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Blessed Assurance: Death Comes to Pemberley as Relief

Death Comes to Pemberley, Faber & Faber, 2011

Death Comes to Pemberley, Faber & Faber, 2011

After the terrible and tragic week in Boston sports, I needed something about which I could get excited. That something quickly became the upcoming BBC miniseries, Death Comes to Pemberley, adapted from P.D. James’ 2011 novel and coming to the small screen at the end of 2013. Though I’m thrilled to look at an expert cast roster, the greatest addition for me is neither the actors playing Lizzie nor Darcy (while both awesome); it is the return of Penelope Keith (To The Manor Born, The Good Life, basically everything I hope to be in life) to the screen as Lady Catherine de Borough. Thanks for that one, BBC One.

Here, you will find a short review I wrote following the publication of James’ novel, encouraging me to reread both this and its touchtone before the fall. 

It is a fact  acknowledged by myself that in less than 24 hours, I started, and completed, P.D. James’ latest venture, Death Comes to Pemberley. In this well-wrought piece of fan-fiction, the venerable James imagines Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s life post-P&P, mixing in a murder, a trial, and some good-old intrigue. This description, I am well aware, makes this novel sound much like a fluffy, overdone flail; it really, really isn’t. While I admit the premise sounded a bit contrived and tired to me at first, I never relinquish the chance to indulge in my more base vices—British Literature and non-canonical analysis—so while my criticism may have been loud, my interest was just as deep.

James surprised me; that was my first flaw. I’ve always known her to be an expert crime novelist, as I’ve developed a major intellectual crush on Adam Dalgliesh over the past twenty years, and my initial unwillingness to believe that this formidable writer could transfer her estimable talents into another venue was foolish. Indeed this charming work, while not entirely taxing, had me engrossed from beginning to end (between the hours of noon and 3 p.m.). The crux of the story is that a murder occurs on the Darcy estate, with all members of the household, various extended family players, and characters returning from Austen’s imagination attempting to keep the peace and “save the family from ruin” once more. James’ work was an homage rather than an attempt to outduel the original. She continued the original story after extensive research, and using her experience working in the criminal sector of the Home Office to play to her strengths and create a Regency-mystery hybrid.

Which, perhaps, brings me to the topic of fan-fiction in general. This might get me shot in some circles—circles, I freely admit, I have no wish to frequent—but fan-fiction, while a useful private exercise, generally strikes me ill at ease. Too many times I see writers imposing their own rules and regulations on characters already existing and in full swing. I once knew a girl who wrote obsessive fan-fiction about the television show “Charmed” and it seemed to me, perhaps incorrectly, that this fixation came more from a willingness to escape into that world than to tell a story that needed to be told. Or, as in the case of the millions of creatures attempting to extend their childhood through Harry Potter stories, it’s just plain bad. Bad writing.

There are, of course, exceptions to this vehement dislike: James’ work is one, while Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, derived from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is another. While the former I enjoyed greatly, the latter I did not enjoy so much as appreciate. It “worked”, so to speak, not because of Rhys’ adherence to Bronte’s original text, but her infusion of her own personal life and style into the extra-canonical story of Bertha Mason Rochester. In this case, as well as in James’, the work transcended the original, acting not so much as a continuity of the literary derivative, but as a compulsion of personal expression through these media. And this is going to sound as snobby as it may be, and Lord forgive me for having the audacity to even write such a wicked thing, but, as I know that some others DO feel a compulsion of personal experience to write through Harry Potter, or television shows, or whatever they feel moves them, I would ask, really and truly, if they think their writing is good. “Wide Saragasso Sea”, however much it annoyed me plot-wise, was good. Death Comes to Pemberley was GOOD. There’s a reason people actually published it. It was quality.

Thus endeth the lesson.*

*Having said this, I still can’t understand Fifty Shades of Grey. That series is just messed up—however the source material isn’t much better. Again, I’ll probably be shot for this one, but if serious Twilight fans are reading this ode, then I’m missing my intended readership entirely.

-ht

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