Culture

Re-Penning Pemberley: Jane Austen & P. D. James, Accomplices

Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin in 'Death Comes to Pemberley'/Image © Robert Viglasky/Origin Pictures 2013 for MASTERPIECE

Death Comes to Pemberley begins with an author's note: "I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.'" Borrowers of Austen sometimes employ this consciously apologetic tone (see Emma Thompson accepting the 1995 Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay), recognizing that her readers are deeply sensitive to how her work is used. (We wonder if Austen would've been too concerned about the appropriation of her work; after all, she herself was a master parodist, as seen in her remarkably sophisticated juvenilia and the Gothic satire Northanger Abbey.) Death Comes to Pemberley requires no apology, though; renowned crime writer P. D. James crafts a loving homage to Austen that also works as a compelling mystery.

Set several years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, the story begins with the married Elizabeth and Darcy preparing for their annual ball, a happy time shattered by a murder on the grounds of their estate. The victim is Captain Denny, an old acquaintance, and the accused is Wickham, the devious husband of Elizabeth's sister Lydia. What follows is a page-turning story that combines a typically well-plotted James thriller with Austen's delightfully wry tone, creating a worthy follow-up to Pride and Prejudice.

As many writers have discovered -- most notably Stephanie Barron, creator of the Jane Austen detective series -- Austen is a natural fit for the mystery genre. Her novels are often constructed around central questions; Darcy, for example, is P&P's tall, dark riddle wrapped in an enigma, his behavior keeping Elizabeth (and us) wondering and probing for clues. Additionally, the broadly similar plots of her novels parallel the narrative formulas of the mystery genre, which James calls "capable of accommodating a remarkable variety of books and talents. Within the formal constraints of the detective novel I try to say something true about men and women under the stress of the ultimate crime and about the society in which they live." Like James, Austen finds flexibility within her chosen form, constructing incisive social criticism from the conventions of realist romantic fiction. This is where mystery writers have mined the most from Austen. The crime genre can openly acknowledge the darkness of her work, the fleeting hints of abduction, prostitution, illegitimacy, slavery, debauchery, and more that lie quietly beneath the fairy-tale romances.

Austen, it seems, would have liked to expose more of that in her work. While calling P&P her "own darling Child," she also described it as "rather too light & bright & sparkling; -- it wants shade." In Death Comes to Pemberley, James contributes that extra shadow with its recounting of the series of events that lead to a man's bloody death. Making explicit some of the inferences in the original novel and adding others, it raises some intriguing questions about class, gender, family, and about the almost feudal relationship between the landed gentry and those around them.

Perhaps mindful of the genteel expectations of English period dramas, the two-part miniseries, which came to PBS's "Masterpiece Mystery!" Sunday, October 26, pulls back from the actual crime and its trials (the weakest part of the adaptation -- it plays out like "Law & Order: Regency Era," with Elizabeth as the tenacious detective who keeps working the case while Darcy joins the defense). As in many modern crime narratives, the adaptation is interested in the human cost of the murder: the effect of Wickham's arrest on the extended Darcy family, from the immediate household to Lydia (who the series humanizes effectively). The idea that desire spells trouble and that duty is the bricks-and-mortar of Pemberley recurs throughout the story, exposing long-unspoken tensions between family members that, ultimately, question the Darcys' marriage. Anna Maxwell Martin ("Bleak House," Cassandra Austen in "Becoming Jane") and Matthew Rhys ("The Americans") are credible, complex versions of an older Elizabeth and Darcy, offering a portrait of an enduring relationship between two strong-willed individuals. While we know the Darcys are in no real danger, Martin and Rhys don't shy away from the friction, perhaps recognizing that the verbal blows can be sharper when the marriage is safe.

While its two leads are characteristically solid, the overall adaptation doesn't live up to the book, with some bewildering changes in the screenplay -- though the swap of Bingley for Mrs. Bennet gifts us a great comic performance from Rebecca Front ("The Thick of It"). James' novel, however, is a genuinely entertaining mystery that clearly respects and honors its source material, expanding on the world of Pride and Prejudice with a natural grace that Austen herself surely would have appreciated.

"Death Comes to Pemberley" is available for online viewing for a limited time on PBS.org.