P D James swansong, ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’.

Published in 2011 it turned out to be her last novel and a tribute to her favourite author and book i.e. Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. For her readers who had got accustomed to Adam Dalgliesh Murder Mysteries this was virgin territory and the plotting for once seemed off-key since possibly James’ didn’t want to play her hand to make it a full-blown murder mystery.

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The BBC adapted it as a 3-part series to be released at Christmas in 2013 and it is truly a lavish affair. They have the flair to combine serious actors and British scenery to the delight of their audiences across the world.

So the story takes off 6 years after Darcy and Elizabeth were married and settled in their magnificent Country estate at Pemberley. Jane Austen fans would be able to spot associations to the novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as many key characters continue to feature in this novel as well. The key themes that dominate the current tale include – Elizabeth try to cope with her marriage to an emotionally distant Darcy, Georgiana Darcy being wooed by two competing suitors, and most dramatically George Wickham ( the never-do-well charmer spouse of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia) facing trial for the brutal murder of his dear friend Captain Martin Denny in the Pemberley woods.

The murder mystery is very little at that and how we miss James craftily placing red herrings and make our suspicions waver from one person to another. Here Wickham is so charmingly wicked (He had to be financially induced to marry Lydia after they already were in a relationship and  he rather unscrupulously seduces a young servant and sires a child outside his marriage) that no one has any sympathy for him when he stands convicted of murder and is to be ‘hanged to death’. This obviously makes it stick out to a mile that he may well be the devil himself but he still didn’t commit the murder. That leaves James with the job off wrapping up the climax with a denouement that is really tepid and not that will catch the fancy of most readers. It was indeed galling to find it unfold right up to the moment when Wickham is at the gallows and we have to suffer the ignominy of watching some others meet their fate.

But James and the BBC series succeeded in teleporting us to the world around 1800 where the society is feudal and deeply patriarchal. Feudalism the pre-industrial revolution days is easily understood as the power did become concentrated in the hands off the few who could master the resources and deliver stability. Their rule was that of a benign autocrat – where the master has all the privileges but he is responsible to take care of his serfs welfare as well.

If that would seem to be an anachronism in the modern Western world that prides in providing everyone an opportunity to make his own fortune then the treatment of the ladies would have many frothing mad. It is a curious mixture of chivalry and partnership but when it came down to the brass tacks it was often that they were regarded as property and chattel who needed to be cosseted and protected all their lives. The episode of Georgiana being courted by Colonel Fitzwilliam and Henry Alveston sharply depicts this syndrome. Well one can say that James was possibly being faithful to the script of its times and so could not be a torch-bearer for feminism. But Elizabeth’s spunk was what made, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ such fun so her flailing efforts to mount resistance end up in a vale of tears. And Georgiana simply kowtows to the wishes of her broody brother Darcy.

Even Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage is strained and the clashes reminded me of how far we are from James’ traditional novel. At times it felt like we had made our way into a ‘Mills & Boons’ tale. Still the tale seeks some redemption at the climax as all is well that ends well. (Elizabeth suggests to Darcy -“We are neither of us the people we were then. Let us look on the past only as it gives us pleasure, and to the future with confidence and hope.”)

The BBC TV series was a great piece – it is mounted on a magnificent scale with Pemberley being showcased in its royal grandeur. The adaptation’s focus quickly moves onto the murder and its aftermath so the other aspects of the novel are given a quick ‘heave-ho’ and anyways the subtler aspects of James’ narrative don’t lend themselves easily for portrayal in a ‘movie-like’ format.

The novel and the TV series were met with a warm reception. I guess with warts and all we are happy that James was able to deliver a sequel to Jane Austen’s wonderful tale of Darcy and Elizabeth. It isn’t an easy to turn conjecture into something tangible and credible. And one can sense of course that James really enjoyed paying tribute to Austen who has inspired her so much in plotting intricate characters and tales in primarily the world of ‘Adam Dalgliesh’s Murder Mysteries’.

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