As soon as I read about this – P.D. James writes a murder mystery sequel to Pride & Prejudice featuring Lydia Wickham and a murder – I was sold. Immediately I was imagining something which was sprightly and fun and clever and featured Elizabeth and Darcy sleuthing it up. It was one of those ideas you wish you’d come up with yourself.

But now that I’m reading it, I find that my initial imaginings were quite wrong. This is not a postmodern experiment – not that, really, I should have expected such a thing from P.D. James. She is not, after all, Jasper Fforde. Instead, it raises questions for me about intertextuality, about historical novels (a subject I can’t seem to leave alone), and about the particular worldview and mood a mature author creates in their work.

I have read many, although not all, of Austen’s novels, and I have also read a few of P.D. James’ books. I haven’t read any of them recently, so my remarks here are not throughly researched. But one of the things I’ve found interestingly odd about reading James’s intervention in Austen’s world is the mood that it creates: it’s anxious, melancholy, full of foreboding and unhappiness. In her introduction James refers to the famous quote: “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”, and makes it clear that she is, in fact, going to do precisely that: dwell on guilt and misery.  The question remains, of course, why?

The action of this narrative makes a space for an extended series of worries about the duties and responsibilities people have towards their families, particularly the duties important and titled men have to their estates and the people living on them, to their ancestors, to the family name, and the conflicts between all those duties and their emotional lives. All the characters, but particularly the men, are seen worrying away about their wives and the choices they’ve made, and at the centre of these worries is the question: did Darcy choose wisely when he married Elizabeth? James’s book worries away at this question, as if she was trying to unravel Austen’s neatly-wrapped plot. The effect is quite unsettling, and the book has an unsettled, unhappy atmosphere, which is appropriate, I suppose, for a novel about a murder. But the mood of it is very far indeed from the witty, crisp, dry tone, and atmosphere, of Austen’s own books. It’s rather like the mood of Hamlet has been superimposed onto Pemberley’s occupants (actually, very like, now that I come to think about it).

One of the other things that’s striking about this book – and why I was very wrong when I imagined what this book would be like – is how little the women have to do in it. Elizabeth’s life is spent planning balls, ordering meals and visiting sick people on the estate, a no-doubt realistic representation of what a married woman of her position would be doing. But since a great deal of the action involves the investigation of the crime and then the legal proceedings, it means that Elizabeth, whose intelligence dominates P&P, is peripheral to the narrative here. I could imagine a kind of narrative where women doing women’s work (swapping information, talking and visiting and noticing things) could quietly gather the intelligence that would help them solve the crime. (Isn’t that a well-established sub-genre in crime, beginning with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple?)  This is not that narrative. And since Elizabeth’s mind is one of the things that is so attractive about P&P, if you come to this novel hoping for more of that, you may be disappointed.

It is also not a novel that is particularly concerned with narrative twists and turns and big reveals, although there are some, of course. The feeling is more meditative than that.

The other question that this book raises, and this is a problem for all historical fiction, is how much you should explain. Austen didn’t need to explain how the world worked to her readers. They knew about country houses and what was expected of servants. They understood the social rules and etiquette, because Austen was writing for her contemporaries. P.D. James is writing about a world that is removed from us by 200 years – and is also another author’s creation, just to complicate things further. So this novel begins, rather clunkingly, with a long summary of the key plot points of Pride & Prejudice, and then, when it does get into the narrative, is heavily embroidered with explanatory detail about things like the niceties of social conduct and explanations about the servants and how the house is run, so it feels like you’re getting a solid dose of social history with your narrative. James seems fascinated by country house living, and populates the mise en scene with named servants, almost as if she was trying to make the traditionally invisible  people in a country house visible. But unlike, say, Downton Abbey, this is not a novel about the strange intimacy and distance of life with servants, so the plethora of names is just distracting. But this has to be a real problem for any recreator of a historical world: how much do you need to explain? How much can you get away with not explaining? Does your action still make sense, and do your people still make sense, if your readers don’t fully understand the world in which they live? We accept not knowing all the details in the works of authors writing about their own worlds, but when writers are not writing about their own world, if they’re trying to recreate a historical  moment they didn’t live through, then you immediately run into problems – the related problems of TMI (too much information) and NEI (not enough information). For me, P.D. James errs here on the side of TMi: she knows so much about Austen’s world, and is so determined to give us a detailed and nuanced appreciation of the complexities of that world, that there are moments where the detail overwhelms the action.

And, perhaps unfairly, but unavoidably, as a reader you find yourself acutely aware of modern-sounding phrases, especially in the dialogue. For me, every time I encounter an expression that sounds contemporary in the mouth of one of these characters, it throws me out of the world of the book and reminds me that I’m reading something by someone who’s trying to sound like someone else – and apparently not succeeding, because I’m questioning it.  (I can’t quote you an example, but I found myself questioning a number of phrases.) If Austen had written the same phrases, you wouldn’t mind, of course. But there’s something about knowing that what you’re reading is a recreation that can make you hypercritical.

However, I don’t object to the idea of messing around with another author’s characters. Really compelling characters become part of our collective imagination, our dream life. The urge to know what happened next is, I think, akin to the desire to see them translated into other media (TV, film, dancing on ice). I like the idea of a major author turning her attention to the characters and the world of another major author, and although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the reading experience, it was nonetheless an interesting meeting between two quite disparate sensibilities.

I do think, though, that the literary mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the revival of hyper-successful characters in books by authors who are not the original authors (the other Austen sequels, the new James Bond novels) suggests a publishing industry taking a tip from the risk-averse studio heads in Hollywood, and looking for sure-fire hits by trading on the brand value of existing properties.

(I don’t think P.D. James set out to write a blockbuster, by the way. I think what she has created is an intriguing and ultimately serious act of love and homage. I think her publishers, however, saw “moneyspinner” before they got past the subject heading on her agent’s email and packaged it accordingly. Which is fine. God knows, both authors and readers need publishers to make a bit of money publishing something otherwise we’re all out of a job.)

On this theme, I was interested to read this, in a very good article on the latest film adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

When John le Carré dies, there will be no pseudo–le Carrés, rotating the clichés of Smileydom through their potboilers. Not only is le Carré more or less inimitable—less imitable, certainly, than Ian Fleming, whose style was essentially that of a school bully with a typewriter—but Smiley himself is too elusive a creature to be captured by any pen other than that of his creator.

The best books make us yearn to know more about the characters, but also make it impossible for that desire ever to be fulfilled.

Advertisements