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Death Comes to Pemberley: Crime Fiction Meets Jane Austen

December 30, 2013

Matthew RhysTelegraph critic Horatia Harrod described the recent BBC adaptation of P.D. James’ foray into Austen’s world as a ‘crime against literature’. I couldn’t disagree more.

Instead, I would argue that both James’ novel and the BBC’s adaptation bring to Austen’s world an immediacy not present in the controlled world of the original. Lizzie, as a single woman, had few demands on her time in Pride and Prejudice, allowing her to be a somewhat aloof though humorous observer of human nature. This is not possible for a woman moved to the centre of the action, as Lizzie is in Death Comes to Pemberley. For Elizabeth Darcy, the violent death of a soldier in Pemberley woods disrupts the stability of her role as mistress of Pemberley:  her marriage to Darcy comes under particular strain (emphasized more in the adaptation than the novel) as the demons from her past– her uninvited sister Lydia, Wickham’s initial deception of Lizzie and her social standing (Lady Catherine de Burgh is always a funny reminder)– rise up to haunt her. Darcy wonders if in overcoming his prejudices to her family, he has made a sacrifice of his honour by associating himself with a family that will ultimately destroy Pemberley.

This disruption to the Darcys’ everyday lives also allows for more compassion for Lydia and Wickham, the latter ends up on trial for the murder of the soldier. There are times I find Austen to be a bit cold, especially when commenting on human weakness, but the BBC’s adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley offered reasons why Lydia and Wickham might love each other besides their vanity. Rather than being cast aside as a beautiful, foolish girl and her rake husband, the audience had a glimpse of what being married to Wickham must be like. In one of the most moving scenes of the mini-series, Elizabeth tries to tell Lydia of Wickham’s affair with a young woman hoping to soften the blow, but Lydia interrupts, preferring to hear it from gossips so that she can dismiss it as false, rather than accept it from her sister as truth. The frivolous is a form of protection rather than a weakness to be mocked.

P.D. James, I would argue,  also offers us a wider scope within the fictional world. Rarely does Austen venture beyond the country-house: the villain of Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham, has his nefarious deeds relayed through gossip, letter or through retelling– the same goes for Frank Churchill and John Willoughby  in Emma and Sense and Sensibility respectively. Here, the courtroom and the crime are made central, with powerful first-hand experiences. But not only is Death Comes to Pemberley arguably a more exciting novel than Pride and Prejudice, in the novel, James also connects Austen’s fictional worlds: Wickham, for instance, has worked for Sir Walter Elliot (from Persuasion), and his illegitimate child will be adopted by Miss Harriet Smith (now Mrs Martin) and will play with Mr and Mrs Knightley’s children (from Emma).

Lastly, James’ adaptation has been accused of showing Georgian policing to be inadequate, and not just in comparison to today’s standards. However, this is often the aim of crime fiction, even the police procedural sub-genre can show the shortcomings of police work.  In crime fiction, journalists (Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who novels, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon character), private detectives, and gifted individuals (Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple) step-in where the law has fallen short. Crime fiction is fascinating in that it often critiques the very law it is trying to uphold by highlighting its inadequacies, a trait shared with Austen. I think the BBC’s adaptation understood this, asking ‘What is Justice?’ and ‘What is Duty?’ on a personal and collective level.

I enjoyed both book and adaptation, although I think the BBC made some changes to James’ material to accommodate fans of the  1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, such as having Elizabeth’s mother and long suffering father present (rather than Jane and Bingley) when the murder occurs (leading to some much-appreciated comic relief) and the rather badly done, cringe-worthy ending, with Elizabeth revealing to Darcy her second pregnancy (in the book she’s already had two children) and Georgiana’s beau riding up with his shirt undone for that telling embrace by the lake.

If anything, I felt that James was a bit too interested in getting the historical aspects of the courtroom right in the novel that it lost some of its dramatic edge; however, I think for Austen and James fans, the adaptation and novel successfully merged the work of two of Britain’s best-loved authors.

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