My Year with Jane Austen: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini Series: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I’ve read the book this was based on as well (same title and written by P.D. James), but I wanted to focus on the mini series adaptation here as, ultimately, I enjoyed it the most of the two. The book was a solid “Pride and Prejudice” sequel; frankly, it’s probably the best, and only, sequel I’d recommend to people. So the fact that I liked the mini series more is in no way a ding against the book itself. I only read it the one time, so I also wouldn’t bet against my not remembering it well enough to give it the credit it deserves. But on to the mini series itself!

As I mentioned above, this story is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It takes place mostly at Pemberley and occurs 5 or so years after the book (Darcy and Elizabeth have a 4-ish son, so I’m just guessing, if they mentioned it in the movie/book, I don’t remember). The story is a murder mystery at its heart, revolving around Wickham (who else!) who has been accused of killing his dear friend Denny while in Pemberley woods. The show is a three part mini series that slowly follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they try to put together the clues as to what really happened and whether or not Wickham is innocent or guilty. Along the way, we meet a cast a familiar faces and are given extra information about their histories that wasn’t provided in the original story. We also meet a few new characters, but it’s mostly a returning cast, though the focus is more on characters who played only small roles in the original book, like Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

This mini series succeeds at both of its main goals: It is a worthy (and believable!) sequel to a beloved story that ended in such a way that a sequel would typically feel completely unnecessary; and it holds up as a compelling murder mystery in its own right. Had this story been almost exactly the same but with original characters, it would likely be almost just as good (though more fleshing out for characters would obviously be necessary since you couldn’t count on general familiarity and previous knowledge). That is a truly extraordinary feat.

Obviously, much of this comes down to James’ heavy lifting with her book. But I’d wager that of all of the Jane Austen adaptations, “Pride and Prejudice” is the only one with a film/mini series that is almost as beloved and the book itself. Just like James’ had an uphill battle in writing a sequel to the book, this mini series was attempting to re-cast and continue the stories of characters whom many thought couldn’t be improved upon from Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s version. Both Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin perfectly balance carrying forward characters who have already been seen on screen several times while keeping them familiar as well as bringing their own twists and mannerisms.

I really liked the mystery itself, too. There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios that can lead viewers down false trails. Even better, every aspect reveals new layers to Pemberley, its family, and the people that have lived on the estate for generations. I particularly liked the exploration of Darcy and Georgiana’s feelings towards stewardship and Pemberley. It’s an interesting topic, especially when contrasted with Elizabeth’s experience of life, that while they generally see eye to eye on many things, this is simply something that she can’t really understand. This feeling of responsibility to a place, its people, and one’s own history.

I also really liked the brief moments that showed us some of the challenges that Elizabeth faced (faces) as the new lady of Pemberley. It’s obvious that she’s not the lady of the house that anyone would have expected and with that would come its own set of trials. We also get a look into the insecurities and doubts that both Darcy and Elizabeth still struggle with. Yes, the ending of “Pride and Prejudice” was happily ever after, but marriage has its own set of challenges and one’s personal demons don’t simply disappear when one’s true love shows up.

The only ding I have against this adaptation is its depiction of Colonel Fitzwilliam (again, this was following the book’s lead so it’s not unique to the mini series itself). Personally, I really like what they do with the character here. So my quibble is more about continuality and what feels like a pretty thorough character re-write from what we’re given in the original novel. True, the novel really doesn’t show us much, but we have Darcy’s own esteem for the Colonel and his duel role in bringing up Georgiana to speak to his general good character. But unless you’re a die-hard Fitzwilliam fan, the changes shouldn’t be that distracting.

I really enjoy this mini series, and it’s my regular rotation of Jane Austen re-watches. Like I said, it’s the only worthy sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” I’ve come across, and it also checks all the boxes as a good historical mystery, another favorite of mine. If you haven’t read the book or watched this adaptation, I definitely recommend it for all Jane Austen fans!

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