When Jane Austen became famous at the age of 38, she didn’t go to literary lunches, meet her readers or take tea with Madame de Staël. But she did accept one invitation, from the Prince Regent’s librarian: the Prince Regent was a fan – would she like to come and look round his library? After the visit, the librarian, who had been a clergyman, wrote to her: had she thought of writing about a clergyman in her next book? Neither Goldsmith nor La Fontaine had ‘quite delineated an English Clergyman, at least of the present day – Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature’. Someone like him perhaps, a librarian. That way, she could show ‘what good would be done if Tythes were taken away entirely, and describe him burying his own mother – as I did – because the High Priest of the Parish … did not pay her remains the respect he ought to do. I have never recovered the Shock.’ Austen’s response was to write ‘Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters’, a rebuke to anyone who thinks their ideas better than a writer’s own, and a dig at the well-meaning relations, novel-reading friends and pompous clergymen who kept telling her what to write next.
The story described in ‘Plan of a Novel’ was to be set in the countryside and the heroine would be a clergyman’s daughter. The first volume would be taken up with the father’s story: to sea, back home, opinions on tithes, burial of his mother, fondness for books. In volume two, the heroine and her father would travel all over Europe – ‘Plan of a Novel’ would require rather more space than the ‘little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory’ that Austen told her nephew was enough for one of her novels – meeting ‘a wide variety of Characters’ that hardly resembled real people: ‘All the Good will be unexceptionable in every respect, and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the Wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of Humanity left in them.’ They would end up in snowbound Kamchatka in Russia, where the father would die ‘in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm, intermingled with Invectives against Holder’s of Tythes’. The heroine ‘in the very nick of time’, while turning a corner to avoid her seducer, ‘runs into the arms’ of her true love. But what should the novel be called? ‘The name of the work not to be Emma but of the same sort as S&S and P&P.’ Tithes & Travels does have a ring to it. ‘Plan of a Novel’ was kept in the Austen family and remained unpublished until her nephew brought out his memoir; to the librarian Austen merely wrote back politely to say that she didn’t know enough about science, philosophy and ancient languages to write a convincing clergyman. What she really meant was: ‘Piss off.’
It isn’t hard to imagine how Austen would have responded to anyone presumptuous enough to borrow her characters; on the other hand, her readers have always wanted to know what happened next. Her nephews and nieces managed to get out of her that Lizzy Bennet’s flighty younger sister Kitty married a clergyman near Pemberley, and her severe, sermon-reading sister Mary one of her uncle’s clerks. In 1913, Sybil Brinton brought out Old Friends and New Fancies, which took all the unmarried characters from the six novels and cutely paired them off, starting a tradition: there are now hundreds of adaptations, prequels, sequels, fan-fic continuations and pastiches of Austen’s six novels. Recent sequels have been rather less kind-hearted: the one that got passed around at my school was Pemberley, Emma Tennant’s 1993 sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which gives Lizzy problems conceiving and Darcy an illegitimate child. In the last few years there has been a porn version, Pride and Penetration, and a mash-up of Austen’s text called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which starts: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.’ Austen might have understood: she wrote to her sister Cassandra after Pride and Prejudice was published that it was ‘rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade.’ P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley follows in this shady tradition.
In her preface, James apologises to Austen for ‘involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation’, and imagines Austen replying tartly that ‘had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.’ James risks it because of the affection she has for the novel, which she read during the Blitz, heavily pregnant with her second daughter, whom she would call Jane. (Her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, also keeps an Austen novel on his bedside table in Unnatural Causes; she calls Emma a ‘detective story’.) At the age of 91, James said she thought ‘it would be fun’ to spend time with Lizzy, Darcy, Bingley and Wickham: surely Austen wouldn’t have denied her that?
‘It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton,’ the prologue begins, ‘that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.’ Redoing ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ is part of the fun (even if it prompts a weary sigh), and the sentence is pleasingly sturdy and 18th-century enough. The opening also introduces one of James’s primary strategies in dealing with Pride and Prejudice. The prologue retells the story of Lizzy Bennet’s engagement to rich Mr Darcy of Pemberley not as a slow romance but as a skilfully played game that ends in triumph for Lizzy, whom Merytonians had always suspected of ‘privately laughing at them’. Each bit of news – or gossip – has its source. When Lizzy visits her friend Charlotte Lucas at Hunsford parsonage while Darcy is visiting his aunt at nearby Rosings with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Charlotte writes home to Meryton that Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam called on the parsonage ‘frequently’ and that Lizzy would have taken ‘either gentleman with alacrity had an offer been made’. James makes us see that as readers of Pride and Prejudice we are gossips too. Not only that, we know the best stuff already; James has Charlotte report Darcy’s visit to see Lizzy, but Austen put us in the room with them.
Gossip is a constant threat in all Austen’s novels, and it menaces in Death Comes to Pemberley: the phrases ‘generally accepted’ and ‘generally agreed’ recur throughout the book to suggest that the gossips’ view of the Darcys is subject to change. We also learn that Mary has married a vicar known for ‘preaching sermons of inordinate length and complicated theology’ and that Kitty hasn’t married but is enjoying the ‘prestige and indulgence of being the only daughter at home’. Lizzy and Darcy have two young boys, and Jane and Bingley and their children have moved to a house a short distance from Pemberley. Darcy and Mr Bennet are helping Bingley buy books for the new house’s empty library: ‘There are few activities so agreeable as spending a friend’s money to your own satisfaction and his benefit, and if the buyers were periodically tempted to extravagance, they comforted themselves with the thought that Bingley could afford it.’ It’s not necessarily thrilling to hear about the new bound set of the Spectator for Bingley’s library, but one nice thing about gossip is that it’s never quite boring either.
The first sentence of the first chapter of the novel proper is precise, clue-filled and pure P.D. James: ‘At eleven in the morning of Friday 14th October 1803 Elizabeth Darcy sat at the table in her sitting room on the first floor of Pemberley House.’ The annual autumn ball would take place the following day. Lizzy wonders whether they should be holding a ball at all, given ‘the expected war with France’, but has decided ‘nothing was more conducive to good morale than a little harmless entertainment,’ and is now worrying about the ‘delicate tarts and savouries’, the wine, the amount of almonds grated for the ‘popular white soup’, the negus, the flowers, the polishing of the candlesticks. One of the things about Austen’s books that frustrates Janeites – who are typical nerds in this – is their lack of detail. The white soup served in P&P is an exception (the Austen forums are alive with white soup recipe swapping). But the novels hardly ever describe how someone is dressed or say much more about their appearance than the colour of their hair and whether or not they are pretty.
Happily for James, this is one thing the detective novel specialises in. Like the 19th-century realist novel, which uses detail to make you believe the fictional is real (otherwise why tell us there is a barometer on the wall at all?), the detective novel, which emerged at the same time, stacks up details – call them clues – in order to make the plot work. The reader’s job is to work out which of them are relevant. But the sorts of detail James includes also amount to a criticism of Austen. James has talked of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh as ‘historians of their age’, meaning that they can often capture society as it is with more accuracy than people writing in less workaday genres. So she has Lizzy dealing with Mrs Reynolds, who helps her keep house, Thomas Bidwell, who polishes her candlesticks, and Mrs Donovan, who looks after her children. And she has Lizzy worrying about Napoleon, remedying a lack of interest in the world that modern critics have thought disappointing or at least odd (though this was precisely what Churchill found comforting when reading P&P in the run up to D-Day: ‘What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars’).
The night before the ball, Lizzy, Darcy, the Bingleys, their handsome lawyer friend Henry Alveston, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Georgiana, Darcy’s sister (with whom both Alveston and the colonel are in love) eat together. There is a storm outside, and reports are circulating that two maids have seen a ghost in the grounds. The ghost is believed to be the mother of an under-gardener at Pemberley who was hanged for poaching; she had cursed the Darcy family then killed herself a week after her son’s death. Austen’s Pemberley, a fine country house (Lizzy falls in love after seeing it for the first time), is turned into the gothic pile of the Cluedo board: will it be the colonel, in the library, with the candlestick? Lizzy foresees doom: ‘Here we sit at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilised country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship, its art and the books which enshrine its literature, while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world.’ And the animal world is coming up the driveway.
A chaise flies up to the door; as it arrives, the wind blows out the candles and Lydia Bennet falls out of the coach ‘like some wild creature of the night’. She pushes Lizzy aside and collapses into Jane’s arms: ‘Wickham’s dead! Denny has shot him! Why don’t you find him? They’re up there in the woodland. Why don’t you do something? Oh God, I know he’s dead!’ Finally, we have our murder. But Wickham? He’s the bad boy from Pride and Prejudice: isn’t it overdoing it to kill him here? One of the problems of writing with familiar characters is that we already have ideas about them. And indeed when Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Alveston mount a search party to the woods, they find Denny dead and Wickham kneeling over him, covered in blood, saying, ‘I’ve killed him! It’s my fault,’ which is much more like it.
The body is brought back to Pemberley and Darcy, a justice of the peace himself, goes to rouse a local magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, to begin the inquiries. Wickham is brought back to the house, sedated and has the blood washed off him (one of a number of breaks with modern police procedure that James clearly enjoys: the magistrate asks the petty constables whether they can distinguish one man’s blood from another’s: ‘I regret not, Sir Selwyn. We do not set out to be gods’). One of the pleasures of making a murder happen at Pemberley is wrecking the complacent world of pianofortes and white soup; James has said elsewhere that the best way to get to know characters is to upset them. But we know them already, so we aren’t surprised when Lizzy turns up the best clues and Darcy’s judgment is consistently proved right. Just as, in Austen, we know that the heroine will find her true love and marry him (even when, as in ‘Plan of a Novel’, it’s a joke), in James we know the murderer will be found and all will be put right. Death Comes to Pemberley turns out to be about a Tory idyll (Baroness James of Holland Park takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords): a rich man and his wife as benign dictators over their children, servants and the local community. As one character puts it, in a mock prime-ministerial and perhaps ironic way, ‘the peace and security of England depends on gentlemen living in their houses as good landlords and masters, considerate to their servants, charitable to the poor, and ready, as justices of the peace, to take a full part in promoting peace and order in their communities.’ James even has Pemberley throw an annual Christmas party for local children, like Downing Street does: ‘Both Darcy and Elizabeth felt that the young should not be deprived of this yearly treat, especially in such difficult times.’
In talking about detective novels as ‘formula writing’, James has described Austen’s novels as ‘Mills & Boon written by a genius’; she believes genre fiction offers a ‘relief from the tensions and responsibilities of daily life’. When we know a happy ending is coming, we can relax, like Churchill before Operation Overlord or James hiding from the doodlebugs. For James, Austen writes what Germans call Unterhaltungsliteratur and the English, without ring-fencing them in quite the same way, might call ‘entertainments’. And the thing about entertainments is that people read them. Death Comes to Pemberley should be read in the spirit of the advertising slogan that used to be wheeled out every year for a previous queen of crime: a Christie for Christmas.