At the ending of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” Mrs Bennet can pride herself on marrying off three of her five daughters thus securing her family’s future as their estate is entailed to a male heir, an odious cousin. Not only that but her two eldest daughters have secured advantageous marriages: pretty Jane to Mr Bingley, a love match, with a very comfortable income, and intelligent, witty Elizabeth to Mr Darcy becoming mistress at Pemberley. By the beginning of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” Jane and Elizabeth have produced sons, a fourth sister is married and Lady Catherine de Bourgh has melted towards her nephew’s wife as Elizabeth has supported her after the death of her sickly daughter.
Death comes, as might be expected, via the Wickhams. George Wickham grew up at Pemberley, his father being a loyal servant there, and joined the army. He is a man not inclined to work but in need of an income who had set his sights on Georgiana Darcy. Darcy had to rescue his sister from elopement with Wickham. An action which led to Wickham becoming unwelcome at Pemberley. Darcy had to step in again when Wickham persuaded the Bennet’s flighty daughter, Lydia, it would be romantic to elope, causing much embarrassment to the Bennets as any resulting scandal would have ruined any chances of the other daughters marrying. Darcy felt responsible has he had failed to warn the Bennets of Wickham’s history and, pays Wickham to marry to Lydia, thus preventing scandal and paving his own way to marry Elizabeth. Lydia and Wickham are temperamentally suited, settling into a series of temporary lodgings and expecting relatives to bail them out. Wickham has left the army, after distinguishing himself in the Irish campaign, but has been unable to secure employment. When Lydia visits the Bingleys, Wickham stays at a nearby inn and takes walks through Pemberley’s woods, with which he is very familiar having grown up there. There is a cottage in the woods lived in by a Pemberley servant, his wife, a terminally ill son and daughter.
Busy with preparations for the annual ball, Darcy and Elizabeth welcome a break with a visit from the Bingleys and a friend Henry Alveston, a solicitor who is falling in love with Georgiana Darcy. Colonel Fitzwilliam, a Darcy relation, drops by too, but leaves to go for a ride. Suddenly, Darcy notices a chaise being driven at speed pulling up outside Pemberley house. Out tumbles Lydia claiming her husband has been murdered in the woods. A search party, Darcy, the Colonel and Alveston, are assembled as Jane and Elizabeth attempt to calm Lydia and Bingley goes to fetch a doctor.
In the woods, the search party find the victim is not Wickham but his friend Captain Denny. As far as they can ascertain, the chaise was bringing Lydia to Pemberley and then going on to a local inn where Denny and Wickham were planning to stay for the duration of the ball. There was an argument between Wickham and Denny and Denny left the coach. Wickham ran after him, shots were heard, and the search party find Wickham kneeling over his friend’s body. Wickham is now prime suspect and Darcy finds himself embroiled in another potential scandal due to Wickham’s actions. Darcy and Elizabeth become witnesses to the local magistrate’s efforts to mount the investigation and manage to get the trial to take place in London, rather than locally where Wickham would not get a fair hearing.
The plot is deftly handled, apart from one slip where the jury’s shock verdict would have been more credible had the readers been given a crucial piece of information before the verdict rather than fed it afterwards. The male characters are kept in character, as are most of the female characters. While P D James does not copy Jane Austen’s style, her novel can stand alongside “Pride and Prejudice” without detriment.
P D James has decided to keep the focus on the male characters. Jane Austen only bothered with men when they were in conversation with women, but P D James has lengthy conversations between her main character, Darcy, and all other male characters. Consequently most dialogue is used to pass on information and the opportunity for humour is lost. Poor Darcy never gets chance to talk things through with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is another disappointment. She is barely there. Whilst her husband, who inherited Pemberley as a young man and is hugely aware of responsibilities and convention, has accepted that he cannot become involved because the murder happened on his estate, it doesn’t suit his wife to be so conventional. The family in the woodland cottage are key to the plot and their secrets are reported after the event by the Colonel. It is a lost opportunity for their story not to be teased out by Elizabeth, who is forced to sit passively at home whilst watching her husband struggle to manage events so as not to put Pemberley’s reputation at risk. The Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice” would be discreetly asking questions and ferreting out the truth.
By Emma Lee