Sunday Night: Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet, P.D. James — and Anna Maxwell Martin

Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Bennet in "Death Comes to Pemberley"
Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Bennet in “Death Comes to Pemberley”

To me, it’s all about Anna Maxwell Martin’s face.

Maxwell Martin stars in Death Comes to Pemberley, the BBC two-part adaptation of P.D. James’s 2011 mystery based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which ends its Masterpiece Theatre run on PBS this Sunday night. (You can catch up on Episode One online here.)

I’ve loved her face since I first “met” her when she starred as the self-effacing, self-denying, warm and brilliant Esther Summerson in the 2005 television adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and I followed her to The Bletchley Circle in 2012, in which she played one of a group of English women who helped break the Nazi’s codes during World War II and then found life in early 1950s England a tad dull without a murder or two to solve.  Her face, overall, is pretty, but far from stunning; it’s hard not to focus instead on her intelligent eyes and the way in which it looks like she’s always biting her lips to keep from saying what she knows is better left unsaid (don’t worry—she’ll say it at the right moment).

She always looks like the smartest person in the room.  Suzanne Lazarus, for the Radio Times, says of Maxwell Martin, “She does angst awfully well,” and the actress herself admits not being “typically beautiful,” but these characteristics make her the perfect choice for an Austen heroine—even if only in a TV adaptation of a 21st century “sequel.”

Maxwell Martin said of Austen heroines,

They’re always such alive females. …[N]o man in Austen has ever fallen in love with a female heroine because she’s pretty or beautiful or has long, blonde hair. They fall in love with them because of who they are, because of their vibrancy and their intelligence, and if only we were teaching that a bit more in schools.

The telling moment for me in the first part of Death Comes to Pemberley was probably, to some viewers, a throwaway. Elizabeth Bennet (Maxwell Martin), now married to Mr. Darcy for six years, can be seen managing the vast household of which she became mistress upon her marriage.  She treats the servants with respect, thanking them for their labor and their concern for the family, offering them more information than her husband does in order to assuage their anxiety over how a murder on the property would effect their employment.  She’s dressed in what seems perfectly acceptable to a Regency lady of great wealth without putting herself on untoward display. Nothing escapes her scrutiny as she moves through the ornate spaces, not floating as one might expect from all the gilt, but reflecting the claim in Shakespeare’s sonnet: “My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

P.D. James, who published Death Comes to Pemberley at the age of 91, told the Paris Review, “One reason why women are good at writing detective stories may be our feminine eye for detail; clue-making demands attention to the detail of everyday life.” James is credited for creating the first modern female detective in crime fiction, Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). She admits a lifelong love of Austen’s works, and finds in them “remarkable” detectives and clues “to the truth of relationships.” While she admires Austen’s “irony and control of structure,” she is also drawn to “the way she creates so distinctive a world in which I feel at home.”

At home.  Maybe that’s why I love Anna Maxwell Martin’s face.  This is a woman whom I might meet outside my front door, or in the office next to mine.



Melissa Kort teaches literature and composition at Santa Rosa (CA) Junior College. She writes on topics ranging from Charles Dickens and photography to women’s history.