With a little help from the pen of Jane Austen
Published 13/11/2011 | 08:00
This dream team of crime fiction, Jane Austen and PD James (right), combines James's meticulous plotting with Austen's sharp-eyed characterisation. The novel begins some years after the ending of Pride and Prejudice. Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy have settled down with two small children, happily residing in their great mansion. Mr Darcy is something of a radical: Pemberley now possesses a water-closet and its master is in favour of women's rights.
The scene is set for the great annual ball, the Bingleys have come to stay, and Elizabeth and Jane are busy supervising preparations. But who is this arriving in a state of screaming hysteria, curls tossing, bonnet awry, in a carriage that comes tearing up the drive? Who but Lydia Wickham, formerly Bennet, whose husband, that handsome betrayer who was persuaded to make a respectable woman of her by fiduciary inducement, is found covered in blood and must be either assailant or victim. Eventually, the body of his great friend, Captain Denny, is discovered bearing horrible injuries. Wickham is charged with murder. Pemberley, that temple to classical enlightenment, holds some dark secrets. Darcy's grandfather was something of a "wild man of the woods", living as a hermit accompanied by his faithful hound. A family of old retainers guard their knowledge of what went on between stairs.
This Gothic element is, of course, dangerous ground, the kind of mystery which Jane Austen mocked so effectively in Northanger Abbey, but James handles it with a delicate touch. There is another departure: this novel must sometimes venture outside Austen's feminine world into the masculine arenas of inquest and trial, and some minor male characters from the canon play larger roles for the purposes of the murder plot. James makes a plausible account of them, giving us into the bargain an interesting male viewpoint of past events.
Stylistically, the modern contributor does not overwork the dry, understated manner of her co-author, and I relished her pastiche of a letter from Lady Catherine de Bourgh: an absolute gem. Austen buffs will have great fun spotting references which roam freely in the Austenian landscape: we learn that Mr and Mrs Knightley are well established at Donwell Abbey and that Wickham has behaved scurrilously in the household of Sir Walter Elliot. James modestly comments that Jane Austen would have said that, had she wanted, she might have written this story herself and done it better. On the contrary, she would surely have applied to it her own description of the novel, where "the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language". It's a great joint achievement, and a joyous read.