Life & Letters

Mimics and Models

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their book Room 000 (Picador, 2015) is an eclectic narration of Bombay’s 1896 bubonic plague epidemic. They are at work on a book about the Zika phenomenon
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Whatever Jane Austen might think, PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley ranks among the finest examples of literary mimicry, a genre that has good reason to exist

The Wooster ménage is strong on aunts. Comes the season, the hordes invade, led by my Aunt Agatha, a woman with the looks of Godzilla and the morals of Attila the Hun. The annual invasion leaves me tottering through the bloodied field towards my padded cell, to hibernate with a plate of sandwiches and The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish till Jeeves should shimmer in with one of his restoratives.

This year, though, at the height of action, I was distracted by the spectacle of an aunt on the sidelines, calmly taking notes.

 My aunt Phyllis, better known to the credulous public as the Baroness James, has, on occasion, freely plumbed the family chronicles for her annual volume of gore. Though scarcely in the Pink Crayfish category, the aforesaid volumes are widely admired. In hardback, they make useful additions to the bedside library where they may serve as missiles guaranteed to brain the burglar on the prowl. The paperback editions, displayed in all bookstores, are an inconvenient size for the discerning kleptomaniac. But Jeeves, who has actually read them all, puts the Baroness almost on par with Aunt Jane.

My Great Aunt Jane is the Ur-aunt, the queen of her species, though you wouldn’t think that from the portrait that has place of honour in the hall. I’ve read all her books, and can tell you right away where Aunt Phyllis pinched her detective from. By grafting on Darcy-lines like ‘Across the pale parabola of joy’, Aunt Phyllis has been conning her readership for years with a policeman poet called Adam Dalgleish. And while the code of the Woosters does not permit one to snub an aunt, Bertram’s shoulder has been known to drop a distinct Fahrenheit or two at her approach.

Imagine then my reaction when instead of the expected restorative, Jeeves shimmered in with a large book, a foul mustard in shade, bearing in Gothic blackletter the title Death Comes To Pemberley. Suffice it to say the Wooster cranium had dented the ceiling before it was returned, buzzing like a factory, to its usual nook on the spine. When I had restored the eyeballs, each to its proper socket, and gulped down a whisky and soda, I opened the book with a shudder, asking, ‘Why, Jeeves? Why?’

I must admit my first reaction to Death Comes to Pemberley was no different from Bertie’s. I don’t quite agree about Adam Dalgleish’s origins, but certainly PD James is a writer in the same tradition as Jane, her Englishness innate to every line. Yes, Phyllis’ garrulous lyricism is far removed from Jane’s terse irony, but when winnowed down, it is the same grain. Her observation of men and manners is as acute, and her contempt for hypocrisy undiluted by her respect for form. Like Jane Austen, PD James is a chronicler of vanities. She just has more corpses in her books. Then again, Jane drew blood with every line, and a cadaver entire might have seemed vulgar. Why then did PD James find it so necessary to mimic Jane Austen?

For it was certain, before I had read a few lines of the prologue, that Pemberley was not going to be parody. In the voice of Jane Austen, PD James is dead serious. No caricature here, not a whit of exaggeration, just worshipful mimicry. I might have stopped reading if I hadn’t run into this anarchic line: ‘It was obvious that Mrs Gardiner, a partner in her favourite niece’s matrimonial scheme had chosen Darbyshire because Mr Darcy would be at Pemberley.’ I’d always been upset with Elizabeth Bennet for sneaking into Pemberley with her aunt so soon after rejecting Mr Darcy. Now I was delighted PD James thought so too: ‘If Miss Elizabeth had entertained any doubts about the wisdom of her scheme to secure Mr Darcy, the first sight of Pemberley had confirmed her determination to fall in love with him at the first convenient moment.’ Trouble ahead, for sure, and, despite the title, death would have little to do with it.

Usually, by the third page, literary mimicry begins to falter and the author’s own voice haltingly makes itself heard. PD James keeps up the Austen voice for 12 pages, and if it’s occasionally more Mrs Gaskell than Jane we hear, that’s still a feat. Luckily, she soon drops the act. For the rest of the book, the voice, mostly 2010 with random 1803, is James’ own, and we can curl up and enjoy Pemberley.

Because this is PD James, there must be murder. And because this is Pemberley, we can play the Austen game.

We know the corpse, and very soon, the murderer, but we hardly notice that in our enjoyment of James’ mischief. She takes the gothic of Northanger Abbey and improves it no end, as a ghostly carriage rattles through wind and rain towards Pemberley. If you’ve ever wondered, as have I, about details of domestic management that Austen dismissed with a line, here’s your chance to find out. James gives us the furniture, the nursery, the curtains, the candlesticks, and an endless array of servants in starched frills. The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable. Nothing so inhuman here, the maid gets her lines too.

Gradually, PD James’ motive makes itself known. Characters left unsatisfactorily hazy by Austen are now explicated. Colonel Fitzwilliam who played the straight man to Darcy now gets a life, and an unpleasant one too. We’re delighted to see the vapid Mr Bingley unchanged, he’s merely transferred his dog-like devotion from Darcy to his wife. Mr Collins and Charlotte, it is now clear, richly deserve on another. Mr Bennet’s wit is rewarded with as many libraries as one man can possibly select, stock and haunt in the course of a single novel. Elizabeth has grown complacent and a little too judgmental, and I’m not so sure she deserves to be in this book. And dear Mr Darcy, turned uxorious, is a nineties man, living in every paragraph, the examined life. And of course the Wickhams, man and wife, are back, messy as ever.

If all this isn’t treat enough, James gives us a quick glimpse of other families in other books.

By the end, James has done all the housekeeping slatternly Jane didn’t have time to amend because she died so cruelly soon. Pemberley is an act of love, not just for Jane Austen, but for the millions who cherish Jane and worry madly about the happy everafter of so much irony.

Not quite in the same class as Pemberley is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, an act of commission with the blessing of the Conan Doyle estate. It is based on British scandal, the Cleveland Street affair of 1889. A 15-year old telegraph boy Charles Swinscow, was accused of theft by a policeman because he had fourteen shillings on him—a large sum at the time. Angrily, the boy claimed he had earned the money by bedding fine gentlemen in London’s Fitzrovia. The subsequent raid brought to light, at 19 Cleveland Street, a molly house frequented by British aristocracy. (Among them was Prince Eddie, the unfortunate Albert Victor, who may or may not have been Jack the Ripper before the influenza pandemic felled him at age 28). Now that’s the sort of muck Conan Doyle shielded Holmes from, but Horowitz has rightly lifted the ban.

The Holmes canon is a sitting duck for the parodist. But parody demands a light hand with the pastry, and The House of Silk is dead earnest about toeing the line. Horowitz has mimicked Dr Watson’s narrative voice without a single false note, and the book succeeds remarkably in evoking the milieu. We’re back in the edgy gaslight era where the macabre is never far away from the genteel, and the rest can go hang.

Like PD James, Conan Doyle is bulldog British. Unlike today’s multi-ethnic English, their writing harks back to the time when it was one language—or presumed so.

Literary mimicry invariably taps into a felt need, and it is not difficult to see what the need is here. It succeeds because it comforts, and is cloned because it succeeds.

There are some writers who beg mimicry. Jane Austen and Conan Doyle lead the list, of course, but less gifted writers are mimicked too for the environs or the values they recall. (Mimicry of style alone, unsupported by substance, isn’t viable—the slushpile is a holocaust of aborted clones.)

In biology, mimicry has definite uses. Both mimic and model stand to benefit. The evolutionary change in the mimic is brought about by selection, or the choice of a third agent. For instance, there are orchids that look like female Hymenoptera (bees and wasps). Gentleman bees, who retire puzzled after an ardent assault on the orchid invariably carry away a spritz of pollen—which they will shed on their next optimistic foray. This leaves the orchids laughing all the way to the bank. The male bee, the dupe, paranoid with performance anxiety, knocks himself cold on every orchid in sight. Naturally, not a solitary female Hymenoptera is on the wing. They’re all at home, reading Death Comes To Pemberley.

Not to put too fine a point on it, in the book industry, the reader is the dupe. We have One Night at the Call Centre clones because those who can barely read need to believe that’s all you require to write a book. Its celebration of mediocrity is a vindication of our national spirit. Chicklit and ladlit are so hydra-headed because the Great Extinction hits at thirty, and anyway, it is all about India Shining now. Also, never mind that grim men and women in their fifties write the stuff with no sense of irony.

Crime and romance are the easiest to mimic, and have the widest audience, because they fuel the twin human urges of eros and thanatos. Japan has manga and graphic violence as its most mimicked genre—what else can release the collective imagination stilled to a scorched shadow on a lost wall? It is easy to understand the sub-Thomas Harris genre of psychopath thrillers as an American phenomenon. America needs its monsters. It needs to believe in them as a distinct species co-existing with normal decent Americans. The distinct species is diseased and deserves compassion, not censure. It is a monster, even if it looks like the boy next door, for how else can you countenance the boy next door preparing to barbecue your liver? ‘It’s a monster, honey! Call the FBI.’

The vampire mimics filling all bookstores today have the most reliable model of them all. The undead, nourished on human blood, can break boundaries like nothing else can. They’re scary, and they have rules, two things that ensure a large membership—ask any kid below five. The rules are necessary for identity. Weird is exclusive, everybody wants to hang out with you.

Not so the dragon-slayers, schoolbound and sworn to combat evil. We tend to outgrow them with braces.

Model and mimic, both exist because of the dupe’s need for myth. Not the myths that have become part of human imagination, but the new ones that must arise from the present mess we call life.

The story never changes, but this is the only one we know.

Would Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula in 1897,  have recognized Buffy as necessary fallout? What would Arthur’s knights make of Harry Potter? What would Jane Austen think of Pemberley?

The morning was at seven, the lark no doubt already on the wing. An enterprising snail was heading, squishy end first, straight at a thorn even as the eggs and b congealed on my plate. According to the poet Browning, that was three out of the four needed before all’s right with the world.

The fourth was missing.

It is customary for me to exchange a glance with Aunt Jane as I butter the toast. The Wooster brain is practically gelatinous at this hour, and today was no exception for it was the morning after Pemberley. I needed the bracing twinkle in her eye to assure me Darcy had made it in time for the wide open spaces where men are men and butlers Jeeves.

I looked up—and dropped the toast, buttery side down on the pinstripes.

‘Jeeves!’ I bellowed, but it was too late.

Aunt Jane was no longer alone.

Sitting beside her, matey over a pot of Rungli Rungliot was the Baroness James.

I was still staring when I heard Aunt Jane say,‘There’s still Sense and Sensibility, Phyllis. Can’t leave that one lying around, can we? It’s just money for jam.’ And she turned around and winked at me.

You’ve heard me say this before, but I’ll say it again. Aunts aren’t gentlemen.