Monday, November 12, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

The library's Tuesday night book group will discuss P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. Contemporary novelist and mystery writer P.D. James imagines a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice after Elizabeth Bennett marries Mr. Darcy and is living at his estate, Pemberley. Fans of Ms. James and Ms. Austen will enjoy the refined pace, elegant dialogue and subtle wit of this historical murder mystery.
Some of the discussion questions from the Random House website follow

1.  Compare... James’s first sentence, “It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters” (3), to the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

4. Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin, wants to marry Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. But Georgiana seems to be in love with the young lawyer, Henry Alveston, whom Elizabeth calls “a paradigm of a young man” (35). Why doesn’t Elizabeth trust the colonel? What details or events raise doubts about his character, which had been so dependable in Pride and Prejudice?
5. What do you think of James’s re-creation of Austen’s characters, particularly Elizabeth and Darcy? How are they changed, and how are they similar to the originals?
6. Darcy thinks often of the burden of responsibility to his estate and the family name. From boyhood he had sympathized with his great-grandfather, who gave up his title and went to live in the woodland cottage with his dog (63). How does Darcy’s great-grandfather’s rejection of his social position resonate in Death Comes to Pemberley? Do Darcy’s feelings about George Wickham suggest that he feels somewhat guilty about the privileges he has inherited (64, 199-200)?
7. The extensive woodland on Darcy’s estate, with its “torn and hanging twigs,” its “tangled bushes,” and its confusion, presents a strong contrast to the order and rationality of the household and the cultivated grounds (67). What might P. D. James be suggesting about Elizabeth and Darcy’s world by giving the woodland such a strong presence in the novel?
8. Elizabeth is embarrassed by the fact that she once found Wickham so attractive that “she had been...close to falling in love with him” (90). Does what we see of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage indicate that Elizabeth has become a less teasing, witty, and playful person than she was in Pride and Prejudice? If so, why might this be?
9. When Alveston speaks up on behalf of Georgiana’s ability to be present during the investigation, he mentions Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and most famously the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an eighteenth-century feminist treatise (125). What kinds of ideas does Alveston represent? Would his marriage to Georgiana be a more “modern” one than that of Darcy and Elizabeth?
10. How do the investigation and the prosecution shown in the novel differ from what we see in the modern police procedurals that P. D. James usually writes? Does Wickham receive a fair trial? Why or why not? Consider, too, the reference to the young man who was executed after being found poaching on the estate (42). Why does James include this detail in the story?
11. The scene in which Bidwell is polishing the silver for the ball introduces the reader to the servants’ private lives and their difficulties (41-45). What do you think of the way the secrets of the Bidwell family are eventually revealed? Does Wickham’s affair with Louisa come as a surprise? Does anyone among the servant families seem to be capable of the violent blows that killed Captain Denny?
12. How do you judge the character of Wickham, given the further development provided by P. D. James? Is he sympathetic? Is he careless and narcissistic? Do you agree with the Reverend Cornbinder that he is capable of remaking himself in America (257-58, 261-62)?
13. Wickham is about to be condemned to death when two surprising things happen: Mrs. Younge rushes from the courtroom and is crushed under the wheels of a coach, and a letter of confession arrives from William Bidwell (235, 238). What do you think of these sudden plot twists?
14. Darcy is deeply affected by the murder on his estate. Why does it shake his sense of identity and his earldom (109)? How does the story Wickham tells about his romance with Louisa, and the motivations surrounding it, make the troubled relationship between Darcy and Wickham more clear? Why is Lydia entirely absent from the story that Wickham tells (265-74)?

Related websites:
New York Times review of Death Comes to Pemberley
Washington Post review of Death Comes to Pemberley
Huffington Post review of Death Comes to Pemberley

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