Sunday, 1 April 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley (In more ways than one)

It pays to be cautious about sequels,  especially when they are written by someone other than the original author. Some, of course, are good. I enjoyed the first 2 of Jill Paton Walsh’s sequels to Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books, despite a few “yes, but” moments, and the occasional anachronism.

On the other hand, despite enjoying his other books, I couldn’t get into Eoin Colfer’s Hitchhiker sequel at all, to the extent of giving up without finishing it, which I very rarely do. I can’t not finish things, it makes my eyeballs twitch. (And technically I haven’t not finished it. it's still there on the bookcase, with a bookmark in. *twitch* *twitch*)

 All of which is leading up to the fact that I have just read P.D.James’s sequel to Pride & Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley’. I had high hopes of it. The reviews I’ve seen were positive, I enjoy P.D.James’s other books, and I love P&P.

Unfortunately, I found it very disappointing, and didn’t feel that it successfully captured either the flavour of the period, or of the original book.

I would assume that the obvious audience for a Pride and Prejudice sequel would be people who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice, so the lengthy recap at the start of the novel felt both clumsy and unnecessary, and for me, there was a similar problem throughout the novel – the research felt very obtrusive and clunky, in a “look, I’ve researched this slightly unusual term and am going to explain it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y in case you can’t get it from contest, then use it constantly even though there are equally valid and better known alternatives” way, while at the same time, there were places where things seemed not to have been researched – for instance, when the news of the death is broken to the servants, we learn that there are “16 pairs of eyes” – even if this only relates to indoor servants, it seems a amazingly low number of servants for a man as wealthy as Darcy. (between 25-50 servants would be a more realistic number, and as the book is set just before a ball, it’s unlikely that any would have been given time off just then…

The plot, too, was disappointing and, in many ways inconsistent with the period and source material - I’m unconvinced, for instance, that someone in Mr Darcy’s position in 1803 would have felt it necessary, or even appropriate, to recuse himself from involvement as a Magistrate – indeed, since one of the things we know about Mr Darcy is his strong sense of duty and obligation, it would have seemed far more in character for him to have insisted on taking the lead into enquiring into a crime which happened on his own estate.

 I also felt the almost complete focus on the upper class characters as potential suspects, and the total lack of any suggestion that the crime could have been the work  of any servant, worker, poacher, footpad, deserter or discharged soldier to be so unlikely as to be unbelievable, and this is one of the issues which made me feel that James had not really got the flavour of the period at all.

This would have been less of an issue if the book had shone in other respects, but for me, it didn’t. The murder mystery itself was dull and predictable – I have checked, and my copy doesn’t in fact have large neon arrows in the text saying “Look! This is a clue” but it might as well have. I kept reading, waiting for a clever twist, but there wasn’t one. And the characters were so un-engaging that it was impossible to care who, if anyone, was either responsible or punished for the murder.

And despite several reviews claiming that James had captured Austen’s voice and style (‘pitch perfectly’, apparently) that didn’t come across to me, either. Elizabeth Bennet/Darcy has become a dull housewife, for instance, and Lydia, Wickham and Jane Bingley seem to have no character whatsoever. None of them seem to have anything in common with the original characters, and I found the style remarkably heavy-handed and dull,  which are not words which come to mind when describing Austen’s style.

There were one or two small mitigating factors – primarily including off-stage characters. There is a description of a letter from Mr Collins which is both funny and consistent with his character, and a reported comment by Lady Catharine de Bourgh, but 2 paragraphs in a book of this length is really not enough!

Still, I guess someone else might enjoy it, so I’ll be donating the book to the library,(Unless anyone else here wants it?)


Michelle said...

Thanks for the review! I've only read "good" things about this book from other authors. So I wonder if it's an author's author book? Such as, only another author would appreciate the writing style? I've also read that's it's very PD James, so maybe those that said he captured Austen's writing style were just confused?

I also agree on the compulsive need to finish books. My own obvious outlier, also still sitting on my shelf so I can one day maybe finish is, is AS Byatt's Possession. I loved the movie, but cannot get into the book. Alas.

Peter Household said...

Some interesting points in this review to ponder on. But I have to disagree about the lengthy recap at the start of the novel being clumsy and unnecessary. I found it both clever and entertaining, as it recaps P&P from the standpoint of the local gossips who know nothing of the real reasons that Lizzy and Darcy overcame their pride and prejudice, and paints Elizabeth most unfairly (as we know but they don't) as an unprincipled gold digger. I chortled my way through it!