Tag Archives: P. D. James

Richard Preston and Ebola Fears

Standard

Back when I was teaching Medical Sociology, I had a strong interest in epidemics and the social behaviors that influenced how disease spread. I did not formally study epidemiology in graduate school though. I fed that interest through “light” reading, some of it maybe even quite sensationalist in nature. One book I clearly remember reading is The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Another one is Dr. William Close’s Ebola. I was fascinated by these books, both published in the mid-1990s, right after the very first Ebola scare. From what I have read in the press recently, both books would be relevant and interesting reads today.

I was not very surprised to find an article by Richard Preston in this week’s issue The New Yorker Magazine. It is called “The Ebola Wars: How Genomics Research Can Help Contain the Outbreak”. He reports on the current outbreak and how new techniques can provide insights into how the virus works and how it mutates, so we can hopefully end up with effective cures.

To some extent, the virulence of Ebola does look like science fiction and does strike fear into our hearts. Many works of fiction are more or less artfully used this fear to provide us with gripping stories of world-changing epidemics. The latest I have read is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of my favorites is Blindness by José Saramago and his epidemic of white blindness that disappear as mysteriously as it started, but not without turning the world of his characters upside down. And of what of the epidemic of barenness in P.D. James’ The Children of Men?

What is your favorite fictional epidemic? How did it lead it to reflect on the fragility of life as we know it?

Death Comes to Pemberley – A fun summer read

Standard

After struggling through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I figured I needed something lighter for a change, so I got into some P.D. James. As I started writing this entry, I was thinking about how much more enthusiastic I was about this book and about writing about it, although on second thought, I think that in the end, the Hemingway i s more likely to stick with me over  the long term… There is an interesting contrast between a “fun read” and real “food for thought”…

P.D. James wrote in her introduction that Jane Austen would have done a better job of this book than she did, but I beg to differ. That was quite a good read, in the proper style for a continuation of Pride and Prejudice.  P.D. James does add that she owes “an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabethin the trauma of a murder investigation…”.

P&P ends with Elizabeth Bennet agreeing to marry Mr. Darcy. Death Comes to Pemberley finds them comfortably established at Pemberley, the Darcy family estate. They have been married for a few years and they have two sons. To my mind, Elizabeth still has the face of Keira Knightley, and her sister, Mrs. Bingley, the face of Rosamund Pike. The Bingleys live on neighbouring estate called Highmarten. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, the hysterical brat who eloped with Wickham, is still living a trouble-filled life with her charming no-good husband. And so on with the other characters one comes to love and hate in P&P.

On the eve of Lady Anne’s ball, named after Darcy’s late mother, on a stormy autumn night, Lydia arrives uninvited at Pemberley. Her carriage had been driving through the woodlands on the property. Wickham and his friend Mr. Denny had alighted from the carriage in the middle of the woodlands and after hearing some gun shots, Lydia asked the driver to hurry to Pemberley. So, the two men are lost in the woods on a dark stormy night. Darcy and some house guests hurry to rescue them and find Denny dead of a terrible blow to the back on the head, with a Wickham covered in blood hovering over him and saying that it was all his fault. They bring back Wickham and Denny’s body and proceed to report the event to the authorities and to cancel the ball.

Wickham is subsequently arrested and tried for murder, and is found guilty though he was claiming his innocence.

The key questions on which the mystery centers are:

1)      What happened on the ride through the woods? Why did the two men leave the carriage?

2)      What were the gun shots that Lydia and the driver heard?

3)      What did Wickham mean when he said it was his fault?

In the end, all ends well: A man nobody could have suspected confesses, Wickham obtains a royal pardon, a friend offers him a job in America, and he and Lydia are eventually very happy with their move to the New World. We get there through some rather unexpected twists as should be the case for a good mystery novel, some which are the unfortunate and absurd consequence of both rigid social conventions and reckless behaviours. Not quite a social critique but an interesting portrayal of the times.

I have read very little by P.D. James, maybe one or two mysteries, but I am a great fan of her book The Children of Men. When the book came out, I was teaching sociology of aging and I found quite interesting the implications for the treatment of older citizens of a radically aging society due to widespread infertility. So I have read the book a few times and I am also a big fan of the cinematographic adaptation.

I picked up Death Comes to Pemberley by chance (it was on bestseller lists… not always a criterion for a good read) and subsequently found out it was related to Jane Austen, which would have been a better reason to buy it, had I known. So that was a good change of pace, and I will now be persevering with the pile of Swedish literature.

References:

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.