persuasion and Emma?
23. Were you surprised by the revelations at the end of the mystery?
24. Is Death Comes to Pemberley a good mystery? Is it a good sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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