‘The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome, healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered.’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any review, discussion or analysis of Jane Austen’s work always begins with some parody of her most famous opening line. So with that tired old trope out of the way, I can turn my attention to the Jane Austen revival of the past few years.
I am a die-hard Austen fan so I am naturally excited by any and all adaptions of my favourites but I have to say, not many of the modern re-imaginings (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters– I could go on for days) strike me as particularly good, or original. Quite frankly, it reeks of a cut-and-paste job; I’d say about 75% of the novels are Austen’s original words, then the remaining 25% consists of ninjas, zombies, sea-monsters or whatever else needed to be shoe-horned into the book to generate new sales. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy parts of them- I liked Charlotte Collins’ revised story and the showdown between a certain Heroine and a certain Lady with a chimney-piece costing over £800 as the characterisation within the added text fitted in with Austen’s own development of the characters (albeit in a rather extreme way).
“What does this have to do with Death Comes to Pemberley?” I conveniently imagine you are asking. Well, I had high hopes for this novel as I knew it was going to be a piece of original writing in something resembling Austen’s style. I was rather disappointed. I know it is a pastiche and therefore written with tongue firmly in cheek but as an imitation of Austen’s witty and gently playful prose, it falls sadly flat- lacking, I think, Jane’s dry observations of society in general. Pride and Prejudice was able to capture some of the follies of its world in characterisation (yes, I am thinking of this guy) and I don’t think Death Comes to Pemberley really achieves this.
My main problem with characterisation within Death Comes to Pemberley though, is with Elizabeth. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is independent, witty and a little bit stubborn and I don’t feel like this comes across at all. Reduced to the condition of wife and just one of the main characters, her characterisation loses its vivacity and she becomes a bit boring and a lot more submissive to Darcy than she should be. Given that Death Comes to Pemberley happens in a universe that centres around Lizzie and her impertinent charm, this is a failing indeed.
As a murder-mystery however, using characters that are already well-established, James had a very interesting idea, and one that could have been brilliant if the main characters had been consistent. Moaning aside, the murder is introduced in a dramatic and interesting way and I think the plot itself is worthy of a murder-mystery novel. I thought Wickham in particular was rather well-written. In fact, James develops his character quite nicely- I’d even say she gives him more depth, as he is no longer just an antagonist and love rival.
Should you read it? Yes, I think so. It is one of the more original uses of Austen’s work to come out of the revival and overall, the plot uses the characters in a sympathetic way. If you have ever wondered what happened after Lizzie’s Happily Ever After, here is a more interesting alternative to ‘they had children, stayed rich and died old’. The problems I have with Lizzie’s characterisation are, of course, personal, as I am a huge Pride and Prejudice fangirl and I should be ashamed of myself. But it could be worse…