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Get Off Pemberley’s Lawn! : Jane Austen and P.D. James, Part I

2012 August 15

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James: yellow book cover with small monochrome graphic of a carriage and horses

Design by Faber, Illustration Neil Gower

It’s difficult not to take this book as something of a betrayal. Not of principles or community, but of me personally, and the fact that I’ve always admired P.D. James as someone who really understood Jane Austen. (By which I mean, agreed with me. Naturally.) When I was an undergraduate I went to see P.D. James speak about detective fiction, and she said one of the most brilliant things I have ever heard anyone say about literature. She declared calmly that Austen’s Emma was the most perfect detective novel in the English language. It gave the reader all the information, she argued, in a perfectly fair way and just let them come to exactly the wrong conclusion for themselves. At the twist, you can look back and see where you went wrong, and how obvious the answer was if you’d only thought it through. And then you can read the novel again, enjoying your awareness of the double tracks the story moves along – knowing about the other story half-submerged in the surface narrative, and switching your attention between them when they come into contact.

I loved this statement so much because it showed a respect for Austen as an artist, and a recognition that her works are deliberately crafted and not simply cleverly observed portraits from life or timeless insights into human nature. They’re literary artefacts with their own integrity and internal structures, something which often gets missed by both detractors and enthusiasts. The former castigate her for not including economics, the Napoleonic Wars or shifting models of gender relations, because no one ever stands up in an Austen novel and tells everyone how worried they are about economics, the Napoleonic Wars or shifting models of gender relations. This is treating her like a newspaper, not a novelist, as if it was Austen’s duty to set down the events of the day in order of importance, and by not explicitly tackling the aftermath of the 1789 revolution she has relegated herself to the Lifestyle supplement.

In order to see the economics and politics in the novels, you have to first take them seriously as works of art whose stories and shapes have some sort of weight, not naive diary columns to be discarded if they don’t trumpet their opinions on current affairs. At which point you notice that the legal arrangements which tie up Mr Bennett’s estate in Pride and Prejudice prevent his daughters from inheriting it, meaning that their survival is dependent upon marrying relatively soon, particularly as the eligible young officers of the militia may be posted to another camp at any time. The entire Lydia-Wickham subplot takes place at the intersection between the legal instruments of primogeniture and the troop movements of the Napoleonic Campaigns. But we can only see this if we stop reading the novels as a transparent window onto the period they were written in, and respect them as novels whose internal structures give them meaning.

Jane Austen's Guide To Romance, by Henderson - cover art shows a cartoon man and woman in Regency dress, eyeing each other by a fountain

Design by Headlinel, Illustration Roxanna Bikadoroff

Exactly the same mistake is made in the opposite direction, I think, by Austen enthusiasts and the outlets of the Dating-Industrial-Complex. The Jane Austen Dating School, Jane Austen’s Guide to Romance: The Regency Rules, The Jane Austen Guide to Living Happily Ever After and all the rest seem to assume that the value of these novels about courtship in the Regency lies in how similar they might be to courtship in the second Elizabethan era. The blurb of one suggests that “we might have just lost touch with the fundamental rules” of dating, and offers “the only relationship guide based on stories that really have stood the test of time…full of concrete advice and wise strategies that illustrate how honesty, self-awareness and forthrightness do win the right man in the end and weed out the losers, playboys and toxic flirts.” For this attitude, Austen was the Monet of prose fiction – only an eye, but my God, what an eye. The novels can offer us nothing but a meticulous copy of reality, which we can superimpose over our own lives and shuffle around the pieces so they match. It lacks a sense that the works might not be porous and amorphous, that we can’t simply dip in and haul up a ladle full of “Austen”, but might have to investigate where that particular ladleful came from and what relation it bore to the bucketful around it. For the dating guides, the stories lack individual integrity and shape, they can just be copied and printed across any surface like a Cath Kidston pattern.

Both attitudes are obviously, as that Tumblr would say, PROBLEMATIC. The first tends to deny that women writers writing about women’s lives can have any significance beyond their literal content. It’s the attitude that provides us with a women’s supplement in newspapers because everything else in the paper is assumed to pertain to men. It reinforces the supposed distinction between a private female sphere, in which dating and clothes are the ruling topics, and a male public sphere where politics and economics takes place. The second underpins the male/female spheres in a slightly different way, encouraging us to think that one of the great female writers is mostly interesting because of what she can tell us about Catching A Man. It takes Austen’s insights into the inequalities of social life and the power imbalances between the genders, and calcifies those inequalities as the fundamental “rules” of dating. More generally, the lack of concern for the specific form of the works seem to risk playing into a long-standing tradition in Western thinking to associate men with “form” and women with “content”. I may be over-reading that last point, but the line from Plato to Augustine to critiques of women’s fiction as interchangeable “slush” provides a definite context for thinking about attitudes to Austen which assume her writing is an undifferentiated and unstructured mass.

P.D. James seemed to be standing out against both these approaches, insisting that books like Emma or Sense and Sensibility deserved respect as consciously crafted artefacts, whose meanings couldn’t be reduced to their surface in either direction. Along with that came a respect for the distinction between “Jane Austen’s world” and the books which Austen wrote – that the novels were neither a photographic copy of Regency life, not were they series of episodes in a world-building project which could be placed end-to-end to produce a fictional universe across which characters could wander. On the contrary, each one had its own concerns and perspective.

Or so I thought. When she wrote Death Comes To Pemberley it seemed that James had displayed the same attitude as the dating guides and the Austen pastiche industry: that her novels could be regarded as creating “Austenworld”, which anyone could stroll in and out of at will. Slightly ironically, it was her comments about Emma as the most perfect detective novel in the language which made me think that writing an actual detective novel set in Pemberley demonstrated a cavalier disdain for the integrity and form of Pride and Prejudice.

  • In Part II I’ll discuss Death Comes to Pemberley itself, and the apparently patronising way it treats feminism (someone really does have a speech to the effect of “But have you not heard of a book which has been written by one Wollstonecraft?”) Then, putting my own massive sulk aside, I’ll explore the possibility that the problems are not with the novel’s attitude to feminism, but its attitude to history.
  • EDIT: Read Part II of this post!
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah J permalink*
    August 15, 2012

    Hooray! Thanks for writing this. It sends me into a rage when people dismiss Austen as Regency ‘chick-lit’ (a term which is PROBLEMATIC in itself of course) For my EngLit degree at a so-called ‘elite’ university we managed to do a whole term on 18thC literature without studying a single Austen novel. WELL DONE CAMBRIDGE, This Is Why I Hate You Reason No.57

    And the idea that Austen is trivial because she only writes about marriage and relationships and love and GIRLY STUFF rather than important MANLY subjects like war or bears is such a fucking joke. What the hell do they think Anna Karenina is about? Or The Great Gatsby? Or The Rainbow? The Canterbury Tales? That’s not how literature works, guys.

  2. August 15, 2012

    Excellent article. I wholeheartedly agree.

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