Trapped in a hotel room for a week while at a work function, I couldn’t bring myself to read anything requiring focus or thought (I’ll admit I was also distracted by the availability of cable news: an opportune time to have access to CNN as the world collectively watches the meltdown of American political life). Instead I picked up a copy of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley from the local used bookstore.
I have never been one of the gushing Jane Austen fans. What I mean is that I admire her novels (those I’ve read anyway), but I don’t find myself drawn to reenactment balls, or to staging my own high tea, or to watching/reading anything that tangentially connects to the period or Austen’s life. Her literary celebrity is not one that shines bright for me. So I didn’t pick up Death Comes to Pemberley hoping for some reimmersion in Pride and Prejudice (frankly – despite having read it myself a couple of time during my undergraduate and teaching it as a TA – I could remember only the barest of plot lines). Rather I was hopeful from the cover description that it would be a light-hearted romp of a murder mystery.
And I guess it was just that. I say ‘I guess’ because mostly I found it silly. James spends a lot of the novel shoring up the atmosphere as something Austen-esque (cue letters, gowns, delicate constitutions). The murder itself isn’t that interesting as readers confidently doubt the initial suspicion of Wickham as the murderer. Solving the crime doesn’t feel as important in the novel as do the descriptions of horses and chaises. I suppose James makes some effort to update gender politics in the pairing of Georginnia. That might be interesting?
I think I might be more interested in thinking through the liberties authors are afforded in taking up existing works and using them for their literary and commercial gain. I have no doubt that James did quite well financially with this book – in no small part because every Austen fan ever likely bought the book (and then watched the accompanying TV series and bought the tea towel and the figurine). I wonder what permissions he needed (any? now that P&P is in the public domain?) and whether this is meant as a sincere homage to the original work, or (and, of course, this is where the cynic in me leans) an opportune way to make a name and a dollar.
I was hard pressed to finish the thing when I got home from the trip but I did – if only so I could tell you here how surface and silly the whole thing reads. That said. If you’re one of the fans. The watch all the BBC adaptations. Reread the novel annually and then reenact scenes with your book club before rereading it again to cross reference the timing. The how dare I. Well then you’ve already read the novel and are only reading this review… why? And if you haven’t read it? Don’t bother.