In 'Pemberley,' James Picks Up Where Austen Left Off

Dec 8, 2011
Originally published on December 8, 2011 12:27 pm

British mystery writer P.D. James is best known for her creation Adam Dalgliesh — a pensive, private Scotland Yard detective shaped by his own personal tragedy. Dalgliesh populates many of James' stories, but not her latest. In her new book, Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James inhabits the world of Jane Austen — specifically, Pride and Prejudice.

"I had this idea at the back of my mind that I'd like to combine my two great enthusiasms," James tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "One is for the novels of Jane Austen and the second is for writing detective fiction."

Pemberley picks up with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy settled into Darcy's ancestral home. It's been six years since their marriage, and they have two healthy, handsome little boys. At first, life is peaceful and prosperous, but as the novel's name suggests, it's not quite happily ever after — "a rather ghastly murder" is discovered in the Pemberley woodlands, James says.

There's no shortage of Austen-inspired sequels out there: from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. But those sequels didn't inspire James to take up the Austen plotline. "I didn't even know they existed," James admits with a laugh.

James, who is 91, explains how she began her Austen sequel: "When I started, I said to my PA, 'We should look on the Internet!' ... she does all these clever things which I don't do — and see how many other people had written sequels. And we were amazed, absolutely amazed."

Unlike some of the sequels they found, James says she's tried to stay true to Austen's characters and writing style. Elizabeth, for one, remains a strong, spicy character. At times, she seems to acknowledge that perhaps she had been fairly calculating about her attraction to Darcy: "Elizabeth knew she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty," James writes.

"I don't think she married for money," James explains. "I think she did love Darcy and she grew to love him more. But she was not a woman who would allow herself to fall in love with a man who was totally penniless, because she felt she had responsibilities to her family. I think her aunt, her very wise Aunt Gardiner, said, 'Your father expects you to behave sensibly.' And that simply meant to make a satisfactory marriage."

In Death Comes to Pemberley, James dwells on the limited choices for women in the early 19th century. "Women were expected to marry, and if they didn't marry, that was regarded as a failure," James says. The only job they could hold was that of a governess — "a horrible job because you were neither a servant nor were you the family." (James' favorite Austen novel, Emma, explores that dreaded occupation.) Marriage and money were "tremendously important" to Austen, James says.

As for whether James will carry on in this vein — Death Comes to Donwell Abbey or Death at Delaford -- she's not going to keep her readers in suspense: "I think like most readers of Jane Austen, I often wonder what happens afterwards because they're so real to us. But no, this will be very much the one-off."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The British mystery writer P.D. James is best known for her creation, Adam Dalgliesh. The Scotland Yard detective is pensive and private, shaped by his own personal tragedy. He populates many of P.D. James's stories, but not her latest. In her new book, P.D. James inhabits the world of Jane Austen, specifically "Pride and Prejudice."

"Death Comes to Pemberley" picks up with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy married and settled in to Darcy's ancestral home. But, as the name suggests, it's not quite happily ever after.

I asked P.D. James why she decided to bring death to Pemberley.

P.D. JAMES: I had this idea at the back of my mind that I'd like to combine my two great enthusiasms. One is for the novels of Jane Austen, and the second is for writing detective fiction. And it would be rather fun to marry them and set a book in Pemberley, six years after Elizabeth and Darcy had married, when everything is going very well and they're very happy, and they have to healthy and handsome boys in their nursery; and life is peaceful and ordered and, of course, rich and prosperous.

And then comes the eruption of a rather ghastly murder in the Pemberley woodlands.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I wonder if you are at all inspired by...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: ...by these, well, popular sequels - "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," or "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters?"

JAMES: No. I hate to tell you, Linda, I didn't even know they existed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: And when I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: I know it's absolutely true. And when I started, it said to my PA, would she look on the Internet and find on the computer - she does all these clever things which I don't do - and see how many other people had written sequels. And we were amazed, absolutely amazed. And when we read some of the contents, well, I think they certainly should apologize to Jane Austen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: I have tried to be very true and to her characters, and very true - as far as I can be - to the style of the book.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you have kept the "Pride and Prejudice" cast of characters - although some are way in the background. But I was very pleased to see that the villain, in your book, it is also Jane Austen's villain - the notorious Mr. Wickham.

JAMES: Yes, I suppose we ought not really to let that be known. But, indeed, I think everybody does know that he is the villain. But the great problem is, of course, will he escape being executed? And so, this is a great grief, because both Darcy and Elizabeth know that if this happened there would be a terrible cloud over their marriage, and over, indeed, their whole family.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Jane and Fitzwilliam Darcy, on the eve of their famous annual ball - which is a major event in the county...

JAMES: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...they learn that a murder has been committed on the grounds of their estate. In fact, Darcy discovers Wickham bending over the bloody body of the victim. So, Darcy has an important role to play.

JAMES: He has a very important part and he believes Wickham to be innocent of this particular crime. But, of course, because Wickham is his brother-in-law, he feels a responsibility. Wickham, the hated Wickham, the Wickham who's done so much harm to him, has by this marriage come into the family. And he's faced with the awful possibility that he will be a witness for the prosecution in the trial.

WERTHEIMER: You know, Elizabeth remains - although she's very much aware of her position in the county and so forth - she does remain a fairly spicy character in your book.

JAMES: Yes, she does.

WERTHEIMER: And she seems to kind of be reconsidering her attraction to Darcy, and to acknowledge that perhaps she had been fairly calculating about it. You write in your book: Elizabeth knew she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

JAMES: Yes. I don't think that she married for money. Elizabeth did marry for love. I think she did love Darcy and she grew to love him more. But she was not a woman who would allow herself to fall in love with a man who was totally penniless, because she felt she had responsibilities to her family. I think her aunt, her very wise Aunt Gardiner said: Your father expects you to behave sensibly. And that simply meant to make a satisfactory marriage.

WERTHEIMER: And you also spent some time on just those questions; the very limited choices that women can make in the early 19th century.

JAMES: Absolutely. I mean women were expected to marry. And if they didn't marry, that was regarded as a failure. And the only job that they could do outside the home would be going as a governess. And it was a horrible job, because you are neither a servant nor were you the family. And we how much it was dreaded, you know, from one of Jane Austen's other books, "Emma."

So, marriage was tremendously important. And, of course, the women were looking for men with money. But I think the men were looking for women with money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Money, seems to me, tremendously important in Jane Austen.

WERTHEIMER: Now, of course, there is a way in which your book is completely different from anything Austen ever would have attempted. A large portion of the book is a courtroom drama. And you also do spend some time on what they knew at that time, about forensics. I mean there are discussions of what was the cause of death, what could the weapon have been.

JAMES: Oh yes, absolutely. Scientific experiments were done by gentlemen, very often with money, in their country houses. This is a general practitioner or a doctor. He is the one that the investigating magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, says to him: I suppose you clever people can't tell us the difference between the blood from one body and the blood from another. And he says: No, Sir Selwyn, we don't set out to be gods.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: And it would have seemed incredible to them that that could actually come. And they would've also have been amazed, I think, to think that you could say who had the last handled the firearm.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I wonder if you have thought about continuing in this vein. I mean it just comes to "Donwell Abbey" or "Death at Delaford" or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: No. No, I hadn't at all. And it's interesting really, Linda. You see, I had never thought that I would ever want to use somebody else's characters. If it hadn't been this idea that I would like to combine a novel, which I knew very well and loved, although it's not my favorite Jane Austen one - "Emma" is - and my passion for writing detective fiction.

I think, like most readers of Jane Austen, I often wonder what happens afterwards, because they're so real to us. But no, this will be very much the one-off.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I'm sorry to hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much for talking to us about "Death Comes to Pemberley."

JAMES: Well, it's been lovely, Linda. It's been great talking to you.

WERTHEIMER: Mystery novel is P.D. James. Her latest book is "Death Comes to Pemberley."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.