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The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered.
Well, only sort of, I fear. The idea is perfection but the execution is sadly not. There’s a deep mismatch somehow between James’ writing skills and those of Austen, where something vital goes missing in the blend. The effect of this is to make the narrative style both dull and clunky, and the sheer energy and life inherent in Austen’s prose is therefore on the whole sadly lacking. At key points in the story, I was struggling to carry on, and I kept getting a headache as a result. Not a great reading position to be in.
The issues that troubled me included: Elizabeth not being given much page time at all as the main focus and viewpoint was always Darcy; the long drawn-out courtroom scenes which were just too long to maintain any interest (unless of course you have a serious obsession about historical court scenes); the deus ex machina ending; the lack of solid relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth (and moreover I was puzzled to know if either of them would have even recognised their two sons if they’d ever left the nursery); the equally sad lack of any kind of social satire, sigh.
On the other hand, issues which delighted me (some for the right reasons and some – probably – for the wrong ones) were: the dark shadows of the society they lived in, which even affected the lives of close friends and relatives; the continuing story of Wickham with whom I actually had a lot of sympathy, as everyone else was just so priggish; the unexpected focus on Darcy (though – see above – he is a bit dull here and doesn’t say much of import at all); the charm of discovering what happened to characters from Austen’s other books and how they fit in with Pemberley; and the incredibly lovely and lively portrait of Mr Bennett whom I desperately wanted much much more of. Bliss. Here is the pitch-perfect Mr Bennett arriving to comfort the family in their woes:
“I hired a chaise. That is not the most comfortable way to travel far and I had it in mind to come by coach. Mrs Bennett, however, complained that she needs it to convey the most recent news of Wickham’s unfortunate situation to Mrs Philips, the Lucases and the many other interested parties in Meryton. To use a hack-chaise would be demeaning, not only to her but to the whole family. Having proposed to abandon her at this distressing time I could not deprive her of a more valued comfort; Mrs Bennett has the coach … Lydia’s husband seems to have distinguished himself by this latest exploit in managing to combine entertainment for the masses with the maximum embarrassment for his family.”
Wonderful stuff and surely the only part of this book which captures the spirit of Austen and probably the only part worth quoting – now if only we had far more of Mr Bennett and much less of Mr Darcy, all would have been well, I suspect.
However I really don’t think the issues delighting me added up to any kind of novel you’d want to read unless you’re an utterly die-hard fan of either author, and this would have been far better as a short story. Now that might have been interesting …
Death Comes to Pemberley, Faber and Faber 2011. ISBN: 978 0 571 28357 6
Also available as an ebook