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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Part 1 (of 2) of Comments on PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley !!SPOILERS!!

Before going further, I want to reaffirm that there are spoilers in this post as to various aspects of PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley (DCTP for short), so if you were planning on reading it yourself, and don't want to have any surprises spoiled, then stop reading now, and come back when you've read it!

But for the rest of you, scroll down a bit, I hope you'll enjoy what I have to say.




I've started reading DCTP, and I expect it will take me about a week or less to work through its 270+ pages in the most pleasurable way.

So I thought I'd give a week's worth of reports "from the road" during each of the next 7 days as to my first impressions (ha ha) upon reading DCTP (I will decide later if I will do a reread before returning it to the library).

But first, some introductory remarks:

1. The reviews of DCTP that I've read so far have been more negative than positive, with the majority of them falling in the "damning with faint praise" category--i.e., mostly acknowledging the high quality of the writing, but expressing disappointment in the way James has handled the themes and characterizations handled so perfectly and memorably in P&P, and/or with the low quality of the mystification in what presents itself as a PD James murder mystery, which raises expectations pretty high.

2. Until four months ago, I had actually never read a PD James novel, although I had seen the film version of The Children of Men without even realizing it then that the novel upon which it was based had been written by PD James.

3. The most important reason for my own personal interest in DCTP is to find out if James had any insight into what I call the "shadow story" of P&P, i.e., how much of the offstage action in P&P did James perceive and understand? If you had asked me as recently as 4 months ago, I would have guessed that James had very _little_ insight into JA's shadow stories, and indeed, I'd not have been particularly eager to read DCTP.

Why? Because, as I have pointed out on a dozen occasions in my public presentations about Jane Fairfax as the shadow heroine of _Emma_, PD James's famous and much-lauded analysis of all (or at least many) of the clues in _Emma_ which point to a secret engagement between Jane and Frank is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, because James did not (seem to) recognize that these textual clues only point to a secret _relationship_ between Jane and Frank, and not necessarily a secret engagement.

3. But note that, a la Jane Austen, I wrote "seem to" in that last sentence. Why?

First, I became aware of something funny and quite odd in the text of Children of Men, after someone posted a comment online about having noticed an explicit allusion to _Emma_ in it. That led me to browse about in Children of Men, upon which I wrote the following blog post, in which I concluded that James's allusion to _Emma_ was not trivial at all, even though I did not then get a sense that James had peered deeply into the shadow story of _Emma_:

4. Not long after #3 occurred, I was chatting with a good friend (who by the way is not an Austen obsessive at all) about my research, and she mentioned DCTP, because she was herself a serious fan of James's mysteries. That window of opportunity prompted me to ask her for a recommendation as to some other writing by PD James that I ought to read, and she instantly recommended that I read one of James's mystery novels (and I have my reasons for not revealing which one), which was a particular favorite of my friend.

5. When I eventually got that mystery novel and read it, I quickly realized, and then confirmed, not only that James was a writer of high grade mysteries, but also that James was (as I had already discerned vis a vis the Emma allusion in Children of Men) playing a much slyer game as an Austenian interpreter than I had previously believed, based on her analysis of _Emma_'s clues. It turns out that James, in that novel I read, demonstrated, albeit covertly, a strong understanding of at least some aspects of Jane Austen's shadow stories as I understand them, in particular (and most amazingly to me) _Emma_, the very novel James had appeared not to penetrate deeply enough!

4. So _that_ is why I suddenly became quite eager to read DCTP after all, proceeding on the working hypothesis that if James _seems_ to have shortchanged her readers on mystery in DCTP, perhaps the most interesting part of the mystery is not the whodunit aspect of the murder, but rather is _covert_ as to _other_ mysteries. And that James, as in that earlier novel, was not going to be too forthcoming with overt hints to the reader to look for the covert mystery in DCTP.

OK, enough for introductory comments, now on to my reactions to the Prologue of DCTP:

1. The 12-page Prologue is James's very telescoped recapitulation of the action of P&P, and it has been criticized in some of the reviews as unnecessary and/or poorly executed. I disagree strongly, I think that these negative reviewers have missed James's understated, dry wit entirely, and have missed James's picking up on shadows in P&P. To wit, James does a wonderfully subtle job of showing how closely she read P&P, and the centerpiece of her Prologue starts with the following sentence:

"...Miss Elizabeth's triumph [in marrying Darcy] was on much too grand a scale. Although [the ladies of Meryton] conceded that she was pretty enough and had fine eyes, she had nothing else to recommend her to a man with ten thousand a year and it was not long before a coterie of the most influential gossips concocted an explanation: Miss Lizzy had been determined to capture Mr. Darcy from the moment of their first meeting...."

James then spends two pages sketching the textual evidence in P&P that these gossips relied on, something that you will search for in vain in the text of P&P, because JA left all of that implied, but unstated. So James is telling the knowing reader, right off, that we need to stay on our toes in reading DCTP, because she has done her homework, and has seen some things behind the curtain in the text of P&P, in this case, a point that many readers of P&P _don't_ catch, i.e., that much of what Lizzy does in P&P looks to the outside world like she is deliberately hard to get with Darcy, even though we the readers, who are inside her head, know that it's all unconscious on Lizzy's part.

2. James then articulates the last item in the gossippers's checklist as to how Lizzy has had her eyes set on Darcy from Day One is the following:

"But at last all had come right when Mrs. Gardiner and her husband...had invited Elizabeth to accompany them on a summer tour of pleasure. It was to have been as far as the Lakes, but Mr. Gardiner's business responsibilities had apparently dictated a more limited one in Meryton believed the excuse...It was obvious that Mr. Gardiner, a partner in her favorite niece's matrimonial scheme, had chosen Derbyshire because Mr. Darcy would be at Pemberley..." Etc etc.

Now, while I personally think the offstage actions bringing Darcy and LIzzy together "by accident" are a lot more complicated than that simple formulation by James, I still say bravo to James for picking up on, and articulating, that one part. It is, to me, one of the most obvious textual "bread crumbs" in P&P pointing the reader straight to the heart of the shadow story of P&P, because, in my own considered opinion, only an inferior writer would construct such an unlikely coincidence as that as the basis for the romantic climax of the novel.

And it occurs to me for the first time, as I write this now, that we have evidence in Jane Austen's _own_ handwriting for why she would never have been satisfied with such a coincidence for a romantic climax. Not in one of her letters, no. But much better evidence, in the cancelled chapters of Persuasion! That is where JA at first repeated a heavy handed reworking of the ending of P&P, by overtly showing the reader that Admiral & Mrs. Croft play clumsy matchmakers in bringing Wentworth and Anne together. Then a day or two later, JA woke up and thought much better of it, and came up with arguably the most romantic climax to a love story ever written, one in which the matchmaking is all submerged in the shadows where it belongs.

And there I will stop, but I will be back with thoughts about Book One (out of a total of six) of Death Comes to Pemberley!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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