A Time To Be In Earnest

A perfect day should be recorded.
It can’t be relived except in memory
but it can be celebrated and
remembered with gratitude.

P.D. James fascinates me.  She writes mysteries containing biblical allusions, phrases from the Book of Common Prayer and broad cultural references. Reading one of her novels, I am bound to learn ten new words, several new authors, poets, works of art, music or architecture.  However, life in jolly England is not all tea and scones.  Murder, infidelity and sex are part of her crime stories: disturbing but never salacious.

She calls her memoir a fragment of autobiography.  I was eager to learn more about a lady who, in a catalog of people I admire, reminds me of David McCullough. Decent. Dignified. Distinguished.

Time to Be in Earnest is written in the format of a diary of Baroness James’ seventy-seventh year. The title comes from a description of a minister in Samuel Johnson’s The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland: A man who has settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquility of his convictions disturbed; and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.  Notes of her daily life show her to be full of humor, humility, generosity and humanity. And busy! Her speaking schedule fatigued me. She includes time with her family and friends, memories of her childhood, and a potpourri of opinions.  P.D. James is interested in life; hence a journal of her daily life is interesting. 

I was asked for Dalgliesh’s
[Adam Dalgliesh is the chief detective in her series]
views on structuralism–
or was it post-structuralism. 
I replied that he had
given it careful thought for
a number of evenings and
had come to the conclusion
that it was nonsense.

The young chaplain sitting next to me murmured,
“In vain they lay snares at her feet.”

Because of her use of Cranmer’s magnificent cadences (Book of Common Prayer), I was curious if she wrote about her faith. She was born and bred in the distinctive odour of Anglicanism; her mother gave comforting and lively little homilies on which she could hang her gentle moralizing; when asked point blank if she was a Christian, her reply is affirmative with caveats, which she acknowledges is confusing. 

This quote is representative of her prose. I love the sibilance and onomatopoeia of susurration, a word spell-check is unfamiliar with.

I stood for a moment in complete silence broken
only by the note of a song bird and the susurration
[a soft, whispering or rustling sound] of the breeze
in the wayside grasses. It was one of those moments
of happiness and contentment which give reality to death,
since however long we have to live,
there are never enough springs.

The appendix contains the full talk P.D. James gave to the Jane Austen society on 18 July, 1998. You can read all but a few pages of Emma Considered As a Detective Story here. Austen fans will love it!


10 thoughts on “A Time To Be In Earnest

  1. I am definitely adding this one to my to-read list! I haven’t read much of her work – a couple Dalgliesh’s, Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and Children of Men – but what I’ve read, I’ve loved. 🙂

  2. I’ve never even considered reading one of her books, but you’ve changed that, Carol.  Thanks for putting me on to a new author!  Do you have a recommendation for a first book to read?

  3. @womanofthehouse1 – I think I would recommend this one as a first.  I talked to a good friend who picked up one of the mysteries and couldn’t make any headway.  She said she just didn’t care about any of the characters.  The problem is that Adam Dalgliesh is James’ best character and you have to wait for a murder to happen before he is called in, usually not before the fourth or fifth chapter.  That being said, I have not read all her books and certainly not in order.  Cover Her Face is the first of the AD series.  And my caveat: re-read the last sentence of the first paragraph.  I’d love to know what you think!

  4. I read and reviewed this a few years back and I agree that it’s a fascinating peek into her inner life.  I love her books for the same reasons you do and was thrilled to learn a little more about the woman behind all those fascinating mysteries!  Thanks for a great review.

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