A WRITER of distinction all her career and now at 91 nowhere near the end, PD James throws a kind of literary lasso around a herd of characters from Jane Austen’s novels in what is really no more, but no less, than a divertissement.
Elizabeth Bennet has married her Mr Darcy and lives in greater serenity than readers of Pride and Prejudice might have expected from their distinctly combative personalities. Their placid contentment has a lot to do with the management of Pemberly, Darcy’s magnificent house which had such a constructive role in the original novel.
Here PD James has created a household staff of loyal and hard-working servants, has furnished the married couple with two young sons, has brought Elizabeth’s sister Jane, her adoring husband Bingley and their offspring to live within easy reach and has in general presented such an after-life of happiness that one feels almost relieved that the shades of Pemberly, in the immortal words of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, are at last to be polluted.
James concocts a scenario in which the villain of Pride and Prejudice becomes the chief suspect in a murder committed in the Pemberly woods — largely because the notoriously duplicitious and self-seeking Mr Wickham seems to confess to the killing.
Well! A murderer in the Pemberly family would not suit the Darcy connections at all, as Wickham is married to the even more duplicitious and self-seeking Lydia Bennet, Elizabeth’s unruly sister (remember, there were five Bennet girls; James marries off the remainder, apart from one, who is not the one you might expect to be left behind).
But this is where things begin to unravel: gunshots, pistols, a careering coach, a phantom among the trees, a cottage deep in the woods, in fact all the pattern woven in the plot loses its shape while Darcy seems to spend a lot of time looking out of his fine windows at his fine views.
What works very well is the intensification of character which James is always so very good at examining; in this case Lydia is the sister from hell’s hottest core, while the otherwise admirable Colonel FitzWilliam becomes a more complex, devious and important personality than might have been expected.
Poor Miss de Bourgh is dispatched to an early grave, while Mr Collins remains as mendacious as ever and Mr Bennet is given a comfortable fireside armchair in the Pemberly library.
Such disposals are diverting; the real meat of this novel is in its depiction of English law in the early 18th century and it is here that James has done the real work, the research which makes the plot credible, its ending tolerable and the entire pastiche a triumph of entertainment.