P D James’s admiration of Jane Austen is well-documented. I remember well her claim in Talking about Detective Fiction that Austen’s Emma is at heart a mystery. I suppose it is if you define mystery loosely. Fortunately the mystery in James’s sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice requires no such licence.
Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily married for 6 years. There are two boys in the nursery and plans are well advanced for the annual ball at Pemberley which Lydia Wickham decides to gatecrash. Unfortunately there’s an incident on her way to Pemberley which results in the death of Wickham’s friend, Captain Denny, and Wickham accused of his murder. Of course this causes massive disruption to the well-ordered genteel happiness at Pemberley.
The novel follows the investigation and trial of Wickham. Unfortunately this is thin. The question of Wickham’s guilt is a non-question hinging on the correct interpretation of Wickham’s confession. Now it’s hard to get that wrong because various characters in the story interpret it correctly at least 4 times prior to the trial. Shame that the investigators weren’t that intelligent.
Perhaps I’m being unfair because let’s face it the art of detection in the early C19th was not as sophisticated as it is now. However, the resolution, deus-ex-machina in timing and verging on the ludricous in logic, is a definite faux pas. Though James needed it to add some drama to a surprisingly motionless text. All the major characters from Pride and Prejudice make their entrance (with the exception of Mrs Bennett, who is curiously kept off-page) and their personal developments 6-years after the event are mostly well-imagined. Lydia and Wickham are persona non-grata at Pemberley, Georgiana is still single but with two suitors to choose from, Jane and Bingley live in close proximity and their friendship with Elizabeth and Darcy is a
cloying close affectionate one. Elizabeth and Darcy are devoted to each other but in this reader’s eyes Elizabeth has lost her sparkle. She’s a dutiful wife, far too preoccupied with writing letters and flower arranging (notice not the children) to be the spirited creation of Austen’s magical classic. Neither does it seem to me that Darcy would still be obsessing about the events and mistakes he made in P&P 6 years later. Obsessing very explicitly let it be known and thereby losing all his charisma. (I just canot see Colin Firth playing this Darcy.)
“We are not the people we were”, says Elizabeth in the epilogue. Too true, ‘s and therein lies the root of the problem. If the sparing and repartee between Elizabeth and Darcy are the making, nay the crowning glory of Pride and Prejudice, how can any sequel in which they like and love each other but also mellow with age be as entertaining?
On the plus side there is much to admire in the prose. James has reproduced Austen’s style and eloquence. The plot unfortunately doesn’t lend itself to Austen’s wit. Still there are some lovely descriptive passages. I particularly loved this description of autumn:
An early mist had cleared after a rain-free night and it was a glorious morning, cold but sunlit, the air sweet with the familiar tang of autumn – leaves, fresh earth and the faint smell of burning wood. Even the horses seemed to rejoice in the day, tossing their heads and straining at the bit. The wind had died but the detritus of the storm lay in swathes over the path, the dry leaves crackling under the wheels or tumbling and spinning in their wake. The trees were not yet bare, and the rich red and gold of autumn seemed intensified under the cerulean sky.
While that passage makes me want to hunt through my photo archive and create a literary pic post, it wasn’t enough to save an at times tedious novel.