James Does Jane

james-permberleyThere weren’t many books in my home when I was a youngster.  Mom believed that books attracted dust, cost money, and most importantly, could be had for free at the public library.

From the moment that I left home for college, I set about collecting books like a fiend released from an eternal captivity.  Despite the occasional sell-offs to make space, I’ve never really considered not buying books.  And I grew up to become a librarian.  So I guess you could say I got the best of both worlds.  My office at home bears out Anthony Powell’s notion that “books do furnish a room,” and I go to work everyday in a building that houses two million books.

But even in my childhood home there were a few shelves for me to investigate.

They were a decidedly odd mix, and my memory is undoubtedly faulty.  There were complete short tales of Poe and Twain in attractive leather volumes with sewn-in ribbon bookmarks.  God knows where it came from, but Proust’s failed prototype, Jean Santeuil, was there in a mass-market paperback edition.  (I’m not making this up; years later I took it to college with me.  The book was first published in 1952, the year I was born, so a paperback English translation that came along about the time I was eager enough to explore a bookcase makes a strange kind of sense.)

Lots and lots of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, the quarterly compendia that my folks subscribed to, and through which I learned about Michelangelo (his abridged agony and ecstasy) and encountered John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which led me to East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday, all the latter probably obtained from the public library.  James Michener figured in there somewhere, too, and led me to spend a long time with the unabridged version of Hawaii and several more forgettable opera.  That was enough put me off Michener until about thirty years later when I read Iberia,  a book anyone planning a trip to Spain should own.  (Or at least borrow from the library.)

Apart from this strange mixture, there was a plentiful supply of detective novels that circulated among my mother and her sisters, but that I rarely paid any attention to.  There was an Agatha Christie, N or M?, whose title alone bored me with its incomprehensibility.  I do remember picking up something called The Clue of the Judas Tree (a title I’m able to reconstruct thanks to Amazon) and enjoying it a lot.  But I didn’t become a fan of adult mysteries as a result, even if I did  regularly and repeatedly consume boys’ adventure series: the Hardys, the Swifts, Rick Brant, and Ken Holt.

Oddly, it was graduate school that finally got me hooked on detective fiction.  I was new in town, lonely and seeking relief from the study of literary theory, when I decided one afternoon to go to the movies.  It was 1975 and Murder on the Orient Express had just opened.  I enjoyed it so much that the next day I went down to the public library, checked out the novel, and subsequently began working my way through much of Christie’s output.  I started reading other British cozies, moved on to more interesting and sophisticated Brits (Robert Barnard, Cyril Connolly), detoured to the Sweden of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and finally crossed the Atlantic for the likes of Marcia Muller and Loren Estleman.  Ian Rankin took me back to Britain, whence it was a short return to Sweden, Henning Mankell, and beyond.

All of which I write to explain this ongoing series of shortish reports on my persistence with the genre of detective fiction.  I’ve never lost my taste for it since the days of the Orient Express, even though my preferred sub-genres and authors have veered across the international landscape.

But back at the beginning, despite the prodigious outputs of Christie and Ngaio Marsh, two early favorites, I found that I rather quickly exhausted both the holdings of the local library and my patience with the repetitive nature of the plots.  Luckily, I had by that time begun my first job in the university library; if you know librarians you’ll know that many of them are avid readers of detective fiction.  (They were also decades ahead of the internet cats craze, but that’s another story, and one you won’t hear any more about from me.)  Soon I had plenty of recommendations for further reading.  Having swiftly dispatched the small collected works of Dorothy L. Sayers, I turned in the late 70s to P. D. James.

I’ve enjoyed the twists and turns James has led me on over the last thirty-five years, but I have to admit I was surprised when I heard a few years ago that she had written a novel that was essentially a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  Better than zombies, I thought, but how much better?  I let the question slide for several years, but this summer I decided the time was right to investigate Death Comes to Pemberley.

Much as I enjoyed being back in the company of Elizabeth née Bennett and the impenetrable Mr Darcy, the book turned out to be as disappointing as I feared, with a faintly ridiculous set-up for the murder, unconvincing evidence of the accused’s guilt, and a conclusion that broke the bounds of an already strained incredulity.  There was entirely too much tripping off into the forest of Pemberley on the part of all the characters, and at the most inopportune moments, and for reasons that, when offered, could only be described as improbable.

austen-pride-and-prejdiceThe best thing about Death Comes to Pemberley was that it convinced me I remembered Pride and Prejudice too poorly to appreciate how James might have played off the original.  As you might expect, reading Austen immediately after James doesn’t do the latter much credit.  But there was one fascinating convergence between the two novels—although divergence might be a more appropriate term.

As I said, the plot of James’s novel turns on a series of interconnected wanderings in the forest of Pemberley, mostly in the blackness of night.  The forest is the locus of evil, and the place where even the best of intentions are twisted into cruel outcomes.  This isn’t surprising in itself: the forest has long consumed the English imagination as a dangerous place where things—mainly elves, the Green Knight, and Robin Hood—go bump in the night.  In the agrarian society that preceded the nineteenth century, the forest was the untamed land that was forever encroaching on the life-giving farm.  It needed to be kept at bay, diminished, guarded against.

Pride and Prejudice, of course, is a comedy of manners and errors, set largely in drawing rooms and manicured fields, with occasional forays off-stage to London.  It turns on the misapprehensions that Elizabeth and Darcy have of one another’s character and the necessary humbling that corrects both their flaws and their misunderstandings.

What surprised me, and what I had entirely forgotten, is that the crucial scene in which Elizabeth begins to believe that she may be mistaken in her assessment of Darcy takes place (albeit in daylight) in Pemberley Wood.  There, thanks to a meeting with the estate’s gardener, Elizabeth learns the personal history that Darcy is too proud to reveal to anyone outside his trusted circle of family and his friend Bingley.  It is in Pemberley Wood that she begins to question herself.  When she is back at home at Longbourn, she often retreats to a little copse to read the important letters that come her way, to reflect on her life, and to resolve to better herself.  The crucial reconciliation with Darcy takes place amidst those sheltering trees.

While it is entirely natural for James to make use of the dark wood for the grim setting of her characters’ misdeeds, I was surprised in retrospect to find Austen setting the equally significant turning points of her story in that same wood.  Perhaps the forest in Austen still carries the association of the Green Man and fertility, and is at least subconsciously the place where emotion can hold its own against rationality.  But it never comes off as threatening, and James’s noir characterization represents a regression of sorts.

So in the end I’m glad I took a chance on Death Comes to Pemberley.  I suppose it’s no worse than I feared it might be, and it led me back to Pride and Prejudice and an unexpected discovery that has enhanced my appreciation of Austen’s art.  However, despite the exemption for a beloved P. D. James, I’m still not tempted by the vast regions of Austen fan-fiction, which will remain, like the old English forest, terrain to be avoided. After all, there be zombies.

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1 Response to James Does Jane

  1. Aaron Bednar says:

    I’ve always wondered why people seem to be cutting down forests rather than trying to live peacefully inside them. “The forest is the locus of evil, and the place where even the best of intentions are twisted into cruel outcomes.” That sentence provided a new insight, and suddenly this piece of Western culture makes a little more sense.

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