Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James,

I’ve recently finished PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber, 2011). I’m not usually a fan of prequels/sequels/continuations of other people’s books so I hadn’t been going to bother with it, especially having seen iffy reviews when it first came out. As a family we felt similarly doubtful about the TV version but we watched it in a low expectations, Christmassy kind of way and I rather liked it. Then I found a copy for 20p in a charity shop…

The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and 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.

Anyway, I did enjoy the book but was quite startled by how much was altered for the telly. Some of their changes seemed to make more sense of the plot, and others less. At least the TV adaptation did a better job of weaving in the back story, thus avoiding the total crime fiction faux pas of having a previously utterly unknown villain turn up at the crucial moment… P.D. James, I’m surprised at you!

I mostly liked the dialogue and found some of the observations quite convincingly Austenesque. Other parts seemed to slip more into standard police procedural, leading to a slightly odd mash-up feel. I wasn’t at all sure that the word “police” would have been in common use at the time either, but perhaps others can enlighten me on that. And a niggle which would probably bother few other people – I was so pleased for most of the book that the clergy were addressed as Mr Suchandsuch and then right at the end she slipped and Reverend Soandso started creeping in. Grr!

Pemberley? Clearly actually Chatsworth, but hey.

Pemberley? Clearly actually Chatsworth, but hey. Photo by tom-herbert/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was interesting to see her ideas about how married life at Pemberley might have continued, and there were a wealth of period details (how accurate, I can’t say!) that Jane Austen would never have needed to draw attention to, such as the roles of the servants in keeping the place running. Mr Darcy, in particular, became more of a human being here too. I thought James had some interesting suggestions as to the psychology of the characters, but was annoyed when she starting introducing Sir Walter Elliot, Harriet Smith, Emma and other Austen figures as fringe players here – straying rather too far into Jasper Fforde territory and straining the suspension of disbelief.

Still, it was fun to read, if a slightly guilty pleasure.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to Death Comes to Pemberley

  1. Judith Sawers says:

    Very interested in your review. We also watched the series at Christmas, which was fun and easy for Christmas (kind of like you said…). We had found a copy somewhere, so I thought I’d read it. Maybe it was a mistake to try to read it so soon after seeing the TV adaptation. But in the end I gave up. I’ve been a slave to my protestant upbringing for too long, and the sense of guilt that comes from starting to read a book and not finishing it – I’ve grown to the point where if I can articulate why I’m not going to finish a book, I allow myself to not finish it 🙂
    I also wondered about the use of the word ‘police’ and would be interested if anyone can answer that one!
    Overall… I dunno. It just didn’t work for me! Too conscious…? Too pedantic, pedestrian…? Not a ‘keeper’ for either of us!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I didn’t watch the TV adaptation because I didn’t enjoy the book very much – but then I am a confirmed Jane Austen fan and a crime fiction fan, and this felt like a strange mish-mash of the two. Shame, because I generally like and respect PD James’s work.

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