The Magazine

Austen-Powered Mystery

A modern master salutes a predecessor.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By ELIZABETH KANTOR
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There are only two things wrong with Jane Austen’s novels. There aren’t enough of them. And they’re too short.

Photo of P. D. James

P. D. James

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If Dickens is your thing, you can easily spend 12 months immersed in one after another of his novels, great in size as well as in quality: David Copperfield alone is 1,024 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. If you have a passion for P. G. Wodehouse, you can entertain yourself year round with the master’s extensive body of work, nearly a hundred books altogether. By the time Right Ho, Jeeves rolls around again, you’ll have forgotten whether it’s the one with Gussie Fink-Nottle giving the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School lit up on spiked orange juice, or the one where he gets arrested for hunting newts in his evening clothes in the Trafalgar Square fountain.

But there are only six finished Jane Austen novels. Janeites find ourselves running through them all in a few short weeks. Then it takes no time to get through Lady Susan and the two tantalizing unfinished novels. Finally the desperate Jane Austen addict can resort to Anthony Trollope as a kind of methadone to take the edge off the craving: There’s a plentiful supply, but Trollope doesn’t provide the genuine Austen high.

It’s no wonder that there’s an enormous appetite for Jane Austen sequels. But whether the authors play it straight, or introduce vampires and zombies, Austen imitations inevitably disappoint. Still, hope springs eternal in the Janeite breast, and the announcement that P. D. James was writing a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice created eager anticipation—especially among Jane Austen lovers who are also fans of the reigning queen of crime.

On the one hand, P. D. James is head and shoulders above the average Jane Austen imitator as a writer. There’s the mouth-watering prospect that she might be able to get close enough to Austen’s inimitable style to make us believe we’re really at Pemberley again. On the other hand, the world James writes about—grisly murders, the nitty-gritty of police procedure, the incurable loneliness of men and women stranded by the dislocations of modern life—is most definitely not Austen’s scene. 

James actually begins with an author’s note apologizing for involving Elizabeth Bennet in “odious subjects” that Jane Austen wouldn’t write about. The prologue that follows, though, is a tour de force of Austen imitation. Almost any writer can put a new spin on the famous it-is-a-truth-universally-acknowledged opening of Pride and Prejudice; James starts that way, too. But she goes on in the same rich vein, lifting the structure of one after another authentic Austen sentence from the novels and turning it to her own purpose—which, at first, is to recap Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the Bennets’ cynical neighbors.

The love story looks very different from the outside. Everyone is sure that Elizabeth must have been after Darcy’s money all along. The recasting is clever—as are the ways James manages to bring characters from Austen’s other novels on for cameo appearances. Wickham’s checkered career turns out to have included a stint as Sir Walter Elliot’s private secretary (naturally, Miss Elliot found him charming) and a Mr. and Mrs. Robert Martin figure in the future of an illegitimate child whose presence on the Pemberley estate is important to the murder plot.

James takes care to avoid anachronisms, and details of early-19th-century legal procedure and forensic medicine add interest to the mystery that unfolds from the moment Lydia is driven up to Pemberley at breakneck speed screaming, “Wickham’s dead!” (Apparently in criminal trials the accused, not his counsel, made the speech for the defense, and there was no appeal from a jury verdict except to the Crown’s pardon power.) Still, the murder investigation definitely feels more Adam Dalgliesh than Darcy and Elizabeth. Were Regency-era murder victims’ bodies really taken away in mortuary vans? Did English ladies and gentlemen think of the authorities who brought criminals to justice as “the police” before the post-Peterloo reforms in law enforcement?

The great disappointment of the book, though, isn’t in the details. There’s something about James’s outlook that is fundamentally at odds with Austen’s, a concatenation of modern cynicism, self-doubt, and determinism that saps Elizabeth and Darcy of their froth and sparkle—Death Comes to Pemberley, indeed. It’s not only the Meryton gossips who think Elizabeth has married Darcy for his money. Elizabeth herself wonders whether she would have chosen him without it and thinks of being “on the verge of love, that enchanting period of mutual discovery,” as something “she had never known.” After all, the two of them were only alone for about half-an-hour between Darcy’s two proposals.

Meanwhile, James’s Wickham is not so much a callous rake as a wounded soul ruined by class resentment and lack of parental love. His appalling career is the “natural result of exposing a young man to a lifestyle he could never hope to achieve by his own efforts, and companions of a class to which he could never aspire to belong.” Wickham is one more of James’s isolated unknowable modern selves, looking vainly for a way to connect.

Jane Austen is about people finding each other: Darcy and Elizabeth conquer their pride and prejudice to achieve bliss together. Edward and Elinor overcome his mother’s selfish arrogance and Lucy Steele’s greedy scheming to arrive at the happy domesticity they both crave. Emma suddenly realizes “with the speed of an arrow” that the man she really wants has been right beside her all along.

P. D. James, on the other hand, is all about people missing each other. Think of Kate Miskin’s unrequited yearning for Adam Dalgliesh, which comes out in her fierce loyalty to her boss and her jealous suspicions that Emma Lavenham may be stringing him along. The quintessential James scene is Amy Camm’s death in Devices and Desires. Amy, who learned from watching her mother take abuse to sleep only with men who want her more than she wants them, lives with Neil Pascoe, whose love for her is hopeless because she can’t open her heart to him. In her last moments of terror she realizes how utterly alone she is, and always has been. She’s thinking of Neil as she goes numb in the freezing water. He’ll never know.

Jane Austen was no more sentimental than P. D. James. Even the teenaged Austen, Virginia Woolf noticed, “had few illusions about other people and none about herself.” But she believed men and women were capable of great things—including happy love. Jane Austen didn’t make her characters the hapless victims of their class, parentage, or circumstances. She saw with remarkable clarity all the ways people deceive themselves and disappoint each other, but she thought they could fight against their own “folly and vice” and watch out for other people’s. And she believed a woman with a small fortune really could marry a rich man for love.

P. D. James has intruded alien horrors into the sacred precincts of Pemberley. Not violence and murder so much as modern cynicism, self-doubting angst, and hopeless self-pity. The cure? Turn to the book that really comes after Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s own Mansfield Park—to read about what men and women animated by “the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” can accomplish, in life and in love.

Elizabeth Kantor is the author of the forthcoming Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After.