P.D. James first noticed the book tucked away in the Sunday-school cupboard of Ludford Church. She was intrigued by its title, Pride and Prejudice, which seemed to offer greater promise than the book it sat next to, Jessica's First Prayer. So, at the age of 10, she picked up Jane Austen's cherished novel, and like millions of readers before and since, fell in love.
"It's strange, because you don't think of Jane Austen as being a writer children would enjoy. There's so much irony," says the mystery novelist, looking back on her Shropshire childhood. "Straight away, though, I was very interested in the girls and what they were getting up to – poor Elizabeth and all her difficulties."
She read the book when she was 10; she has written a sequel, in the form of a mystery novel called Death Comes to Pemberley, 81 years later. It does make the rest of us seem a bit slothful by comparison.
Throughout the busy, difficult, intervening decades, she's had two passions, apart from her family: reading the novels of Jane Austen and writing her own detective stories. Two years ago, on the cusp of 90 and having completed The Private Patient, which may be the last novel to feature her cerebral detective Adam Dalgliesh, she was casting around for something reasonably quick to write. The thought of beginning a book and not completing it filled her with dread: "I'd hate it if I left something unfinished and someone else tinkered with it," she says with the briskness of a woman who's spent 50 years writing about the unexpected and often violent arrival of death.
Now, sitting in the well-appointed reception room of her West London house in front of a pot of tea ("I shouldn't think it's ready to pour yet, dear. It's the colour of straw"), James contemplates the act that seemed, until recently, almost a sacrilege: Why not continue the story of Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy and their various relations … and stir things up with a nice, juicy murder?
After all, the constraints of a Georgian novel of manners and the restrictions of the mystery genre seemed to mesh nicely. As well, she'd noticed an odd trend: The sense of lèse-majesté she'd felt about intruding on beloved characters was not shared by other writers. They were taking her beloved Pride and Prejudice and turning it upside down; painting a mustache on Austen, if you will.
"I hadn't realized there were about 70 previous sequels," she says. "Zombies and sexual goings-on and the most extraordinary things! I think Austen would be pretty fed up about those."
On the surface, Death Comes to Pemberley seems a reassuringly conventional English mystery. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years, and have two small boys, when the unexpected arrival of feckless George Wickham and his foolish bride Lydia cast a bloody and violent shadow over the Darcys' idyllic life. The pages are filled with gloved barbs worthy of Austen, such as this: "There are few activities so agreeable as spending a friend's money to your own satisfaction and benefit."
But underneath the restrained surface is a much darker current – of blackmail, abandonment, madness – which you might expect from one of the world's great mystery writers, a woman who once admitted she was "obsessed with death" from childhood. More than that, James uses Death in Pemberley to examine the plight of women, whose lives were entirely dependent on the success of the marriages they made.
James has done the world the immeasurable favour of giving Mr. Darcy an inner life (let's face it, ladies, he's always been a cipher – a frock-coated blank screen for the projection of female desires). She has also taken Lizzie in unexpected directions: In James's rendering, she is pragmatic, clear-eyed about the benefits of having married a wealthy man and "not made for poetry." For some devotees of Pride and Prejudice, these will be fightin' words.
"Do you know, I did have a letter already from one young man who said, 'We must believe Elizabeth would only marry for love,' " says James, finally deciding the tea is ready. "And that is true, but I don't think she would permit herself to fall in love with someone who was utterly unsuitable. One has to realize how vitally important it was that Elizabeth or [her sister]Jane made marriages that would provide for their mother and their sisters. If anything happened to Mr. Bennet, they would have been turned out of Longbourn."
She stirs the tea, and offers a biscuit. "Austen was aware, absolutely aware, of the importance of money. Until she became successful, two or three years before she died, she lived entirely at the bounty of her father and her brothers." In her memoirs, James described Austen's writing style, quite beautifully, as "controlled resentment."
It's tempting to look for reflections of her own life in her examination of the underpinnings of a successful fictional marriage. Baroness James of Holland Park (Phyllis to her friends) would almost certainly dismiss this as feeble psychology, but she is the child of an unhappy marriage, and her own marriage was full of challenges: Her husband, a doctor, was profoundly changed after the war and spent much of his life in mental institutions. She raised her two daughters on her own, while living with her in-laws and working as a senior civil servant. She wrote her first novel, Cover Her Face, before and after work, and on the weekends between trips to visit her husband in hospital. (He died in 1964, and she has written about him only sparingly, and always lovingly.)
At 91, she hardly seems worn down by a life that would exhaust lesser women. Elegantly dressed in a grey turtleneck, with her walking stick at her side, she is exceptionally good company, cracking jokes about footballers' wives and how much nicer passports used to look. She still sits in the House of Lords as a Tory peer, and does the occasional reading and BBC broadcast, and is the matriarch of a brood that includes seven great-grandchildren. Only family photos adorn her sitting room – there are no awards, no grip-and-grins with other famous folk.
On this evening, she does have a date with a famous man: She's off to a reception given by the Prime Minister at 10 Downing St. Rising from the sofa, she reveals that, although women's lives have improved immeasurably in the past 200 years, some of their concerns have not. "My dear," she says, "I have no idea what to wear."