A modern master salutes a predecessor.
Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By ELIZABETH KANTOR
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.