Dot Wordsworth

Downton at Pemberley

Downton at Pemberley

A national hobby during the screening of Downton Abbey was to spot supposed anachronisms in behaviour and language. It drove poor Lord Fellowes into a frenzy. When last week I read Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’s whodunnit set in the world of Pride and Prejudice, I soon found myself tempted to play the Downton game.

It’s not fair, of course. Lady James did not set out to write the book in the language of Jane Austen. At the same time, nor did she wish to produce any such sentences as: ‘“Whatever,” shrugged Darcy.’ In this she succeeded. Yet some items of speech come pretty close, sticking out as anachronistic sore thumbs.

Thus we are told that Mary Bennet ‘was a compulsive reader’. In 1803, when the novel is set, compulsive meant ‘compulsory’. The psychological meaning is first recorded in 1902, in a translation of a work by Emil Kraepelin, the psychiatrist who in 1915 was to identify a compulsive shopping disorder, which he called oniomania.

Psychiatry seems a fatal source of anachronism in Death Comes to Pemberley. Colonel Fitzwilliam (otherwise known as Viscount Hartlep) mentions that a girl who was upset and violently shivering ‘was in shock’. It’s a phrase that I have discussed quite recently, but neither in its surgical nor its psychological senses is it known before 1889. The Colonel, too, talks of instincts that are subconscious. It is true that De Quincey coined sub-conscious in 1834, but there is a hint that the word troubles P.D. James, since on page 68 she uses periphrasis, writing of Wickham that ‘hurtful remarks now rose into his consciousness, beneath which they had lain untroubling for years’. These hurts, we learn on the same page, were ‘made stronger by years of repression’ — a theory first sketched in Sigmund Freud’s Selected Papers on Hysteria and other Psychoneuroses, translated into English in 1909.

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