Friday, December 18, 2015

Meh Comes to Pemberley: P. D. James’ Jane Austen Fanfiction

Novelist P. D. James, 1920-2014. (Photo by Kristian Buus)

Growing up as a closeted nerd, I’ve always tried to make a positive case for fanfiction: the art of writing original stories with characters and settings borrowed from another artist’s work. Taking your favourite characters and making new stories for them is essentially play time for grownups and any respectable fangirl’s closet vice. When I was an awkward teenager, the genre was often considered to be embarrassing nerdy garbage, some lesser form of writing by geeks who lacked imagination, but today fanfiction has leaked into mainstream media in all sorts of unexpected ways from the controversial commercial success of the 50 Shades of Grey series (originally published online as Twilight fanfiction before taking on a life of its own) to a diverse array of contemporary takes on classic novels. Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P. D. James, is one such example. The story picks up some time after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Iconic romantic figures Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are now married, rich, fabulous, and suddenly tasked with solving a murder that takes place during a party at Pemberley, Darcy’s sprawling country estate. In the years since its publication, the novel has been transformed into a BBC miniseries starring Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin, lending some much needed legitimacy to the fanfiction genre. Unfortunately, however, the original text offers about as much excitement as a comparably thoughtful undergraduate essay.

I should stress that Death Comes to Pemberley has some nice features. James really went out of her way to include as many of Austen’s characters as possible and shed some light on their lives after the Darcy/Bingley double wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice. Austen fans in particular will appreciate cameos made by the Knightleys and Martins (Emma), and the Eliot family (Persuasion) because, when you really think about it, how could Austen’s small army of wealthy couples in Regency England not know each other somehow? Generally speaking, the characters in Death Comes to Pemberley don’t deviate from their reputations in Austen canon but they don’t grow much either: Darcy is gentlemanly but taciturn, Georgiana has moved on from Wickham and is “so totally over” all that messy elopement/heartbreak business, and Lydia is a shrieking melodramatic banshee with no social grace, but what else is new? The novel is really a story about George Wickham and he is perhaps the only exception to these blasé portrayals. Wickham’s thoughts, habits, and, naturally, various transgressions are brought to light and thoroughly explored as he sits at the heart of the Pemberley mystery. James’ Wickham is where her creativity is allowed to shine and what she comes up with almost makes up for the very safe and consequently unmoving approach she takes to Austen’s more beloved characters almost, but not quite.

In particular, although P. D. James composes a believable and engaging narrative to flesh out the gaps Austen left in Wickham’s story, her take on Lizzy Bennet, now Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, is a disappointment. Bookish, practical Lizzy has grown up, had some children, and is now comfortably settled into her position as the lady of Pemberley House, but she seems to retain very few of the core qualities that have allowed equally bookish, practical women to identify with her since time immemorial. Her chief concerns during James’ novel consist of party planning, managing her servants, and worrying. Death Comes to Pemberley succeeds in painting a realistic image of a married woman’s daily life during an early nineteenth century murder investigation: it consists largely of sitting and waiting for clever men to sort things out. A better book would have had Austen’s feminist-friendly heroine solving mysteries, with or without her husband, but alas, this is not that story.

Death Comes to Pemberley also suffers from some fatal pacing issues. The book’s passively voiced title is more accurate than potential readers might realize; indeed, death casually saunters up to Pemberley and, upon its arrival, everyone politely waits around for the mystery to be solved through official channels. Again, James keeps her story grounded in historical reality but her unwillingness to push the envelope in the manner of other modern takes on classic works like the Grahame-Smith parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Eve Sinclair’s Jane Eyre Laid Bare is a bit of let down for readers looking for a true mystery novel. Although the middle of the story drags substantially, the ending is well-thought out and satisfying. James leaves Austen’s characters in even better shape than she found them by providing closure on several of the nagging concerns Austen readers have been left with for almost two hundred years, such as the emotional legitimacy of Wickham’s marriage to Lydia Bennet, the uncertain future of nearly-disgraced Georgiana, and how the “happily ever after” version of Darcy accounts for some of his more questionable courtship behaviour.

Death Comes to Pemberley fails to live up to my admittedly high fangirl expectations, but James engages critically and thoughtfully with Austen’s text and I applaud her attention to detail and dedication to historical accuracy. At the end of the day, every good fan has to accept that sometimes one’s “fanon” (definition: collection of concepts and ideas that are normally used in most fan fiction, but don't really exist in the real story's canon) doesn’t necessarily line up with another’s. While it’s a decent beach read for Austen scholars, it’s ultimately James’ reluctance to take risks with characters and plot that sinks Death Comes to Pemberley, leaving avid mystery readers feeling as cold as the corpse in chapter three.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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