As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a mystery writer’s spin on Jane Austen’s Pemberley leads me down a winding path.
James. P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley. Knopf. 2011. 304p. ISBN 9780307959850. $25.95.
Six years after their marriage, Darcy and Elizabeth have two sons and are settled, very agreeably, at Pemberley. On the eve of their annual ball, a carriage careens wildly toward their door; its hysterical passenger, Eizabeth’s sister Lydia Wickham, claims she has witnessed a murder. James’s mystery is neither Jane Austen reincarnated nor an Adam Dalgliesh story starring Elizabeth Bennet. Instead, it is a cozy mystery focused on family and investigation, written for readers who relish the prospect of revisiting beloved characters and imagining their happily-ever-after. James offers such readers real pleasures: the prolog is grand, and the letters from Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Collins are so outstanding that one can imagine James found them among Austen’s drafts in some overlooked archive. Unexpected references to characters from Persuasion (Wentworth is now an admiral) and Emma allow for moments of recognition (if some odd breaks in continuity), and many of the characters readers know and treasure remain unchanged. While the mystery element is out of keeping with Austen, one of the novel’s minor plotlines is very Austenesque: Darcy’s sister Georgiana has blossomed and must decide upon a suitor, either the disapproving Colonel Fitzwilliam (now Viscount Hartlep, and heir to an earldom) or the agreeable Mr. Henry Alveston, a young lawyer on the rise. James is a lovely writer; her restrained pace and vivid depictions of everyday life are similar to Austen’s, and her framing elements‚ particularly Pemberley and its woods, the filling of Bingley’s library by Darcy and Mr. Bennet, and the inquest and subsequent trial‚ put a unique twist on Austen’s world. With flashes of Austen’s wit and her own distinctive take on the golden age mystery, James stands out in the crowded world of Austen redux. (See also Wyatt’s World: Creating RA Trilogies for Readers, featuring Death Comes to Pemberley and two Austen titles.)
Peters, Elizabeth. Crocodile on the Sandbank. Grand Central. 1988. 272p. ISBN 9780445406513. pap. $7.99.
Fans of James who want other mysteries more in keeping with her usual approach should consider Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell. Those who want titles similar to her Pemberley mystery might do well to consider a historical cozy with strong romantic overtones. Peters fits this bill with her 19 mysteries in the Amelia Peabody series. They match the Pemberley mystery in their cozy tone and their focus on family. Peters is female-centric, which is likely to appeal to many Austen readers as well. Amelia is strong-willed and smart, an Austen-like heroine for the Victorian age. Even more than James, Peters fills her leisurely paced stories with fascinating background details that contribute greatly to her novels’ sensibility. Start with the initial volume, first published in 1975, in which Amelia uses her inheritance to travel to Egypt, where she meets her romantic interest, the Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson, and they begin their joint adventures.
Barron, Stephanie. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery. Bantam. 2008. 304p. ISBN 9780553385618. pap. $14.
Great next reading can be found in Barron’s 11 cozy mysteries featuring Jane Austen as detective. Like James in her Pemberley mystery, Barron focuses on family and setting. She brings her protagonist to life with a strongly credible approximation of Austen’s style and infuses her with traits that will remind many readers of Austen’s most beloved heroines (Elizabeth and Emma particularly). Full of believable details from Austen’s world and populated by characters in keeping with Austen’s style and biography, Barron’s mysteries are charming and bright. These volumes show no signs of bogging down (her two latest are wonderful), but since readers get to know Austen over the course of the series, it is best to start at the beginning. In the opening mystery, Jane goes to visit her friend Isobel Payne, recently married to the Earl of Scargrave. When Scargrave dies in mysterious circumstances, Jane investigates. Readers might also want to consider Carrie Bebris’s mystery series staring Elizabeth and Darcy as detectives. The first volume in that series is Pride and Prescience: Or, a Truth Universally Acknowledged.
Perry, Anne. The Cater Street Hangman. Ballantine. 2008. 304p. ISBN 9780345513564. pap. $15.
Set in the Victorian age rather than the Regency era, Perry’s 26 mysteries offer fans of James’s Pemberley story a good next place to dig in. Like James (and Austen), Perry explores social and class issues, focuses on character and psychology, and sets her stories within a detailed framework. Where Perry veers away from James is in the mysteries themselves. These are not cozy stories; Perry’s tone and the murders themselves are much more in line with the gritty underworld of London’s criminal class than with the concerns of those living above the fray. However, the relationship between Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte, should gratify readers who like romance in their mysteries, and the authentic historical settings should satisfy those who enjoy contextual detail. Start with the first mystery, in which Thomas meets Charlotte when investigating her family for their possible connection to the murders of five women.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition. Belknap: Harvard Univ. 2010. 464p. ed. by Patricia Meyer Spacks. ISBN 9780674049161. $35.
Janeites are not often pleased with sequels and spin-offs, the central problem being that no one writes like Austen and that, while trying, they sometimes stumble over details and sound like someone doing a bad fake accent. For readers who feel this way, the only possible read-alike is another book by Austen. Yet how can advisors provide for readers who have read all of her books each year, for years? Look to Spacks’s sumptuously annotated volume. Based on the 1813 first edition, it contains notes, contextual background, and illustrations. The oversized volume also includes a lengthy introduction, which will thrill Austen admirers, as well as a list of further reading. It is a glorious feast of a book, one that offers more substantial expansions of the novel than do many of the re-imagined versions.
Aidan, Pamela. An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman. Touchstone: S. & S. 2006. 288p. ISBN 9780743291347. pap. $14.
Aidan, Pamela. Duty and Desire: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman. Touchstone: S. & S. 2006. 320p. ISBN 9780743291361. pap. $14.
Aidan, Pamela. These Three Remain: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman. Touchstone: S. & S. 2007. 464p. ISBN 9780743291378. pap. $16.
While no one can match Austen, readers open to a good effort may appreciate Aidan’s take on Pride and Prejudice told through the eyes of Darcy. In this series spanning three volumes (the last is the best), Aidan wisely nods in Austen’s direction rather than attempting to mirror her. She fills the trilogy, which covers the events of Darcy’s rocky courtship of Elizabeth, with period detail, humor, literary references, and a touch of the gothic. This inventive retelling largely keeps the plot whole while necessarily filling in the spaces of Austen’s novel where Darcy is absent. He must, for example, account for his time away from Elizabeth and engage in proper reflection to overcome his judgments on her class and family. Fans willing to be entertained will be charmed by Aidan’s leisurely consideration of Darcy’s character. Readers looking for additional sequels and spin-offs may want to consider Syrie James’s The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe, Mary Lydon Simonsen’s Searching for Pemberley, Elizabeth Aston’s The Darcy Connection, and Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress. Also keep an eye out for Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility (due in 2013), the first of a projected series of six novels from HarperCollins offering a modern take on Austen.
Pride and Prejudice. 323 min. Simon Langton. dist. by A&E Home Video. 2010. $39.95.
Fans wanting a new experience of Austen are sometimes better off in the world of film than print. The version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (who is also an excellent book narrator) is among the best adaptations of any Austen work. Matching the novel in tone and characterization, the film manages to hit all the critical points of the story while maintaining enough independence to bring life to the text in new ways. Of particular note are the lush settings and music, which add detail and dimension to what Austen often only generally described. Equally outstanding are Ehle’s Elizabeth, who is joyful, self-reflective, and charming, and Firth’s Darcy, a portrayal that became the model for all that followed.
Persuasion. 107 min. Roger Michell. dist. By Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 2000. $14.99.
As beguiling as Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s Persuasion, which shares the plot device of a gentleman thinking he is too good for a lady. Several years previous to the events of the book, Anne Elliot, persuaded by her family and mentor, rejected the suit of Frederick Wentworth on the grounds that his career as a naval officer was too uncertain and would lead only to unhappiness. Captain Wentworth, still stung by her rejection, is now in a position to make a point of his indifference to her. While Wentworth courts her sister’s sister-in-law, Anne is left to watch and grieve for what might have been, and viewers are left to wonder if these two who have so hurt one another can find a way to overcome the past. Exquisitely set and full of characters who are a pitch-perfect match to the novel, Michell’s film starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds is true to the emotional angst of the story, its crisp plotting, and its witty sensibility.