Book Club Questions: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

To be honest, this book was a bit of a letdown coming off of The Secret History. Coming up with discussion questions was difficult, which is never a good sign for me, and we spent most of our discussion lamenting how fanfiction authors could’ve done much better. Ultimately, it seemed to have a great deal of wasted potential for what could’ve been a fun and entertaining murder mystery romp through Regency England, with too much focus on the boring men and not enough on the much more interesting women.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Crime fiction was originally a women’s genre until the introduction of real-life police forces and the popularity of Sherlock Holmes rewrote the public’s image of who the primary investigator in a murder mystery should be. Similarly, novel-writing itself used to be a female-dominated field, as such works were seen as cheap and common entertainment for the masses, suitable only for women or upper-class men with way too much time on their hands (and with an appropriate pseudonym, of course). As we both noticed, P.D. James focuses on the men instead of the women in this book. Ostensibly, this is because women weren’t allowed near murder investigations in 1803, but do you think that really justifies such a switch in focus? Do you have any ideas as to how P.D. James could have kept the focus on the women instead?

Jane Austen is a very famous author, and deservedly so. What are features that distinctly mark her writing and storytelling style? Did P.D. James replicate them at all here? If so, how successful is she?

We often talk about “authenticity” when it comes to historical books/shows/movies. Sometimes, that “authenticity” is more the feeling that we get than actual factual accuracy. Did this book feel “authentic” to you? How do you think authors create the feeling of authenticity, aside from just research?

The class divisions in this book were pretty blatant. Did you find the behavior of the servants convincing?

Do you think a fanfiction author could have done better? If so, what about the approach of a fanfiction author would have improved this book?

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