18 March 2013

Miss Knight's Voice

Those of you who know me pretty well know that I am an inveterate Jane Austen fan. I can recite whole swathes of the books, I'm a complete pain the backside to see a film adaptation with (unless you've got the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries on DVD or the 1999 Mansfield Park with Frances O'Connor), and I am a horrendous pedant when writing about her work. I wince to call the woman "Austen." She should be Miss Jane Austen, and never just Miss Austen, as her older sister Cassandra never married, and thus never relinquished the title. I have read sequels. Some are all right, some are horrendous; Mansfield Park sequels seem to go better than Pride and Prejudice  or Emma sequels for some reason. Perhaps it's because everything in those two books wrapped up just so perfectly. There are no loose ends for a sequel to attach itself to.

That being said, I am currently about a third of the way through P. D. James's Death Comes to Pemberly. I'm finding it particularly interesting because so many writers work so hard to mimic Miss Jane Austen's tone and voice with varying success. James has sidestepped the entire problem. There are echoes of Miss Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberly, but James, as one must when writing a murder mystery, includes other points of view and facts and anecdotes that the strictly-stratified upper-middle class of 1803 would never discuss, and indeed, try very hard not to think about. In addition, James spends the first quarter of the book re-setting the scene and reintroducing the characters as they stand six years after the events of Pride & Prejudice. The result is a voice that is Miss Jane Austen, and yet not Miss Jane Austen. Perhaps it is her well-off niece, Miss Fanny Austen Knight. A young woman of the same time and sensibilities as her aunt, but with the privilege of wealth and education, not to mention the loosening of social stratification that the Romantics advocated in the early 19th century, able to peer a bit more closely into the lives of the residents of Pemberly, their friends, and their families.

My only complaint thus far is that there is little humor to leaven what could turn out to be a rather moribund volume. Miss Jane Austen, in her own way, was hysterically funny (don't believe me? re-read the "let's put on a play!" section of Mansfield Park), and while it may be a bit much to ask for humor while [redacted] is lying dead on the gun room table, it would be the only discordant note in what is otherwise a very well-balanced performance.

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