First aired on Q (12/12/11)
Some might call it fan fiction of the highest form. Masterly mystery writer P. D. James's latest novel is more than inspired by the classic work of Jane Austen, it attempts to continue it. James has written a book that picks up on the story of famous couple Elizabeth and Darcy six years after their marriage at the end of Pride and Prejudice.
Death Comes to Pemberley finds Darcy and Elizabeth living happily on their country estate with their two young children. And if that isn't startling enough for purists, James goes one deadly step further: she embroils the beloved couple in a murder investigation. The fallout of the murder threatens the happiness of the couple and the orderliness of life in Pemberley. James spoke about her literary tribute with Jian Ghomeshi on Q in a recent interview.
The novel begins with an apology to Austen for involving her "beloved Elizabeth" in the trauma of a murder investigation. James felt that this apology was owed to Austen. "She said herself in one of her books that she didn't really want any unpleasantness [in her books]," James explained. "She wasn't that kind of a writer."
But James couldn't resist the temptation to combine her two enthusiasms: one for Austen's novels and the other for writing crime fiction. "I think she'd probably forgive me, for I have kept very closely to her characters and a picture of life at Pemberley that I think she'd approve of," says James. "But I don't think she'd approve of blood-spattered bodies in the woodlands."
So, was James worried about any potential backlash from Austen purists? "I was known to be a great Jane-ite, as they say, and I thought the Society of Janeites — to which I belong — might have written me a letter or two," she said. "But nothing so far."
Of course, fan-written sequels based on Austen's novels are nothing new. The past few years alone have brought us the not-so-subtly-titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, not to mention the many books that combine Austen with that other genre rife with fan fiction, vampires.
But James is a well-known and highly respected author, and the lack of ill-conceived supernatural elements in Death Comes to Pemberley means that this book is likely to be taken more seriously than any previous riffs on Austen's books.
James admits that her love of Pride and Prejudice made her latest book a particular joy to write. "It's always fun getting back to Pride and Prejudice," she said. "It's such a sparkling book, so re-reading it was great fun."
James has said in other recent interviews that she values order in her life, and that the idea of being out of control is completely abhorrent to her. The orderliness of the world Austen portrays appeals to James, and writing crime fiction is another way that she exercises control: over her plots, characters and the experiences of her readers. "Basically, the detective story is bringing order out of disorder," she said.
James adds that her aim has always been to write "good novels" that also happen to be exciting and credible mysteries. "I want to tell the truth about men and women and the society in which they live."
Death Comes to Pemberley
by P. D. James
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From the publisher:
"In a marvellous, thrilling re-creation of the world of Pride and Prejudice, P.D. James fuses her lifelong passion for the work of Jane Austen with her own great talent for writing crime fiction.
The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome, healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth's beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth's happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley's wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered..."
Read more at Knopf Canada.