If you’re a Jane Austen fan, chances are you’ve always wanted to see your favorite couples from her various novels interact with one another. (Indeed, reams of fan fiction have been written on this very topic.) But what if you could do that and watch them deal with a murderer in their midst? In Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham, the titular cad is killed during a house party at George and Emma Knightley’s estate. It’s up to Catherine and Henry Tilney’s daughter, Juliet, and Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s son, Jonathan, to catch the culprit. We talked to Gray about revisiting Austen’s most beloved characters in their married lives and why George Wickham was her first and only choice for her novel’s victim.
What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?
Pride and Prejudice: the answer everyone gives, probably, and for very good reasons. Name another novel written more than 200 years ago that still gets read regularly, by nonacademics, purely for pleasure. I don’t think there is one, at least not in the English language. That said, I truly love all her novels, and the one that perhaps intrigues me the most is Mansfield Park. The one that moves me the most is Persuasion. And I have to stop now, because you didn’t ask for a treatise about my feelings regarding all six novels.
What made you want to write a mystery set in Austen’s world?
It was reading Death Comes to Pemberley and . . . not digging it. I love P.D. James, so my anticipation for the book was sky-high. It comes out, I get it, and I discover that the murder victim in that book is (SPOILER ALERT) Denny, a minor character in Pride and Prejudice. My first thought was: Who cares who killed Denny? None of the beloved characters were suspects, as I had assumed they would be. So I had this big crash of disappointment that had less to do with the quality of James’ writing (which is, of course, superb) and more to do with my assumptions. I imagined the book I wanted to read, which then became the book I wanted to write.
How did you create and then navigate the conflicts between the members of each couple?
For the most part, the conflicts the couples face call upon issues they dealt with before they married, but in new ways. Darcy and Elizabeth are burdened with grief, but that grief is worsened by Darcy’s refusal to reveal his emotions. Emma’s been chastised by Knightley for her meddling, so how does she react when he feels obliged to intervene in someone else’s life? Colonel Brandon and Marianne have yet to work out how much his past will determine their future, and so on. They’re all the same people they were during courtship, and though they’re older and wiser, they can still fall prey to subtler versions of their previous mistakes.
How did you stay true to Austen’s voice?
I’m tremendously flattered that the voice rang true to you. I didn’t mimic period style exactly, but I tried to let that be the guide as much as possible—which involved a ton of rereading Austen’s work, some reading of other Regency-era novels, reading some of the Austen family letters and watching my favorite adaptations.
Which character was the most fun to write? Were there any who were surprisingly challenging?
The most fun to write were Elizabeth Darcy, of course, and Marianne, as well as the new characters of Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney. Most challenging was Fanny from Mansfield Park: Her personality is naturally timid, her moods fragile, her responses often passive. She is the antithesis of what we look for in a main character in modern fiction, and yet Fanny is capable of great courage when she knows herself to be right. So making her both true to her depiction in Mansfield Park and engaging to readers today was definitely a challenge.
What made you decide to make neurodivergence a part of Jonathan Darcy’s character?
Honestly, that emerged from the writing process itself. At first, my only goal was for Jonathan to be more Darcy than Darcy. But as I dug into the story, I had to ask what might be driving that. Once I recognized that Jonathan might be neurodivergent, it opened up so many interesting questions about how he would navigate the Regency world. I did a lot of reading and research in the hopes that he would feel authentic on the page.
One point that was important for me to remember, though, was that neither Jonathan nor his parents—nor anyone else in the novel—will ever think of him as neurodivergent. That’s not a frame of reference any of them would have; that’s not how he would be understood in that era.
What led you to decide on Mr. Wickham being the murder victim? Were there other contenders?
Wickham was the first and only candidate I considered. The victim had to be someone whom many, many people would have a motive to kill, and who incites quite as much fury as Mr. Wickham?
Will we see Juliet and Jonathan again in future books?
I’m so glad you enjoyed them! It can be difficult to set new characters among known ones, but Juliet and Jonathan proved a delight to write. Rest assured, they’ll team up again.
Photo of Claudia Gray by Stephanie Knapp.