PD James at 91 is about to publish her novel, Death Comes to Pemberly, a mystery-murder sequel to Pride and Prejudice. No need to worry — Wickham, seducer of teenagers and the rake you love to hate, is the one who gets it.
James has stated she always wanted to do this. Godspeed. Short of murder, ninety-one year olds should be able to do whatever they’d like.
But how do we (myself and anyone who cares to comment) feel about this? Is this, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing”?
In principle I’m not against sequels, prequels, and reboots written by authors who didn’t write the original, but I have my own rules for which ones interest me.
There are sequels that happen because readers can’t let a character go. This seems most prevalent in detective fiction, with authors continuing to write books featuring Sherlock Holmes, or in the case of Perchance to Dream, Philip Marlowe. Have any of these ever surpassed the original or even come close?
Perchance to Dream by Robert S. Parker was officially sanctioned by Chandler’s heirs after Parker had completed Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished last novel. Authorized sequels may work for hardcore fans but they box writers in. Parker said he wouldn’t do another because he “didn’t want to spend [his] life writing some other guy’s books”
There is also, of course fanfiction which doesn’t enter into the “official” canon, and is often written by amateurs. This is more prevalent when the originals were television series or even comics as opposed to novels, and almost always when they are of a particular genre, especially science fiction and fantasy.
Another example of the authorized sequel is Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCraig. Authorized stories bring with them restrictions. McCraig had to maneuver around the overt racism and defense of chattel slavery embedded within the point of view of the original, which would not sit well with modern readers, while at the same time not wavering too much from its conception of its characters. He chose to ignore the storyline imagined in the previous continuation, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, a bodice ripper, set after the original, in which Scarlett goes to Ireland, where race is not an issue. McCraig downplayed the love story, and focused instead on deepening our understanding of the protagonist. The book received a decent critical reception,, but didn’t do well with hardcore fans. While Ripley’s sequel was panned, it was a commercial success, giving readers what they wanted, more than eight hundred pages of Scarlett.
Sequels authorized or not, that stay close to the intent and perspective of the original, are primarily written to please fans and sell books. They don’t bring anything new, except possibly an ending in cases where the writer didn’t finish the story, or a resolution to a part of the story the creator left hanging. By their nature, they do better if they are offering more of the same.
Recently, there’s been an invasion, of horror-parodies, pioneered by Quirk Books. These include Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, Sense and Sensibility with Sea Monsters and The Meowmorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find he has been transformed into a giant adorable kitten. I will confess to never having read any of them and having no interest in doing so. A five-minute sketch or YouTube video I could see, but they are stunts, not novels.
Another kind of continuation, taking place in what Lost fans might call the “sideways-verse” is a bit more interesting. These books deconstruct the original, recounting the story in a way the original writer never could have imagined. A great example is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which brings us Jane Eyre as seen through the eyes of the madwoman in the attic herself and her keeper. A fully realized tale of Rochester’s first wife, Wide Sargasso Sea is set partly in the West Indies and deals with racism, colonialism, and the powerlessness of women to control their own destiny.
There is also a very unauthorized take on Gone with the Wind. The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall, tells the story from the perspective of a completely “new” character, Scarlett’s slave half-sister — the child of Mammy and Scarlett’s father. Randall’s story gives us a different take not only on the characters we know from the original, but on the ones we barely see — the house slaves who have their own agendas. The problem with Randall’s book when compared to Rhys’ is that Rhys parodied a true classic still taken seriously, while Randall looked at a story so dated by its racism and nostalgia for the “old south” that one wonders if a parody was even needed. In terms of readership, Rhys was offering something new, a way to examine issues around feminism, race, class, and colonialism by hearing from characters who didn’t normally get their own books — Creole women, British servants. By the time Randall’s book came along, we already had original stories about the ante-bellum South told from the point of view of slaves. Who was her readership? Fans and apologists for GWTW wouldn’t be interested, and she’s not telling people who dislike the original anything they don’t already know. To pull off the deconstruction model, you have to be deconstructing something that serious people still take seriously.
And so back to James. Will Death Comes to Pemberly be a success? Commercially, I predict it will be a smashing one. I’ll buy a copy. James is not Austen, but she’s no slouch as a stylist. She knows how to tell a story, especially a mystery. She has a huge audience even without the Austenites, and the Austenites won’t be able to resist. She admits to having had a lifelong passion for Austen’s work. She’s writing, in a sense, professionalized fanfic — not authorized, not the same genre, but told with love and respect for the source. Most likely, she’ll present the characters as we know them. Darcy will not have turned into a wife-beating philanderer. Elizabeth will still be Elizabeth. And if Mr. Collins is a less than passionate husband, or Mary has never married, but has chosen to set up housekeeping with a female friend, we won’t delve too deeply. Will it have the reverence of an authorized version? I suspect it will, to the extent that it will strive for historical accuracy and won’t veer far from our expectations of how characterize will behave.
Will it tell us anything about Austen’s world that Austen herself was unable to perceive? Doubtfully. If Darcy’s money comes from plantations in the West Indies, we won’t learn about the conditions of the workers.. The servants at Pemberly will continue to be mostly invisible. The resolution of the mystery will not reveal a larger rot at the core of society.
Yet, by bringing in murder most foul, won’t something change? This is to be a mystery, not a love story or one that ends, like most of Austen, in a marriage. Then again, perhaps an announcement of Kitty’s engagement will come in the final chapter, assuming of course she isn’t exposed as a murderer and hanged for killing her brother-in-law.