Death Comes to Pemberley by famous British crime novelist P.D. James is fan fiction. That’s right: P.D. James borrowed characters and settings made famous by Jane Austen and wrote them into a new story which takes place six years after Elizabeth and Darcy marry. That’s essentially what fan fiction is; writers (albeit, generally amateur writers) find new ways to breathe life into familiar characters. Because James is a crime writer, she wrote a mystery (although a relatively tame one, even by my standards.)
Fan fiction is (according to Wikipedia) “is a broadly-defined term for fan labor regarding stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work’s owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published.” I would have agreed with that definition except for all the fan fiction that has found its way into bookstores recently (Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, literally started its life as Twilight fanfiction; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina are two examples from Quirk Classics). Perhaps I am misinterpreting the definition of fan fiction, but to me when you borrow another writer’s characters and just give them a new plot – that’s fan fiction. Yes, even if it’s a parody. (Fan fiction writers write parodies all the time.)
But, hey, I’m a huge fan of fan fiction and so pointing it out isn’t meant as a criticism. Even Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Chabon understands the merits of derivative fiction. In his book of essays Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands he says:
…all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeineid onward, is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving – amateurs – we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers – should we be lucky enough to find any – some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.
No matter the source material, all literature, ultimately, has to stand on its own two feet. Readers needn’t be a fan of Austen – or even know who she is – to read Death Comes to Pemberley because in the opening chapter James fills us in on the backstory. Once readers have the lay of the land, they can jump into the mystery which for me was only so-so. I like Austen fine, although I wouldn’t say I am a huge fan. I love a good mystery. I don’t have any problem with dense, old-fashioned prose (really good fan fiction mimics the original author’s style and recreates characters that are recognizable to readers of the original work). But Death Comes to Pemberley was a big YAWN. Seriously: nothing happens.
Elizabeth and Darcy are madly in love – although they spend virtually no time together. Elizabeth is preparing for Pemberley’s yearly Lady Anne’s ball when her younger sister, Lydia, arrives screaming that her husband George Wickham has been murdered in Pemberley Wood. Wickham is a bad apple and has been a constant source of embarrassment for Darcy. When it turns out it’s not Wickham who is dead but another male who was traveling with him, Darcy isn’t sure Wickham actually committed the crime.
It’s not much to make a mystery meal out of, but James fills page after page with lengthy descriptions of relationships and manners and protocol and the moon on the woods and it was so S-L-O-W. If it hadn’t been our first book club pick (and by a new member, no less) I would have abandoned it, for sure. I kept plodding along, but for me, the original charm of the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship was absent and the rest of the book just wasn’t my cup of tea.