I just finished reading P.D.James' newest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley.
Now, as a rule, I avoid sequels, prequels, and fanfic, especially when it comes to classics and especially when it comes to classics I love.
Years ago, I tried to read a sequel to Jane Eyre, and within a chapter or two I threw the thing down in disgust and cried out in anguish, "Did this author even read the original novel?"
("Anguish" may seem melodramatic, but remember this was concerning Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre, my friends.)
And at that point I pretty much swore off books and stories which attempted to extend by imitation what was an originally brilliant piece of art.
I have found a few exceptions. I have less trouble with modern adaptations of classic story lines. Those authors make their own world and don't pretend to have the spirit of a dead literary genius whispering in their ear. For instance, I quite enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Jasmine Field a few years ago, shocking as that may be.
So, anyway, I have ignored as much as possible the current glut of Austen sequels, prequels, etcetera, ad nauseum.
But when the great P.D.James set her sights on the incomparable Pride and Prejudice, I was willing to give it a chance.
At the very least, I thought, a mysterious murder might lead the author away from the lascivious imaginings too many Austen imitators indulge in when considering what Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage might be like. I hope their (albeit imaginary) marriage was full of love and passion, but it is so far from the world in which Austen created them, that it seems a sacrilege to barge through the bedroom door as too many do. We imagine that as 21st century folks with our modern notions and our sexual "freedom" that we have the right to go where dear Jane never intended her readers to go.
But, I suspect, I digress.
My other beef with many Austen imitators is how the writing style strives desperately for the charming style that Austen made to seem so easy. These imitators fail miserably at the literary complexity and intellectual density under the apparently breezy style which makes Austen, I would say, impossible to imitate.
James, I must admit, comes close to imitating that style.
As soon as I read the prologue, I gave a sigh of relief. James very prettily sums up the doings in Pride and Prejudice with sentences like these:
They also accused her [Lizzy] of being sardonic, and although there was uncertainty about the meaning of the word, they knew that it was not a desirable quality in a woman, being one which gentlemen particularly disliked. Neighbours [sic] whose jealousy of such a triumph exceeded any satisfaction in the prospect of the union were able to console themselves by averring that Mr. Darcy's pride and arrogance and his wife's caustic wit would ensure that they lived together in the utmost misery for which even Pemberley and ten thousand a year could offer no consolation."
So, I sat back to enjoy. And I did. For the most part.
I was disappointed in a couple of things. First, Elizabeth seems to have lost all of her famously caustic wit since taking on the duties of mistress of Pemberley and giving Darcy an heir and a spare. Elizabeth's personality, which is so much of what makes P&P what it is, is sadly missing.
We do get to see more of Darcy's inner workings, but he's actually not very interesting. Maybe that's why Austen left him such a sketchy character in the first place.
The other disappointment was the mystery itself. James is a mystery writer, so how can this be? I don't know; it just is.
It is obvious from the first that Wickham, accused of the murder of Mr. Denny, is innocent, and while there are a few shivery moments in the storm-ravaged woods of Pemberley, there's little that's really mysterious. The full incident is revealed in the last chapters in various letters and long monologues by different characters and doesn't radically alter our view of...well, anything.
And the epilogue is a rehashing of stuff from P&P: self-flagellation from Mr. Darcy, kind remarks from wet-noodle-Elizabeth, and a happy ending for Georgiana.
So, on the plus side: style and characters (with the notable exception of Elizabeth).
On the minus side: tepid Elizabeth and little mystery.
Final verdict: The book is not offensive to my Austen-purist sentiments.
(How's that for damning with faint praise? But, really, that's more than I can say for most.)
James comes as close as anyone I've read to hitting the mark, but even she fell short in places. I'm not saying I could write it better. I'm saying maybe we should all stop trying to improve on what has been the standard of literary perfection for 200 years.
On second thought, maybe I will try my own.
The Once and Future Master of Longbourn, in which Mr. Collins finally takes possession of Longbourn and casts Mrs. Bennet out to starve in the hedgerows.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman Private Investigator (G.P.I.), in which Mr. Darcy leads a double life: master of Pemberley by day, investigator of the dark underbelly of rural Derbyshire by night.
The Chronicles of Pemberley, in which four British school children are sent to the Pemberley estate and get lost in a scenic view.
And Then There Were Five, in which the Bennet sisters gradually disappear from a country house party and Mrs. Bennet is entirely relieved of the burden of marrying off so many daughters.
Little House in the Lake District, in which Wickham and Lydia decide to make a clean start and homestead a half-acre plot.
Brighton Beach Memoirs, an intimate look at the balls and soirees of Kitty and Lydia Bennet, the belles of Brighton barracks.
Rosings Revisited, a prequel to P&P, in which young Darcy brings home an Oxford friend who, through the following years, rescues Darcy from an opium den, carries on an intricate relationship with the domineering Lady Catherine, and eventually marries Anne.
What do you think? Which one looks the most promising? Any editors out there want to offer me a contract now? I will accept a modest advance; I'm good for the work. Anyone?