A time to be... thinking about P.D. James

Ruth Rendell died earlier this month, not long after the death of her late friend and contemporary P.D. James. "For five decades," The Guardian noted, "the two women were the George Eliot and Jane Austen of the homicidal novel: different minds and style but equal talent." Their radically clever books gave the genre new life beyond one of vast popularity tempered by critical disdain.

I think often of James' memoir, Time to be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, because of its particular and generational perspective and, of course, its brisk intelligence.

There seemed to be, James notes, “considerable interest in an elderly grandmother who writes traditional English detective fiction.” That understatement is typical of her memoir, a hybrid -- it’s also a diary of her 77th year. (At that age, wrote her hero Samuel Johnson, “it is time to be in earnest.”)

Life was then a very busy round of speaking to readers and fellow authors; writing, which she describes with memorable clarity, and reflecting, during rare moments of solitude, often in galleries and gardens. Her diary entries open onto memory -- “every day is lived in the present,” she explains, “but also vicariously in the past” -- in a most disciplined, if reluctant, way: “It seems too egotistical to spend the last hours of every day contemplating the minutiae of unrecoverable moments.”

Restraint makes what she does share even more compelling, a reminder of the actors' dictum: speak quietly and you will draw attention. 

James was born, two years after the Great War ended, into “a pall of inarticulate grieving.” Young men's portraits flanked by small Union Jacks stood as shrines in her neighbours' windows. James and her schoolmates were taught by the sweethearts left behind, a generation of spinsters.

Little Phyllis (her middle name was Dorothy, her maiden name James) “lived on a plateau of apprehension with occasional peaks of acute anxiety or fear.” She managed home and siblings while her mother was frequently hospitalized with mental illness. Father was an ungenerous man by today's (not altogether relevant) standards. James remembers that he ruffled her hair -- once. Poignantly, she recalls the arrival of a housekeeper: “I was going to be looked after.”

And sadly, mental illness became a continuing theme. She had little time with husband Connor, the doctor whom she married in 1941, before he became ill after his experiences in World War II, entered psychiatric hospitals, and died in early middle age. "I shan't write about my marriage, " she declares, "except to say that I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life."

With a young family to support, James entered the civil service, working in medical, forensic and criminal justice departments -- useful training for later -- and took university classes at night. She began her first novel (Cover Her Face) when she was in her mid-30s, planning it on the long Tube trip to work and telling her skeptical daughters that “children with no faith in Mummy's talent would not get new bicycles out of the proceeds.” James finally felt financially able to leave work only just before her retirement date.

There are precisely two outbursts in the book: the first when James is told the book will be published and literally jumps for joy. Another is a profoundly upsetting vignette of life in wartime London. James gave birth during the terrifying attack by unmanned V-1 rockets as babies were sent to the hospital basement for safety and the ward windows thrown open for fear of flying glass. She wept and worried that the building would be hit. “How in the darkness and choked with dust would I find the right cot?”

Elsewhere, there is compelling analysis of detective novels: why women make good mystery writers, for instance, and how setting works in a story. What is the most plausible motive? Love. When was the first mystery written? In 1794, and “personally I find it unreadable.” What must a novelist do? Make “a straight avenue to the human heart.”

Contemporaries -- Rendell, Frances Fyfield,  Dick Francis -- pop up in social visits and travel as James surveys their shared scene. Touchingly she details how the poetry of her beloved Anglican liturgy has enriched both life and work. (The reader may be less than riveted by digressions on BBC policy and House of Lords reform.)

The diary's year took in an event that rattled the culture, the expression of which inverts proportion in the view of a woman who remembers that pall, those rockets, that troubled young army doctor. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 set into motion a carnival of grief, ushered in a kind of wallowing, she feels; “something has been released into the atmosphere and it isn't benign.” The young princes' “fortitude and self-control” are commended, while an interviewer is informed tartly that “not everyone showed grief by pinning teddy bears and flowers to the railings of public parks.”

James sends us bulletins on how it feels to grow old. She is warmed by gratitude, pricked by irritation, sometimes overcome by dread. She ponders the fate of novelist Iris Murdoch, whose husband John Bayley wrote movingly of their struggle with her dementia.

One golden late-winter day James watches strollers in Hyde Park. Some “must have been carrying their weight of unhappiness, but the air seemed to sing with pleasure,” she writes. This was a day “to be carefully shored up” against whatever was to come.

(Knopf Canada)