I’m sure I’m not the only reader who was excited to receive P. D. James’ new novel, Death Comes to Pemberly for Christmas this year. The novel, a sequel of sorts to Pride and Prejudice, follows Elizabeth Darcy to her new home, Pemberly, in Derbyshire. Set six years after Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is now settled and happily married to Mr. Darcy. But their world is about to be upset when, on the eve of the annual Lady Anne Ball, a carriage arrives unexpectedly. Riding in it is Lydia Whickham, Elizabeth’s errant younger sister, who is distraught that her husband, George, and his friend Captain Denny, have run off into the woods, seemingly angry with one another. When Denny turns up dead George Whickham is accused of murder and sent for trial. Everyone is upset and Mr. Darcy, in particular, finds himself forced to examine his own troubled feelings for his much loathed brother in law.
This, then, is the basic plot and it is no murder mystery — a last minute letter saves Whickham’s neck and there is no real detection. Rather, this is an excuse to wind forward the clock and place Jane Austen’s characters in world destabilized by murder.
But there are real limits to this sort of project. Darcy and Elizabeth are, above all, fictional creations and no matter how sophisticated Jane Austen is in giving them appearance of reality, they are never truly human. As such, P. D. James’ is severely limited in what she can do. In Death Comes To Pemberly it is made out that Mr. Darcy’s life hinged on two moments: Whickham’s attempted seduction of his sister and his marriage to Elizabeth. Everything else is secondary to this. It is as if his self is entirely shaped by these episodes. This does not feel right and James’ Darcy, though older and wiser and more introspective, seems duller than Austen’s ever could because, whereas these incidents made Darcy gave him depth in Pride and Prejudice, the rigidity with which Death Comes To Pemberly sticks to these defining moments makes him feel shallow and flat.
This is a shame because Death Comes To Pemberly should have been a lot of fun. No doubt it was to write and P. D. James’ approximation of Austen’s sentences is pretty good. But it fails in the end because it falls short of the qualities that make P. D. James’ other work so appealing: the characters just don’t feel real.