Posted by: Sarah | April 17, 2006

What I Read on my Hols I: Time to be in Earnest by P D James

The holiday was also a time to catch up with some reading. It’s always a peculiar agony choosing books to read on holiday. There are over 100 books in my TBR tower and even when I’ve made the choice of books I want to read now, I find they’re not necessarily the ones I want to read en route or when I get there. However, my choices this time were good and I enjoyed them both in their different ways. (But it didn’t stop me obeying the siren call of the bookshop and buying more books in Ludlow and Bath, about which more later.)

Time to be in Earnest by P D James, perhaps the most accomplished author of crime fiction writing today, is subtitled A fragment of autobiography. It’s cast as a diary which the author kept between her seventy-seventh and seventy-eighth birthdays in order

to record just one year that otherwise might be lost, not only to children and grandchildren who might have an interest but, with the advance of age and perhaps the onset of the dreaded Alzheimer’s. lost also to me. It will inevitably catch on the threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat, so that this will be a partial autobiography and a defence against those who, with increasing frequency, in person or by letter, announce that they have been commissioned to write my biography and invite my co-operation.

P D James was born in Oxford two years after the end of the First World War and grew up in Ludlow and Cambridge. Her family was not well off and, never being destined for university, she worked briefly in the theatre before entering into hospital administration. She married a doctor who served in the Far East during World War II and returned mentally scarred by his experiences, leaving her as sole breadwinner with two young daughters to bring up. Realizing she needed a career, not just a job, she rose in the Civil Service, retiring in her early 60s as a Principal at the Home Office. Her references to her husband are few and discreet but we know that he died in 1961, never having recovered from mental illness. She never remarried.

Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. Although she had known since childhood that she wanted to be a novelist, the time had never been right during the War and after that she still had her childcare responsibilities (with which her in-laws helped) and the need to earn a living. However, she tells us,

I can remember the moment, but not the date, when I finally realized that there would never be a convenient time to write my first book and that, unless I did make a start, I would eventually be saying to my grandchildren that what I had wanted to be was a novelist. Even to think of speaking these words was a realization of potential failure.

But why a detective novel? Apart from having enjoyed Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, et al, she writes:

I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction…[and] there can be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action. And I may have needed to write detective fiction for the same reasons as aficionados enjoy the genre: the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution.

Elsewhere in the book she has illuminating things to say about the novelist’s moral responsibility, the use of place in fiction, the teaching of creative writing, and advice for aspiring novelists.

As well as showing her readers what makes this particular author tick, Time to be in Earnest is chock-full of the wisdom that can only be gleaned from a life well lived despite, or more likely because of, hardships endured, from which valuable lessons are learned: A necessary reminder to us why we should follow the example of less frenetic societies in respecting our older members more.

Apart from being a successful writer, mother and grandmother, P D James is a former Governor of the BBC and a member of the House of Lords. She deplores the BBC’s falling standards in its dismal efforts to compete with the commercial TV channels. “The BBC,” she writes, “still produces superb programmes but too often they are peaks of excellence in a depressing plateau of trivia.” Her retirement address to the BBC Governors and Board of Management is appendixed in the book and is well worth reading. (The other appendix is the text of a talk she gave at the Jane Austen Society AGM in 1998, “Emma Considered as a Detective Story”.) She is self-deprecating about her contributions to debates in the House of Lords, resolving, Dr Johnson-like, to try harder. Having read this book, I can’t help thinking that, like Dr Johnson, she isn’t doing herself justice here.

And the title of her book is a maxim of Dr Johnson, who wrote at the same age she was when she began this diary: “At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.

So, there’s still hope for the rest of us, then. It’s heartening to observe the enthusiasm and intelligence with which this woman of nearly eighty embraces the modern world and throws herself into each new challenge, from gruelling book publicity tours to speeches for small local societies and august institutions alike, while always leaving time for family and friends.



  1. How did she become member of the House of Lords? I thought that place was reserved for, well, lords (or ladies, as title of nobility).

  2. Members of the House of Lords aren’t all hereditary peers (lord and ladies of the nobility). In fact these are in the process of being phased out. Apart from them (and the Law Lords and Archbishops and some Bishops of the Church of England), most members of the House of Lords are Life Peers appointed by the Crown on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. P D James is one of these. Their peerages (Lordships) only last for their own lifetimes. I don’t know what criteria are used to recommend people for life peerages — one would like to think it’s always because their life and career experiences fit them for the job but it’s something that’s open to abuse, I’m sure — even as we speak, there’s a scandal brewing about “cash for peerages” …

    (Here endeth the British Constitution lesson for today, probably more than you ever wanted to know, Gabriele!).

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