Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I really wanted to enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley, nay, I wanted to love it. P.D. James writing is delicious, rich with words I didn’t realise existed, and it was her wonderful prose that carried me through the story. I had seen Death Comes to Pemberley about the blogisphere and not thought much of it, I’m not overly fond of a writer continuing another writer’s work – P.D. James alone could not tempt me. I knew it would take more to get me chomping at the bit, and Christmas television brought that to me.

BBC adaptations have a mystical power over me, especially with classics – I can’t seem to watch them without having to read the book first. This never used to happen (Persuasion, Emma, Pride and Prejudice,  etc…) however, recently (Parade’s End, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights) I can’t sit through one until I know what is going to happen. Curse you BBC, CURSE YOU! As if my to-read list wasn’t long enough already.

Death Comes to PemberlyIt 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.Synopsis from GoodReads

Any readers who remember my post on Pride and Prejudice will be aware that I’m not the biggest fan of Lizzie Bennet. Six years on in Death Comes to Pemberley I found her far more favourable – some have called her boring, lacking Lizzie’s impetuous spirit. But, Lizzie isn’t twenty anymore and people change when responsibilities weight lays upon them. I have read general criticism that not only Lizzie, but the story itself was not akin to Austen. Here I cannot disagree, however, I think James has taken what is essentially a fantasy romance story and given it a realistic edge, very much grounded in the history of the age.

The liberties James has taken with the story were not upsetting, Colonel Fitzwilliam’s growth from middle son to elder son was interesting, even though I still equate his character with the jolly soul in the 90s BBC adaptation. I suppose the problem with a fan taking over a much-loved text is that invariable it will not match the thousands of other fan imaginings of what happened post Darcy and Lizzie’s wedding.

In regards to the plot, I am not one who tends to need a dramatic story line if the characters are pulling their weight, but even James’ wonderful characterisation couldn’t keep me hooked, and by 30% I was pushing myself through. Ultimately, it was James’ beautiful writing I was reading for, as opposed to the story itself.


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