Sunday, January 15, 2012

Great Characterization and Setting, Iffy Plot and Dialogue

I will not begin to attempt the great Austenese that feMOMhist captures so well in her post on P. D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley. So, as a member of this cyber book group (cygroup?), I will present my post in utterly boring contemporary syntax.

First and foremost, I enjoyed the book. Before reading it, I had just finished reading Amanda Foreman's Georgianna, and it was nice to keep hanging out in a similar time period and geographic space. Also, I like Austen very much, and I enjoyed spending time with characters that she created and that James has perpetuated. (Unlike feMOMhist and many others, however, I did not read Jane Austen until I got to college. I was too busy reading Jackie Collins and V.C. Andrews because, dear Reader, I was a LATE BLOOMER.*) So, overall, I would say that James's book is definitely worth a read, especially for Jane Austen fans.

I should also say that I haven't read many books by P.D. James. My first one was for a Women and Detective Fiction class. I remember loving James in that class, but I might have loved Sayers more. Either way, I didn't pick up James for a while after that--not until I was overdue for the birth of my first child, and all I could bear to do was lie on the couch reading mysteries. But since, at that time, my mind was mostly absorbed with the pending any-minute-now reality of childbirth, I didn't retain much. So I'm coming to James without much prejudice, one way or another.

But I was disappointed with a few things. First, I found some of her exposition to be rather clunky. I was okay with the long prologue that served to remind readers of various plot events from Pride and Prejudice and indicate some of the events that occurred after the closing of Austen's book. However, once the main text began, I was surprised by the methods that James often used to introduce characters and present other expository details--one of those methods being long monologues from one character to another. As I read them, I could almost hear a fiction-writing teacher saying, "That's not dialogue! That's an unrealistic monologue. Is the other character just sitting there the whole time? At least make the other character take a sip of tea."

Also, I often felt that the character on the receiving end of the monologue would already know the information. For example, early in the book, Elizabeth asks her sister to remind her how Henry Alveston came to be a friend of the Bingleys. But I just don't buy the fact that Elizabeth wouldn't already know the answer to that question. As another example, when speaking to either Henry or his fellow magistrate, Darcy asks to be reminded about how certain parts of the court process would proceed. Maybe he truly doesn't know, but it seemed weird to me that, as a magistrate, he wouldn't be a bit more clear on the process even the parts of the process that go beyond his role**. These monologues seemed to be the lazy way to give information to the reader.

In addition to the occasional expository monologues that seemed to serve a purpose for the reader but not to make sense for the characters, I noticed some strange character silences as well. For example, when the Colonel starts taking over the search party into the woods, the other characters remain extremely silent. The Colonel is barking out orders and no one else says much. And although we're told that the 20 minutes that the Colonel took to visit the Woodlands cottage to warn the residents seemed longer than 20 minutes, we're not given any information about dialogue or observations that occurred during his absence. Two people are missing. Strange events have been going on. And Darcy, and Henry, and the chaise driver have nothing of interest to say?

Similarly, when the Darcys are in England for the trial, we don't hear much of anything from Elizabeth from the time they arrive until the time the trial is over. It's as if James has sort of forgotten about Elizabeth and left her behind. I thought we might have, at some point, cut over to a scene with her. Although these omissions weren't hugely problematic, there were several of these odd silences or places of inattention to characters, and I was surprised to seem them in James's book.

Those criticisms aside, I love the characterization overall. I liked the way James brought Darcy and Elizabeth to life, and I thought James was especially good with some of the side characters, such as Sir Selwyn and some of the other lawyer types in London. In general, I thought all of the character description was very good. I also really liked the writing that came along with trips into the Woodlands. In those sections, the suspense increased and the sense of atmosphere was great.

Finally, I have to say that I expected more mystery and suspense, and I'm surprised that Elizabeth didn't do more poking around. At one point, she finds the carvings in the tree, but I don't think we even hear the conversation that she has with Darcy about those carvings. But perhaps my expectations were just wrong. As I started the book, I thought that Elizabeth and Darcy were going to do a bit more detecting and that, at some points, they might even be in danger, but only a few parts of the book delivered on these assumptions. To me, it seemed like a lot of set up without much payoff, but maybe I just went into it with the wrong idea.

Whether right or wrong, I just get the sense that suggestions from a friendly editor could have made this into a much better book, but perhaps, these days, editors don't give the Baroness suggestions, which I can totally understand.

After reading Death Comes to Pemberly, feMOMhist went back to Austen. I think I am eager to go back and read one of James's best books so that I can make some comparisons to see if her other books are heavier on the mystery and detection. Anyone care to make a claim about which James is the best?

*And, these days, I think my favorite Austen book is Emma, perhaps because I've read it the most and it's the one I regularly teach. As I mentioned over at feMOMhist's place, I think the novel performs in really interesting ways that challenge readers and their assumptions and information, judgements, etc.

**In this book, James seems to demonstrate a keen interest with late c18 and early c19 court proceedings, and, at times, she seems to lose sight of her story as she gives the reader an account of the justice system and its problems during the time period.


Ink said...

Brilliant! I expected Elizabeth and Darcy to be detecting least Elizabeth. Thank you for putting your finger on the thing that I couldn't quite articulate but which bothered me. You are so smart.

And I didn't read any Austen novels until grad school. Then I read all of them in a row.

Ink said...

Oh, and Emma (and, almost as much, Sense & Sensibility) = fave, too.

Good Enough Woman said...

Ink, Wow! You posted comments while I was still editing my post! (I always find mistakes after I hit "publish"). You're quick! And thanks for confirming my thoughts on the the "detection" thing. I really wondered if maybe I just had the wrong expectation for James.

As for Sense and Sensibility, I will humble (read: embarrass) myself and admit that I'm not SURE I've read it. I also have not read Mansfield Park.

*hangs head in shame*

But they are both on my to-read list. (As are many other books that have taken a backseat to my dissertation work.)

Stacey said...

Thanks for the review: you've captured most of the problems I had with it. I was particularly annoyed with Elizabeth: she is a true namby pamby in the PD James book, without an ounce of Austen's spark!

So yes, I read it quickly and eagerly and looked forward to reading it each evening, but more because I kept hoping for more, and never got it.

I'm unable to comment on FeMOMhist's blog, but I also loved her Austenese!!

Anonymous said...

I like Emma because it gets into the economic history of the time period. Listen to Harriet when she talks about farming-- she's so sensible! The agricultural revolution is full in force in the book. Things that will change the world are really happening in Emma, and that's mirrored in the characterization of the players.

Mansfield park is similar in terms of economic history with how it treats British colonialism... but the characters are just so unlikeable. Emma's got a good story on top of everything else.

Ink said...

GEW, I think you'll like Sense & Sensibility, whenever you have a chance to read it. (No shame and no pressure, though!)

Stacey, yes! I kept thinking "Wouldn't Elizabeth B. have been more determined about X?" or whatever since she was so..."spunky" doesn't seem like the right word but if there's a slightly refined version of spunky, that's what I mean. And I have been having trouble commenting on/reading feMOMhist's blog, gives me a blank white page much of the time.

Nicoleandmaggie, excellent point about the context in Emma (and re: Mansfield Park...that's def my least favorite, too).

Good Enough Woman said...

Why did I get the title wrong? That's kind of embarrassing. I blame it on the Kindle. Didn't spend much time looking at a book cover.

I have edited the post so that the title is now correct.

Good Enough Woman said...

Stacey, Great point abut Elizabeth. I agree.

nicoleandmaggie, I haven't thought a lot about those themes in Emma. I will do so during my next read!

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting review. I have read both Austen and James since I was in high school (thanks, Mom!). I've reread Austen a bunch of times since then both in school and out of it and adore her. I read James for years, but her last novel pre-Pemberly (can't remember the title and am too lazy to look it up, sorry) didn't impress me at all. One of my friends said it best "There's a difference between writing stilted characters and stilted writing style." We agreed that the novel itself was stilted

In general I think it's too hard for us to reenter Austen's world to write about it. Few of us have her extraordinary grasp of craft. We don't even know half the rules and I'm convinced my theory as to why it's so hard to like "Mansfield Park.")

QueSera said...

I felt like James was holding back with Elizabeth too because she wanted her to have a successful marriage which includes being a good mistress to Pemberley (which rendered her boring), but that approach just pissed me off in the end. I must confess I've read no James, so I'm curious to hear which is a good one to read.

Good Enough Woman said...

fangs, I like your observation that we don't really "know the rules" of Austen's writing. As for James's book, I'm not even sure I expected her to meet Austen on her own ground, but I did expect a good mystery. Your word "stilted" seems apt!

QueSera, Ah, yes! That seems to be so! (The whole "good marriage concern.)