A fine homage

2011-12-07 00:00

TAKING a novel with the iconic status­ of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and writing a sequel is a bold move. Some might even say a sacrilege. But P. D. James and her writings are pretty iconic too, and as she heads into her 10th decade, she is surely entitled to a little bit of literary fun, especially as she has made such a good job of it. This book should find its way into plenty of Christmas stockings this year, and so it should. It’s great stuff for the holidays.

We’re a few years on from the end of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Elizabeth, now the parents of two fine sons, are settled at Pemberley, with Jane and Bingley nearby. The miserable Mary has unexpectedly married a perfect soulmate — a boring local curate, Kitty­ is still at home with her parents and Lydia and Wickham are waiting in the wings to set P. D. James’s plot in motion. It is the evening before the annual Pemberley ball, and suddenly Lydia’s carriage charges up the drive, with Lydia screaming that Wickham­ is dead.

He isn’t, but his friend Denny is, and when Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam (who has not only become the heir to an Earldom but got a lot less endearing with it) find Denny’s body, Wickham is bending over it, saying it is all his fault and he has killed his only friend.

James then gives us a bit of early 19th-century forensic deduction, a trial, plenty of red herrings, a deathbed confession and all the business of a classic detective novel. She throws in cheeky references to some of Austen’s other characters — it seems Emma and Mr Knightley are doing fine, which is good to know, as are Anne and Captain (now Admiral) Wentworth. Even Sir Walter Eliot gets a look in. And it’s not all that cheeky: the class about which Austen wrote was never that large, and the interconnections were considerable.

It must be said that James’s Darcy has livened up a bit from Austen’s day, and takes a bigger role in the story than Elizabeth. She suffers the fate of fictional heroines who have their fun, marry the man of their dreams and are left without much to do outside the domestic­ sphere while Darcy­ is allowed to move beyond­ brooding looks and general gloom.

He’s still not jolly, but he’s believable and we get a peep into his family’s back story, which perhaps explains him somewhat.

It’s all great fun — not to be taken too seriously — but a fine homage from a leading popular writer of our generation to a precedessor from a previous one.

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