‘Death comes to Pemberley’: A Jane Austen-inspired murder mystery

By Eleanor Dye, Third Year English Literature

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

This review contains spoilers!

P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley is an unlikely sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as the world of an Agatha Christie ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery is brought to Darcy and Elizabeth’s Pemberley. This is an ambitious task: murder and Austen surely seem incompatible. James, herself, is aware of the risks of such a crossover, acknowledging that ‘Jane Austen would have written this story herself, and done it better’. However, the idea has certainly captured the public imagination as the novel has gone on to have its own TV series, continuing this crossover of period drama and whodunnit. Bringing murder to Austen seems to pay off and the Sunday Times has called it ‘an elegantly gauged homage to Austen’.

Crime scenes and murders seem very unlikely indeed.

James begins her murder mystery with what is simply a recap of Pride and Prejudice. This is the section of the novel in which Austen’s style is most clearly emulated. James focuses on the continued tranquility of Pemberley six years on, Elizabeth and Darcy’s two young children, and the preparations for the annual ball. Crime scenes and murders seem very unlikely indeed.

Lydia’s arrival at Pemberley the night before the ball and her scream that her husband has been murdered comes out of the blue and interrupts what appears to be a cosy life-update on Austen’s characters. The victim is actually Denny, a soldier and minor character in Pride and Prejudice, and it seems that Wickham is guilty, as he drunkenly confesses to the murder, when the two are found in the woods.

James’ most significant addition, however, is two new characters, Bidwell and Louisa

James makes some significant changes to Austen’s Pemberley. The novel is told more from Darcy’s perspective and Elizabeth is notably not as outspoken. Her quiet sister Jane is immediately more assertive as she advises Elizabeth on Georgiana Darcy’s marriage prospects. James fleshes out the character of Georgiana Darcy, young and meek in Austen’s novel, and gives her two love interests: Colonel Fitzwilliam, who featured briefly in Austen as a love interest for Elizabeth, and Henry Alveston. James’ most significant addition, however, is two new characters, Bidwell and Louisa, who not only play a vital role in the revelation of the murderer, but also expose Wickham’s character (even further!) as inconstant and selfish when his misdealings with Louisa come to light. In addition, James signals a shift away from Austen’s realism by adding the ghost of Mrs Riley, who appears whenever something ominous occurs in the novel.

The mystery itself, compared to the complexity of James’ Adam Dalgliesh murders, seems simplistic and rather predictable, perhaps owing to James’ greater focus on accurately portraying the world of Pemberley. Of course the first suspect, Wickham, is acquitted. There is no real detective in the case, and the murder seems to solve itself. However, there are still moments of suspense and intrigue, including mentions of characters such as the Martins and the Knightleys from Austen’s Emma and Sir Walter Eliot from Persuasion.

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