Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

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I’m finally getting around to reviewing this TV miniseries, which is long overdue, given the fact that I liked it enough I have watched it REPEATEDLY. If you’re in the mood for some Jane Austen and have exhausted all the currently-out-there adaptations, I really recommend giving this one a whirl!

In a nutshell, this mini-series is an adaptation of a 2011 book by P.D. James that is a combination murder mystery/Jane Austen sequel. There’s a whole industry of books out there that attempt to write sequels to Austen novels. Usually it’s “the later story of Elizabeth and Darcy” or “Margaret Dashwood grows up and falls in love.” I’ve read a few, and generally I dislike them, because they tend to influence my vision of the original novels. Now, maybe it’s because I haven’t read the book of Death Comes to Pemberley but only watched the TV series, but I don’t feel that way about this show. I think it’s because, aside from the murder mystery, I feel like the characters act in very plausible ways for their characters as written by Jane Austen (okay, except Colonel Fitzwilliam). And, in fact, I feel like one of the central issues that comes up between Darcy and Elizabeth in this show — that Darcy will come to regret marrying Elizabeth due to her annoying relations — IS actually something that would come up between the two.

 

Casting Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley

Now, a few weeks ago I posted an image from this film to our Facebook feed, and there were numerous comments along the lines of “I didn’t like the actress cast as Elizabeth.” So I’m going to address that issue first.

In the original novel by Jane Austen, Elizabeth is thus described:

By Bingley: “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable.”

By Darcy: “Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

By the narrator: “She had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.” She has “dark eyes.” She follows Jane “in birth and beauty.”

By her mother: she “is not half so handsome as Jane [her sister, the acknowledged beauty of the family].”

By Colonel Fitzwilliam: “Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.”

Thus, she is pretty but, moreover, intelligent, witty, and spirited.

Her portrayal in film/TV adaptations varies from pretty to stunning, but let’s compare her to Jane in order to have some comparison — but with no disrespect intended. You’ll see that they are all very lovely actresses!

1940 Pride and Prejudice: I call it a toss-up whether Elizabeth (left) or Jane (right) is more beautiful. They're both stunners.

1940 Pride and Prejudice: I call it a toss-up whether Elizabeth (left) or Jane (right) is more beautiful. They’re both stunners.

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In the 1980 version, Elizabeth (right) is pretty, and Jane (left) is beautiful.

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I think the 1995 one is what screwed this up. Elizabeth (left) is a stunner, while Jane (right) is comparatively merely pretty.

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2005: While Keira Knightley (Elizabeth, right) is held by the majority of modern people to be beautiful, I think we can agree that Rosamund Pike (Jane, left) is the more conventionally pretty of the two.

So now, we come to Anna Maxwell Martin, an incredibly talented actress who has pretty much stunned me in everything she’s been in. She has a very chameleon look. She’s not conventionally “beautiful,” but she does have a sweet face, and she can really range from look to look:

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In Bleak House (2005), she’s pretty.

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In Bletchley Circle (2012-2014), she’s plainer.

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In South Riding (2011), she’s surprisingly glam!

So now we come to her in Death Comes to Pemberley:

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Flashback Elizabeth (1790s)

Present day Elizabeth.

So. Is she a stunner? Nope. Is she attractive? Yes, most especially for — and here this echoes Jane Austen’s writing of her character — her intelligence. Okay, maybe she’s less witty in this version, but there HAS been a murder!

Oh god, I can’t believe I just wrote all of this comparing the relative attractiveness of various actresses. I feel like the world’s biggest anti-feminist and creator of eating disorders.

But you know, that thought rolls into all of this. So what if she’s not Your Female Ideal? SHE’S A REALLY TALENTED ACTRESS and SHE GIVES A REALLY GREAT PERFORMANCE IN THIS.

As a fellow member of the “If I put lipstick on I can be attractive, but without it I’m relatively plain, and you know what, I don’t really care” club, let’s just let Elizabeth be smart and not worry about whether she’s pretty ENOUGH. Also, I would like to go on the record as saying that Anna Maxwell Martin’s PERFORMANCE is what makes this show for me.

 

The Rest of the Death Comes to Pemberley Cast

There’s some other cast choices that are important:

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Eleanor Tomlinson gets the ingenue role as Georgiana, and she’s very pretty and sweet.

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I feel like we should spend more time asking why Darcy’s hair makes him look dweeb-y.

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And how Matthew Goode as Mr. Wickham is SO GOOD, both because he’s hot and because he gets Wickham’s charms. He has me ready to throw my bloomers out the window and run away with him!

 

Death Comes to Pemberley‘s Story/Script

So the general through-put of the story is that there’s been a murder, but I don’t want to give any of it away, and besides, what’s most interesting is watching the characters be themselves as various events go past.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

Massive props must be given to the writing for Mrs. Bennet. She dithers and twitters with the best of them. There’s a murder going on, and people’s lives may be ruined, and everything hangs in the balance? Mrs. Bennet makes it all about her, having nervous fits and cataloging her symptoms for the doctor.

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Lydia Wickham

Lydia (played by Jenna Coleman of Doctor Who) is great. She makes sure to milk the situation for all its worth, annoys the hell out of Darcy, and even shows a rare flash of intelligence late in the show.

Elizabeth and Darcy

Elizabeth and Darcy

And, of course, the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. All seems fine, but this crisis causes all of her crazy family to turn up, and both of them have to re-remember what they saw in each other originally.

 

Death Comes to Pemberley Costumes

So let’s talk costumes! I’m with Trystan — Regency generally bores me. It’s all nightgowns and unflattering high waists and bonnets and primness. And true to form, things like Elizabeth’s green gown (above) were snoozy, although not offensively so. But there were some things to discuss:

Georgiana got most of the “pretty” dresses as befits the ingenue:

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Lydia actually had some quite smashing color combinations:

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This red dress is nice, although it read more as dark rosy pink to me on screen…

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…but when Lydia paired it with this apple green pelisse (in her hands), the color combination seriously inspired me.

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Lydia also got a quite snappy military-inspired pelisse with a very jaunty hat.

There were some flashback scenes to Darcy and Elizabeth getting together, and I really liked that (A) you could tell they were wearing different styles than the “present day” scenes, and (B) the costume designer clearly did their homework, putting the ladies in chemise gowns with fuller 1790s hair:

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Flashback Elizabeth

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Flashback Lydia

Finally, there’s a mystery character who gets some VERY snappy stripes, a really nice bonnet, and a color palette that Trystan is going to love:

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Now, what didn’t I like? Two things:

Elizabeth wears this spencer, which is clearly cut high in back in a 1790s style, but which totally doesn’t mesh with the 1800s waistline of her dress:

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Even worse, Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up (with someone in tow, not sure who), and both are wearing 1780s dresses. Okay people, yes, “the older people wear out of date styles.” Not THAT out of date! MAYBE 1790s, at most?

Even worse, Lady Catherine’s dress A) DOESN’T FIT, and B) is worn open in some kind of bad attempt at a mock “zone front” (a modern term used to describe dresses that meet at the neckline, then slope away in an upside-down V shape towards the waist). I mean, they didn’t even turn the waist points up. LADY CATHERINE CAN AFFORD A DRESS THAT FITS. TRUST ME. BITCH IS LOADED.

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Looks okay, right, if 20 years out of date?

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WRONG. That’s a V shaped, front-opening dress that’s just WORN INCORRECTLY.

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Another shot of the egregiousness. Note companion in a 1770s-style Brunswick (18th century hooded traveling jacket).

 

But Don’t Forget!

Death Comes to Pemberley features steamy Elizabeth/Darcy make-up sex!

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It’s short, but it’s worth it.

 

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

  1. brenna

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I was starting to feel like the only person who loved this enough to watch it over and over again.

    I love the Regency — it was a combination of Jane Austen’s and the Aubrey-Maturin novels and the world they were set in that influenced me to become a dress historian — and this was one of the first productions I’ve seen that got the material culture of the early 19th century as close to correct as possible, albeit with the mistakes you mention. There was also the breaking down and arguing in front of the servants which was wrong from an etiquette standpoint (I know waaaaaaaaay too much about this era), but then again I imagine you have location limitations when filming in an historic house.

    Not having your connoisseurship when it comes to clothing and the dates for specific fashions and details I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what had bothered me about the spencer Elizabeth wears (also why does she only wear one colour?) or Lady Catherine’s gown. Now I know! And I hadn’t even noticed that they didn’t turn the waist points up. Tsk tsk. Frock Flicks is like the best ever costume history class.

    I absolutely adored Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth both because I love her work and for the very reasons you mention, I felt that her looks and wit properly fit the character as Jane Austen described her, and I feel that Matthew Goode is the first person I’ve ever seen get Wickham right. I normally avoid Austen “sequels” but when I saw those two castings, and Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn, I knew I would be watching this one (I even read the book, which the series vastly improved upon: something you don’t often get to say, the television show was better than the novel).

    After reading this post I feel a sudden urge to go binge watch the series again tonight.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yes! And note Jane is rewearing Kitty’s from the same shot (that spencer is in every single regency show, I swear).

      Reply
      • brocadegoddess

        Yup, I know JUST what you mean about that spencer – everywhere!

        Reply
    • Ginger

      I spotted that, too, from the picture! It definitely fit Scott appropriately. But so plain for Elizabeth…

      Reply
      • Alice

        My only real complaint with this series was how very plainly Elizabeth was dressed… she certainly didn’t dress as if she was married to a very wealthy man!

        Reply
  2. Carolyn

    I feel very similarly to Brenna about this. I read the book and hated it. I had to put in effort to seem pleased when my mother in law got me the dvd for Christmas. Turns out – I really like the tv/film adaptation! I love Anna Maxwell, I think she’s a spectacular actress. I like her in this more than I thought I would because I also feel she’s not quite pretty enough. I do interpret Lizzie as pretty verging on beautiful, just slightly less so than Jane. I actually think Jenna Coleman could also have made a very good Lizzie. But, all in all I really enjoyed this, and enjoy watching it over again, like Brenna. I totally agree with all your fashion gripes – and with Alice’s comment about Lizzie’s dress besides. Especially since, later on, Austen would write to her sister Cassandra about expensive gowns and fabrics she imagined would suit Mrs Bingley and Mrs Darcy. Apparently, she envisioned them living the high life with their affluent husbands.

    And then there’s that ever-present spencer that EVERYONE wears.

    Reply
  3. Isis

    I really liked this series as well. Didn’t like the book at all, I ususally find P. D. James boring and I don’t like modern sequels (picked it up when I had to travel and had forgooten to bring a book), but the series nailed it. I really, really liked Lizzie! And the otehr casting was good as well. It was just the villainfication of Fitzwilliams that bothered me.

    And I too find Regency boring.

    Reply
  4. leobalecelad

    Coming late to the party, I know… Pride and Prejudice is for me the second best book in the English language, the best being Persuasion. Yes, I think Jane Austen is THAT GOOD.

    There was one thing about this that disappointed me, and that was that Lady Catherine didn’t get enough screen time. Penelope Keith absolutely nailed her – too often she’s played way too OTT. I never picked up on her costume though.

    Reply
  5. ladylavinia1932

    I really enjoyed this production. It’s ironic that it is set closer to the actual timeline of “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. According to several scholars, it is believed that the novel is set near the end of the 1790s. I’ve also read that “DEATH TO PEMBERLY” is set around 1805 or 1806, several years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s death.

    Reply

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