by Edith Cody-Rice
Jane Austen fans, take heart. Many of us who are Austen aficionados would consider any derivative of Jane Austen's perfectly crafted novels a sacrilege, but in the hands of P.D. James, one feels that she has naturally extended the story of the Bennett sisters. Further James is not some obscure novelist seeking attention by linking herself to a famous posthumous author. P.D. James is a first rate and much celebrated writer who handles her stories expertly and she has done no less here. An author with a distinctive voice, she has, in this story, assumed the voice of Jane Austen – with its gentle and elegant irony. At the beginning of the novel, you are transported to the early 19th century world of rural England and could be reading or listening to Austen herself.
The novel picks up the lives of the Bennett sisters, both happily married to wealthy men, six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett is now the mistress of Pemberley, the ancestral great house inherited by Darcy and Jane and Bingley have settled nearby at Highmarten, partly to get away from Jane's voluble and vulgar mother Mrs. Bennett.
All of the major characters in Pride and Prejudice make their appearance, all perfectly in character. In addition to the two couples, Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley there are Lydia Bennett and her infamous husband Wickham; Georgiana, Darcy's sister; Mr. Bennett, Elizabeth and Jane's gentle and scholarly father; the formidable Lady Catherine de Broughand Col. Fitzwilliam who appears to have honourable designs on Georgiana, now a young woman. The novel focuses at first on Elizabeth and Jane's felicitous lives, lived in harmony with their surroundings, an extension to the scenes set by Austen, where dramas, large and small are played out against the backdrop of a well integrated and peaceful country life.
A murder occurs in the woods at Pemberley and the high stakes drama begins. The reader's fingers could point in many directions and the denouement is both expected and unexpected. The real drama, however, is in the character development and attention to the detail of daily life, a specialty of Austen's, and the action is played out against the backdrop of 19th century mores and concerns. James inserts snippets of 1800's customs, to set us firmly at the scene, like the preparations for a ball, and the activities of the servants, the disgrace that attends a family caught up in a scandal and the necessity to keep up appearances, not unknown today but with greater implications in the tight society that comprised aristocratic England.
Jane Austen fans will enjoy this book. It affords us an opportunity for a look-in on the life of the Bennett sisters as wives and mothers and the mystery is a good one. But this mystery will appeal to others as well. You need not have read Austen to enjoy it as the characters are placed enough in context for any reader to understand the story, but certainly, the novel references Pride and Prejudice in a major way. This is a treat of a read.