Jane Austen fan fiction: Death Comes to Pemberley and Longbourn

Death Comes to PemberleyLately, I’ve been on a Jane Austen fan fiction kick.  Austenland was an entertaining movie and great book, so I decided to check out the BBC version of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly.

Death Comes to Pemberley has good and bad about it.  The good:  Matthew Goode is the perfect Wickham and I wish we could go back in time a few years and have him play Wickham in the Keira Knightley version.  I also enjoyed Lydia and Mr. and Mrs. Bennett.  All four of these characters seemed more or less as if they’d walked off of the pages of P&P.  Also good, the mystery itself proved layered and intriguing, and the characters, like Sir Hardcastle (Trevor Eve, who looks eerily like Ben Franklin in this role), lawyer Henry Galveston (James Norton of Happy Valley), and Louisa Bidwell (Nichola Burley) were great additions to the P&P world.  Mr. Darcy, played by Matthew Rhys seemed more or less himself, except perhaps a bit too severe in manner considering he’s been married to the love of his life for a few years now.

The bad: Elizabeth Darcy.  Anna Maxwell Martin (Becoming Jane, North & South, The Bletchley Circle) is a stellar actress, and perfect for most period films and shows.  As Elizabeth Darcy née Bennett, however, she is outright miscast, not only in looks, but also in manner.  Everyone pictures characters differently in their heads, but I never once thought of any of the Bennetts as being especially skinny.  They like good food, parties, balls, and sit for hours on end reading, sewing, etc.  A plump or healthy looking Elizabeth with rosy cheeks, and a face that draws the attention from everyone else in the room would make more sense.  Mr. Bennett married his silly wife because she had great looks, and everything in P&P insinuates that all of the girls, especially Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia (and perhaps excepting Mary) inherited those same good looks.  Martin is good looking in her own right, but is by no means an Elizabeth Bennet/Darcy.  One cannot imagine her catching Darcy’s eye at all.

Besides that, her Elizabeth looks tired all the time and as if she has lost her enjoyment in life, has almost no wit to speak of, and no sense of style when it comes to dress.  This was such a glaring casting (and costuming) error, I have to wonder what the casting director and producers were thinking.  A better choice, though maybe not as well known, would have been Daniela Denbe-Ashe of the wonderful North & South (book by Elizabeth Gaskell), as suggested by an imdb.com user (I love reading the message boards on that site).  She has the right looks and also the right manner of someone who is unused to hardship, going by her great performance as Margaret Hale in North & South, which holds many similarities to Pride and Prejudice.

Being fan fiction, the Death Comes to Pemberley as a whole is not “Austen.”  Not that murder should ever be taken lightly, but it is possible to tell a light-hearted murder mystery, which would have suited this flattery to the classical author much better.  The whole love of Austen’s books has not much to do with how realistically she described the dirtiness or suffering of the times in which she lived, but her comic wit and spot on characters who are situated specifically in an upper class sort of life that doesn’t dive down into the mud.  Austen specifically chose to write this way, and refers to harsher realities only obliquely.  Making the stories “real” and in general depressing, is the key mistake that most Austen fan fiction writers make.  Jane Austen’s stories, although holding many truths, are light-hearted, generally follow and poke fun at Regency life, and are marked first and foremost by her amazing wit, and beyond that, her brevity.  The characters are never in any real danger, except of being lost to “good” society.  The miniseries was an improvement upon the actual Death Comes to Pemberly book by P.D. James, whose long-windedness and misunderstanding of Austen’s appeal made it impossible for me to get through even a chapter.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker.  Much of the same criticisms I have for P.D. James hold true for this work as well.  The novel started out promising, P&P told from the viewpoint of the servants, but all too quickly the long descriptions begin to wear, as do the unnecessary knife digs at the family whom the servants serve.  In our modern eyes, servanthood appears to be a great evil, and this is continually the thrust of Baker’s tale. Her assumption is that the servants are unhappy with their work and station in life.  Cataloguing the woes and difficulties of being a Regency era servant could be an interesting tale, it’s just something that doesn’t jive with the original P&P story, and has more the effect of a long diatribe trying to make modern readers feel guilty for past so-called sins of their ancestors.

Longbourn revels in dirt, mud, chamber pots, and pages of description that bog the story down and you only remember it’s the story of P&P when Baker remembers to mention the girls’ soiled menstrual cloths.  Where is the delight that Jane Austen took in the world despite the troubles in it?  Where is her wit, her brevity, her wonderfully drawn characters who are happily and comically flawed?  It is as if Baker were plagued with Dorothea Brooke-itis from Middlemarch (by George Eliot), wherein she considers suffering of the lower classes to be the only virtue and the only thing worth remedying, and that enjoying life (like the Bennetts generally do) is somehow a sin, as is poking fun at ridiculous characters, like Mr. Collins, when they are behaving both ridiculously and rudely.

In this sense, Longbourn is no compliment to Austen, but a backhanded slap.  So what if Austen didn’t regale us on the suffering (debatable) servant class or other classes?  It doesn’t follow that she had no sympathy for their various plights, or that her own class was free of worry or trouble in the world.  Everyone suffers in this world, no matter their station.  The character of a person, their outlook on life, their faith, their hope, what they love, all contribute to their happiness in the world.  Some people are never happy no matter their station, and some are ecstatic in whatever sphere they find themselves. We don’t have to, like Dorothea Brooke, feel guilty about enjoying where we are in life, even if we are middle or upper class.  We don’t have to, like Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, interfere on behalf of lower classes that may actually not want our help, classes that may actually enjoy their station in life and resent our good intentions.  This is the “people’s history” of Pride and Prejudice, in which we are scolded for enjoying any frivolous pursuits, especially novels of humor, wit, and a love story where the main characters end up happy and (shock) do not consider daily their dear, saintly suffering servants.

I gave up on this book about halfway through.  Had it been a book apart from P&P, I think I still wouldn’t have finished it, mostly due to the too-long descriptions.  There is a saying that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and this is so true when considering Austen’s works.  Emma is the longest novel, but they all are rather short compared with modern doorstop tomes.  Describing things in detail for pages on end isn’t necessarily good writing, and most certainly not good storytelling.  I, too, am plagued with purple prose from time to time and it is a difficult vice to shake.  One thing I will say for Baker: what a great idea for a fan fic, and refreshing compared to other works that feature the main P&P characters, but botch them abominably.  Her attitude towards the Bennetts in this book is a bit mean spirited, but she managed to portray them more or less accurately.

On another note, I am super excited for the BBC presentation of Pride & Prejudice and Zombies!  It’s fan fiction as well, but the book kept up a spirit of lightheartedness and fun throughout, despite the rotting flesh descriptions and wounds that made me too ill to my stomach to continue beyond Elizabeth’s ninja attack on Mr. Darcy.  Visually, my stomach isn’t quite so queasy and I think this flattery to Austen might be the most complimentary yet.

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