Death Comes to Pemberley: Genre-Bending #2

To say that Jane Austen has an enduring quality to her writing that keeps generations of readers returning time and again would be like calling the sun hot: obvious and prodigiously understated. Her works continue to entice readers in their original form, in film adaptations, theatre, television, and ‘sequel’ novels. I will admit to having read a lot of them. This is a safe space.

What all of these adaptations and ‘sequels’ have attempted to do—with varying levels of success, mind you—is extend what already exists, to embellish the page, and bring beloved stories into different forms of media. Other than the edition of some added melodrama, modernizations, and character manipulation, these adaptations remain largely steadfast to source material, bastard children of pithy romantic comedies that they are.

But then there’s Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, crime writer and author of Children of Men. Published back in 2011, Death Comes to Pemberley is written as a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, set a few years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. However, instead of a story of marital bliss or the domestic goings-on chez Darcy, James seems to say, “Hmm, yes, that’s all very well, but what if someone straight up got murdered on the grounds of Pemberley? What would happen then?” To which I would respond, “Not much that’s particularly great, but maybe something interesting.”

I read Death Comes to Pemberley the year at came out. (Incidentally, it was also the first book I read on my then-new e-reader). After reading it, I remember being disappointed, confused about why someone would be compelled to make a crime genre sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and on the whole let down. Actually, I sort of just forgot that I had read it until 2013 when the BBC produced a three-episode miniseries.

Anna Maxwell-Martin as Elizabeth Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley (Robert Viglasky / Masterpiece / PBS via LA Times)

It was one of two Jane Austen adaptations that I avoided watching like the plague (the other being Becoming Jane, which isn’t really an adaptation, I guess, but I still haven’t seen it) until it finally popped up on Netflix, teasing me with its presence. “Period costume drama,” it seemed to whisper, knowing my kryptonite. So, obviously, I watched the whole thing in one evening and, as if Jane herself foresaw my doltishness, it certainly challenged my first impressions.

Long story short, I actually really enjoyed it. The cast was great: Anna Maxwell-Martin as a surprisingly excellent, if unexpected, Elizabeth Darcy, Jenna Coleman as the appropriately frivolous, but surprisingly self-aware Lydia Wickham, and Matthew Goode as the ever-perfidious Mr. Wickham. Despite the solid casting, attention to detail in costume, and filming at Chatsworth (the house on which Austen is said to have based Pemberley), I still found the shift from romantic comedy to serious crime drama to feel forced. Suddenly, the character flaws that Austen used for comedy were now unearthed and used for dramatic fodder. While we suspect Lydia Bennet’s poor decisions in Pride and Prejudice will be the cause of future post-novel problems, the fact that we don’t see them played out shields the reader from Brontë-style drama, but James turns it into the basis of DCTP’s plot. The issue of Lizzie’s initial social inferiority that was overcome in Pride and Prejudice by superiority of character is reopened in Death Comes to Pemberley like an old wound, something that felt both unnecessary and unjustified. Problems that had been solved in Pride and Prejudice are suddenly revealed to be not as solved as Austen suggested, which I felt undermined rather than celebrated DCTP’s source material.

Those things being said, it was probably as successful as it was possible for it to be. It was less a subtle exploration of the boundaries of genre, and more an abrupt shift from one genre to another. For some reason the miniseries better communicated what subtleties it did possess—perhaps the familiar visuals were a better translator of Austen’s themes and tone than James’ writing. Regardless, I’ll never be able to say no to Jane Austen or any of her adaptations. I’d probably jump off a bridge if she told me to.


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