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“An emotion which she had never known before”: Jane Austen and P.D. James, Part II

2012 August 16

Having had a thorough sulk at P.D. James in the previous article, and explained why I didn’t approach Death Comes To Pemberley with entirely charitable feelings, I’d like to turn to the novel itself. This second article may sound as if I’m treating James’ novel as a reading of Pride and Prejudice (or at least “Austenworld”) rather than a novel in its own right. If so, that’s because Death Comes To Pemberley goes out of its way to insist on the connections between itself and the previous work, and the way it claims to develop the characters. So the first twelve pages are taken up with a Prologue entitled “The Bennets of Longbourn” in which we get to wallow comfortably in the aftermath of Pride and Prejudice. It turns out Mary gets married, Mr. Bennet spends a lot of his time in his son-in-law’s library at Pemberley, and Mrs. Bennet prefers to spend time boasting to her friends about Pemberley’s grandeur instead of enjoying its hospitality.

There are some shrewd bits of character work here, but it’s largely working over the plot of the previous novel, and projecting how the new living arrangements will work out. I kept remembering the passage in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History where Richard, away at a party at a friend’s country house, indulges a fantasy:

of living there, of not having to go back ever to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant…

Cover for the hardback US edition of Death Comes To Pemberley by PD James. Calligraphic black font on a cream background with a large illustration of a black carriage half driving off the front of the book. Image Faber and Faber, shared under Fair Use.And we all know how that worked out. (If you don’t, give that book a read. Terrific fun.) All the arrangements seem to slot together rather too well, particularly given the conversation in Chapter 32 of P&P about how a woman may be “settled too near her family”, with its blend of Elizabeth’s longing for her own independent life and guilt over whether that involves being ashamed of her family. I think the phrase “fifty miles of good road” is splendidly ambiguous (and recently discovered it’s the name of an Austen fanfiction community.)

The first twelve pages feel like a fantasia on Elizabeth and Darcy’s engagement, a calculation of how everything will be alright now that’s settled, and criticisms aside, that immediately locates the book. We’re encouraged to see it as a working out of stories and characters which were present in Pride and Prejudice. There are different ways a novel can derive from, respond to or somehow continue an earlier work, and Death Comes To Pemberley makes it fairly clear that this is will be a close engagement with its primogenitor. Story continues directly onwards: same main character, similar point of view and locations we’ve seen to a certain extent. That sounds a rather mechanical checklist, but since the novel is in a (partially) different genre it’s worth stressing the extent to which it doesn’t advertise a radical departure from the setting and mode of Pride and Prejudice.

Unfortunately, this means that it has a tendency to the line I identified in my previous post, of pointing out important things which Austen missed out. Since Death begins so closely to Pride, when it diverges it feels like a conscious addition to the first novel’s vision of the world. Servants make their appearance as fuller characters, Wollstonecraft is name-checked, and we are made more aware of a Wider World. It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss the whole book on this basis, and it contains a lot of very enjoyable writing and deft plotting, but there are some deeply surprising moments from an author who apparently respects Austen as much as James does.

For example, Elizabeth sits listening to the wind in Pemberley’s chimneys, and is hounded by

an emotion which she had never known before. She thought ‘Here we sit at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilized country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship, its art and the books which enshrine its literature, while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world. Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever.’

It’s unclear in the context whether this is a reflection on the French Revolution, social class or simply Elizabeth “growing up”, but it rather takes me aback to be told that she had never realised that there was an unfriendly rapacious world out there. A significant part of Austen’s original novel (as well as other of her works such as Sense and Sensibility) expends an awful lot of time making it clear that social conventions damn women both ways: determining many of their life choices and opportunities if they stay within the limits, and marking them as “fair game” if they step beyond them. Admittedly Austen’s characters are all of a certain class, but a lot of them are almost obsessively aware of the importance of “respectability”. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that this awareness doesn’t stem entirely from docile acceptance of the need to be a “good girl”, and that it involves a strong, if vague, conception of the exploitation and violence which lies beyond that category.

“Ruin” isn’t a pearl-clutching abstraction for Austen heroines. I mention this because her work is so often dismissed from serious consideration by either enthusiasts who want to claim her as a dating expert, or detractors who see her as a silly woman sheltered from the real world. This isn’t an abstract point of how we frame particular historical texts, it’s having consequences right now. I’ve heard an English Master’s student sarcastically brush off the idea that reading Austen would be worthwhile for her “Because I so want to read about women in corsets fainting all over each other and whatever”, and the assumption that books by women about their lives can have only niche value underpins the sneering category of “chick-lit”. It’s a common point of view, though one which ignores facts such as the apparent influence on Austen’s early work of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

An even more startling piece of Hark, The Wider World comes about halfway through the novel, during a discussion of whether Georgiana Darcy should be sent away from Pemberley whilst the murder is investigated, or be allowed to help in a very minor capacity:

It was then that Alveston intervened. “Forgive me, sir, but I feel I must speak. You discuss what Miss Darcy should do as if she were a child. We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted she also has a mind?”

This is so startlingly shoehorned in that I was almost tempted to class it as a joke. The Wollstobomb is so enthusiastically dropped that I assumed it was either a deliberate frivolity or James was setting her own character up. I’m still unsure about what she’s trying to do here: whether Alveston is intended to be an earnest little prig who is interfering in family business, or the voice of change and the coming century. The former seems to imply that feminism is rather unnecessary in a well-ordered country house where the patriarch is a decent fellow, and the latter to imply (once again) that Austen managed to miss the great world outside her village.

A later passage, which has no obvious connection to gender, decided me. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam are discussing a forthcoming trial (whose, I shan’t mention, for fear of spoilerating) and the jury system. On Darcy’s remarking that the jury will be swayed by their own prejudices and the eloquence of the prosecuting counsel, with no chance of appeal, Fitzwilliam replies:

“How can there be? The decision of the jury has always been sacrosanct. What are you proposing, Darcy, a second jury, sworn in to agree or disagree with the first and another jury after that? That would be the ultimate idiocy, and if carried on ad infinitum could presumably result in a foreign court trying English cases. And that would be the end of more than our legal system.”

That sound is the fictional fabric of this novel splitting apart, so loudly that I can’t even hear Fitzwilliam continuing to speak and hoping that before the end of the century a reform might be introduced whereby the defending counsel will also have the right to a concluding speech. This is clearly intended to be a joke, though I’m again not sure what the joke is. Is it a riff on terrible historical novelists who begin sentences with “Are you suggesting that some day in the future…” or a leaden frolic in the same vein as those novelists?

Either way, it seems to make P.D. James’ technique rather clearer in this novel. Whilst apparently continuing Pride and Prejudice, she also seems to be bouncing parts of history off it in an attempt to broaden Austen’s horizons or simply make fun of the original. Though it’s a skilfully written book from one of my favourite crime novelists, it’s an uneasy read. Mainly because it falls now and then into the sort of approaches to Austen which, as I’ve suggested, belittle her art and relegate “women’s writing” to a cross between a diary column and a dating manual.

One Response leave one →
  1. August 16, 2012

    Loved these posts!

    ‘It’s a common point of view, though one which ignores facts such as the apparent influence on Austen’s early work of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses.’

    …and let’s not forget the influence of Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ on Liaisons and Austen’s love of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’. I think I only really started to get Austen when I read Sir Charles – when you look at the influences either side, i think her mastery really starts to come to the fore.

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