Death came to Pemberley last night. Yet if we were lucky, it was not death by boredom, which was a risk we may have incurred while reading the novel upon which the mini-series is based. But let us think of the past only as it gives us happiness. Expect lots of Austen inside-witticisms as we recap this solid BBC adaptation of a mediocre Austen sequel together.
The series starts by flitting us through the creepy woods around Pemberley which no longer seem to have the harmonious good taste young Lizzy Bennet once admired. No, now the woods are full of shadows, trees, and ominous music that sounds like the theme from Lord of the Rings. I’m waiting for Gollum to pop up but instead an old grave with “Darcy” scrawled across it. Things rev up quickly: We spy some screaming maids with the best shocked innocent under-maid accents since before Downton Abbey was a mere dream in Julian Fellowes’ brain.
Back in the house (or should we say mansion) Elizabeth pauses from ball prep to snuggle her son who is running very wild, very wild indeed throughout the chambers. Of course our Lizzy, played in this production by British novel adaptation all-star Anna Maxwell Martin, has become a snuggly mom. She goes downstairs to inspect the kitchen and the ball preparations and those frightened maids are there shrieking about Mrs. Riley’s ghost, ma’am, lips a-tremble. Everyone dismisses their maidish fears but an Ominous Tone has been set. Proffer them a thimbleful of brandy, for goodness’s sake!
Elizabeth and Darcy (Matthew Rhys) are flirting, making fine eyes at each other. Does their banter live up to Pride and Prejudice? Apparently not, according to my viewing companion, who asks me, “Who are these goofy people with the same name as the most beloved characters in literary history?” But Georgiana Darcy remains a true believer. “I wish I could find someone like you and Darcy,” she tells Lizzy, joining Austen readers since the early 19th century. We feel you, Georgiana.
Colonel Fitzwillam arrives on the scene, weirdly morphed from one of the pleasantest conversationalists in Austen’s canon into the king of the Regency asshats. He literally mentions “Wickham’s attempted seduction” of Georgiana in his speech to Elizabeth about wanting to marry Miss Darcy. Is this supposed to be a hard sell? Let’s be real: Even “first proposal Darcy” wouldn’t be that much of a dick.
Meanwhile Elizabeth is off making spreading the gospel of reading to a slightly, erm, off-seeming family of tenants: wasting-away young man, sister’s baby, obvious secrets. At least the Mistress of Pemberley is taking a long healthful walk to get there. May her cheeks be brightened by the exercise and her petticoats be six inches deep in mud forevermore. Then a mysterious woman in a very fine bonnet hisses at Lizzy and I don’t even know where we are or what is happening. Is this Jane Austen or The Blair Witch Project? Death is clearly coming nearer to Pemberley.
The Wickhams are in the environs with their friend Denny. Lydia hasn’t just married a redcoat, she is actually wearing a redcoat. She remains insufferable, as does her mama Mrs. Bennet, who shows up and starts name-dropping her disgraced daughter in front of Mr. Darcy and making everyone’s cheeks burn. Mr. Bennet immediately retreats to the library.
Georgiana is the center of a love triangle. Her prospective suitors, Fitzwilliam and Henry Alveston, one-up each other with sick burns like “his castle seems very drahfty” and “he’s a rahdical.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam takes a “night ride” which is a most peculiar custom for a gentleman, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Lydia shows up shrieking because Mr. Wickham and Denny have abcsonded and gunshots have been heard. Hysterical, she gets slapped by her dad. Let’s say we all envy Mr. Bennet at this particular moment, but she recovers and helps herself to quite a few thimblefulls of brandy for her present comfort. Mrs. Bennet, ever helpful, hopes her son-in-law died in a duel.
Contemplating having to go out and find that scoundrel, Wickham, Darcy asks “am I never to get that man out of my life?” Sidenote: I find this particular Darcy extra stiff.
Speaking of stiff, there’s a body in the woods. It’s Denny. Wickham (A delightful Matthew Goode) is wailing out in the thunder and the lightning, lamenting the fact that he “killed his only friend.” Darcy is clearly thinking, “I wish I could just call the wambulance for my insane mother, sister and brother-in law but noooo I must be a Man of Duty and integrity because…Pemberley.” Poor Darcy. Start acting more like Colin Firth and I will sympathize even more. I have more feelings for Georgiana’s young suitor Henry Alveston, who is very sad that murders in the middle of the night are preventing him from professing his feels to his lady friend. Murders are most inconvenient for the romance plot.
Darcy, duty-bound, pays a late night visit to the most Ben Franklin-looking Magistrate of all time who says, ominously, “Mr. Darcy, after midnight, a rare pleasure indeed.” That’s what she said, Mr. Magistrate. Their families are rivals for reasons that go back unto the generations.
Back at Pemberley, angry Lizzy stands over blood-smeared George Wickham, remembering her foolish pride, and her foolish prejudice. But we’re remembering Jane Austen’s sparkling dialogue and vivid characterization, and we’re almost as humiliated as she is.
It turns out that Denny was not shot, but killed with a large, heavy and blunt-edged object. My first guess at a murder weapon fitting this description is P.D. James’ dialogue (hey-oh!).
Darcy has all sorts of perceptive questions about who fired the gun and so on. Wickham shouts a lot. Lizzy espies (I wish we could still use the verb espy) Fitzwilliam burning a letter, and Darcy tells her a sad tale of a little boy hanged for poaching and his inconsolable suicidal mom, the very Mrs. Riley whose ghost was allegedly seen back at the beginning. Later, Georgiana also tells Lizzy about an ancestral Darcy who gambled and shot himself.
Basically, this is not the first time Death has come to Pemeberley.
Mr. Wickham tells his side of the story in a manner most weepy. Unfortunately, everyone heard what sounded like a confession the night of the murder so he’s very much at risk of hanging, or “the drop” as the parlance of a Dickens novel might have it.
Fitzwlliam explains his night ride away, and because he’s rich, the magistrate believes him. Darcy is traumatized by the memory of the hanged child and the disgraced relative buried on the property. Lydia is making a spectacle of herself in church. Jane is helpful, Lizzy is sad and Darcy is solemn and clearly not in a mood to canoodle with his wife. The music is very operatic which makes everyone’s crankiness appear to be of more import than it is. Jane and Lizzy realize the “sister’s baby” in the tenants’ cottage does not belong to any sister but is an out of wedlock babe. Most shocking. Most shocking indeed.
Lizzy washes her face and tries to piece together the burned note. In jail, Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam exchange words that all seem very furtive and suspicious and generally bad news. There’s some grabbing of cravats. There is quite a profusion of cravat-grabbing in point of fact.
Once more at Pemberley, Darcy lectures the servants and tells them Death has comes so the ball must go but Lizzy softens the blow (of course). Darcy visits Wickham in gaol and basically says: I hate you, you’re the worst, you tried to seduce my sister, hit on my now-wife by slandering my reputation, cheat me out of my money, crash my party, get accused of murder in my woods and thereby ruin my life, but also… I BELIEVE YOU BRAH.
Further adventures of Serious Lizzy, Super-Serious Darcy, and hysterical undermaids when we continue next week.