Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book #77: Death Comes to Pemberley

I love Jane Austen.

I hate this book.

I read and heard so many really positive reviews of P. D. James's murder mystery Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes to Pemberley--there was so much positivity, in fact, that a mass-market-reviews skeptic like me ought to have expected disappointment. Supposedly the novel is a lovely cross between a true-to-the-oeuvre P&P sequel and Clue. Except that P&P is beautifully and ingeniously written, and Clue is funny; this book is neither.

I read this book on my Kindle, and I highlighted passages that bugged me--many made me yell out in frustration (this is true; ask my coworkers). Perhaps don't read this list of a) you plan to read the book, or b) you read it and enjoyed it. You've been warned.

The shades of Pemberley are thus polluted:

  1. Everyone seems to drink coffee. Tea was the fashionable drink in the Regency period, especially in aristocratic private homes.
  2. There are dopey, suck-up-to-Jane-Austen moments like this one, where Elizabeth reflects on the incredibly short courtship between herself and Mr. Darcy--that period between his proposals: "If this were fiction [it is!], could even the most brilliant novelist [brown-noser!] contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome [yes a novelist could! and let's state the obvious!]?"
  3. Not only are we, the readers, privy to conversations exclusively between men, we are availed of the goings-on among servants with no reference to their employers. Jane Austen only wrote what she knew, and so we never get these perspectives--conversations about which she would have had no first-hand knowledge. Except, apparently, here we do.
  4. Jane Bingley talks more in one paragraph than Jane Bennett did in the entirety of P&P.
  5. The servants answer direct yes-or-no questions from their employers with unnecessarily wordy answers. Since when do the servants turn into Whit Stillman characters and qualify all of their answers?
  6. Really? Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett feels some pangs of emotion for "the handsome agreeable and gallant George Wickham"? "Gallant" definitely took that bit too far.
  7. It is entirely unnecessary to work in contemporary mechanical developments, for example the Darcys' inclusion of a water closet at Pemberley. It is even more unnecessary to go on to say how said developments have "caused much ribald interest in the neighbourhood."
  8. It is never necessary to know the name of a character's horse. Ever.
  9. Lots of these characters have really stupid names. Joseph Joseph? Obadiah? Jeremiah? Really? You do know P&P is in the polite society of Regency England, right?
  10. I may be mistaken, but I was under the impression that folks in England stopped calling America "the New World" well before 1804.
  11. Mr. Darcy "could not speak but the joy which brought a tear to his eyes suffused his face..." Mr. Darcy does. Not. Cry.
  12. And the worst possible offense, in my opinion: the crossing over of characters from other of Austen's novels. In an effort to provide some back story as to what the Wickhams have been up to over the past few years, the reader learns that the pair spent some time in the company/employ of Sir Walter Elliot. Lydia flirted with Sir Walter, Mr. Wickham flirted with Elizabeth Elliot; this idea in and of itself is mildly amusing as a character interpretation. But then there is the mention of a former Miss Anne Elliot, now married for several years to navy man Frederick Wentworth, recently made an admiral. Death Comes to Pemberley is set in 1803-04, and the Wickhams would have been around the Elliots in 1802. According to the FIRST PAGE of Persuasion, Anne Elliot was born in 1787. She would have been 15 at the time of the events in which she is mentioned, which is a full four years before she ever met her apparently promoted-before-he-joined-the-navy husband. Then, in a desperate bid to resolve a bit of bastardization at the end of the novel, we hear of these kind folks in a place called Highbury; Mr. and Mrs. Martin want to take in a baby, and Mr. and Mrs. Knightly of Donwell Abbey pledge their emotional and financial support for the arrangement. Austen's Emma--the Mrs. Knightly in question--would have been 7 at this time. That was too young even for French monarchs to wed, and given how much the English disliked the French at this time (James does at least mention Napoleon), 7 was definitely too young for well-bred English ladies to be married. Strange chronological discrepancies aside, it is still entirely out of the realm of the Austen oeuvre for these characters to be moving amongst one anothers' spheres, especially given they aren't related to one another. Austen's novels are largely set in small country villages and towns, where the social circles are small. These characters may each have dined with four and twenty families, but the chances of them ever coming into contact with one another, especially given their substantial geographical distances, are negligible at best and preposterous in effect. After enough Austen story lines intersect, one half expects mention of a Mr. Kevin Bacon.
I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; I am not averse to retellings and reimaginings of Jane Austen novels. But this? This felt sloppy and clunky and simply uninteresting, even as a straight up historical mystery. And that's all in addition to the infuriating bits. Overall: badly done, indeed.


  1. First...I love this review Amy. I read it out loud to my roommate! Second, thank you for saving me from a reprehensible Jane Austen sequel.

  2. What a great review - funny AND informative. I hate when books like this bring in characters from other books. It's as if they don't realize how important dates were to the author. If a 1940 Fitzgerald character existed in the same generation as a 1920 Fitzgerald character, I would lose my mind.

    Favorite part: "Mr. Darcy does. Not. Cry." So very true.