PD James: Why I wrote a murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice

BBC1's Christmas adaptation stars Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin as the Darcys with Jenna Coleman and Matthew Goode playing Lydia and Wickham

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PD James: Why I wrote a murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice
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PD James

Jane Austen has been my favourite novelist ever since I first read her as a teenager and for me, and I believe for millions of other readers, Elizabeth Bennet is the most attractive heroine in English literature.

When we finish a much-loved book it is inevitable that we want to know more and to learn something of what happens to the characters who have become as familiar to us as real people. After I finished writing my latest detective novel it seemed a convenient time to turn to an idea which for many years had lain at the back of my mind, namely to combine my two great enthusiasms, for detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen, and write a book set some six years after Darcy and Elizabeth have married, to see whether all was well with them and what had happened in between. 

The result was Death Comes to Pemberley and I was able to contrast the peace, beauty and hierarchy of a great house with the discovery of a young officer violently done to death in a part of the Pemberley estate known as the wild woodland. Darcy and Elizabeth, happily married and with two handsome and healthy boys in the nursery, have their happiness and, indeed, their marriage threatened by a murder inquiry centred on Pemberley itself.

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, a great love story, probably the greatest in our literature. Elizabeth, the second Bennet daughter and only 20, has vitality, courage and intelligence and although she is not a great beauty like her oldest sister Jane, she is very attractive and admired for her particularly fine eyes. In many ways she resembles a modern heroine, confident, courageous enough to stand up to the terrifying and arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh and with a mind of her own. She is loyal to her family, loving to her sister Jane, and is her father’s favourite child, inheriting his intelligence and wit. Small wonder that Elizabeth Bennet was her favourite among the fascinating young women she created for us.

In Pride and Prejudice we know from the first appearance of Mr Darcy that he is destined to be a hero; tall, handsome, rich and the owner of a house and estate of celebrated beauty. He first meets Elizabeth when he is the guest of his friend Mr Bingley, who has just arrived in Meryton having taken a lease on a local house, Netherfield. He and Mr Darcy come to the Assembly Room ball where the young Mr Bingley, sociable, friendly and eager to join the dancing and to make new friends, rapidly becomes a favourite with the unpretentious company, while Darcy stands aloof, making it plain that no man is good enough to talk with and no woman pretty enough to be his dance partner. We share the disgust of the local people at his arrogance and pride and are particularly outraged when he refuses to dance with Elizabeth because she is not pretty enough to tempt him, making a disparaging comment which she overhears.

All the Bennet family, excepting Mr Bennet, are present at the ball. The oldest, Jane, is the most beautiful and so good herself that she is unable to detect wrongdoing in anyone. Mary, the middle daughter is studious and given to pronouncing boring and long platitudinous statements to which no one listens, while the two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, think of nothing but balls and the militia.

A company of young soldiers is stationed at Meryton, the nearest town to Mr Bennet’s estate at Longbourn, and Kitty and Lydia walk there almost daily, ostensibly to shop or to visit their aunt, but in reality to view any recent addition to the militia and their possible use as dancing partners. It is apparent to the reader that Darcy and Elizabeth are very aware of each other and that it would be totally appropriate if Elizabeth and he fell in love and she, and not one of Bingley’s two snobbish sisters, became Mistress of Pemberley. Elizabeth has much to give and to learn, and many difficulties to overcome, not least the enmity of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s formidable aunt, who plans that her nephew should marry her daughter, a sickly, spoilt, unattractive young woman.

It was a brave decision to write a sequel to such a well-loved book, but I read all Jane Austen’s novels at least once a year and the style has become so much of my inner voice that I thought I could write English which would be contemporary with Jane Austen without slavishly copying her. To get the language right was the greatest challenge of the book. I was determined that the main characters – Darcy, Elizabeth and the Bennet family, Wickham and Lady Catherine de Bourgh – should be basically unchanged. It was important to me that the characters should be Jane Austen’s not mine.

Elizabeth is, of course, given additional confidence by being mistress of a great house and a mother, but she is still the lively, intelligent and courageous young woman created by Jane Austen, and Darcy retains all his good looks and glamour. Both, however, are able to change. Darcy subdues his pride and Elizabeth overcomes her prejudice. It will be good to see this on screen.

Mrs Bennet hinders her daughters’ prospects whenever she opens her mouth, but her obsession for getting her daughters married was not unreasonable in an age when women could not qualify for the professions and the only respectable employment was to be a governess. This meant that women could only achieve independence by marriage, preferably to a prosperous man. Then they would be mistress of a house and possibly an estate, responsible for the welfare of servants and villagers, the mother of children who would ensure the succession and her own care in old age, and a much more full and interesting social life than a spinster could ever expect at home. We share Jane and Elizabeth’s delight in their husbands’ wealth and property because we know that Mrs Bennet and the younger children will always be able to find a home.

Fortunately, however, Mrs Bennet is far too much in awe of her son-in-law to visit Pemberley frequently, although Mr Bennet turns up when least expected and settles himself in Darcy’s magnificent library with every expectation that he will not be disturbed.

In writing Death Comes to Pemberley I did not expect to receive many complaints from Austen lovers, nor did I receive them, because my own enthusiasm for the novels and the great respect in which I hold Jane Austen is apparent. Some of the research did present a problem. I love history so did not feel a total stranger when entering the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but so much has changed drastically that it is easy to make mistakes. The criminal justice system was radically different. Those accused were rarely defended by a lawyer and those convicted of murder, as Mr and Mrs Darcy knew only too well after the tragedy at Pemberley, would be publicly hanged within days of the verdict. In Death Comes to Pemberley a noose hangs over the happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy. I was surprised at how the many relatively small matters, like the kind of gun used and how it could be fired and re-loaded, could take such time to research.

The novel gave me great pleasure to write and I am confident that the television adaptation will provide an equal if different pleasure. A writer whose books are adapted for television has to accept that the story is passing into the hands of people who are experts in a visual medium and will be chiefly told not in words but by the acting.

I know that the actors will be superb, the production beautiful to watch and the excite- ment and suspense will hold our attention throughout. I am looking forward to what I am sure will be a memorable series at this particularly festive time of the year, and that we can all rejoice that this love story, like all great love stories, is destined to have a happy ending.

Death Comes to Pemberley begins on Boxing Day at 8:15pm on BBC1


 


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