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!

P.D. James’ Advice for Book Reviewers

from Time to Be in Earnest

1.  Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.

2. Don’t undertake to review a book
if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.

3. Review the book the author has written,
not the one you think he/she should have written.

4. If you have prejudices…
face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.

5. Be scathingly witty if you must and can,
but never be deliberately cruel […]

6. If you absolutely hate the book
and have nothing either interesting or positive to say, why review it?

7. If you are given a book to review by a close friend
and you strongly dislike it, don’t review it.
We none of us like hurting our friends
and the temptation to be over-kind is too strong.

8. Resist the temptation to use a review to pay back old scores
or to vent your dislike of the author’s sex, class, politics,
religion or lifestyle. Try to believe that it is possible
for people of whom you disapprove to write a good book.

::     ::     ::

What would you add to this list?

I appreciate personal interactions with the book.
I like to get to know reviewers, especially bloggers.

Why PD James is my favorite mystery writer


I just finished another Adam Dalgliesh book, A Certain Justice.  Adam Dalgliesh is the main character of fourteen mystery novels. I like mysteries more than science fiction, westerns, horror and thrillers—but less than memoirs, travel, histories and humor.  I prefer spacing mysteries out, inserting them between heavier reading.  And my “go to” mystery writer is P.D. James. 

The mystery part of the book is always secondary for me.  I love the culture, the commentary, the specificity behind James’ writing. One of her characters doesn’t turn on classical music while he drives; he listens to Elgar’s Serenade for Strings

James is conversant in the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.  If you know your Books, you will recognize phrases and allusions.  Adam Dalgliesh is the son of an Anglican rector, who embraces the trappings of his childhood but does not hold to the faith of his father.  Theological and philosophical questions are naturally raised. Death is present in every book (she is, after all, a murder mystery writer); reckoning with mortality tends to get one beyond the mundane.  

And she is British.  (happy sigh)   

Here is a sampler from A Certain Justice.

Do you want a cup of tea?  A cup of tea.  That English remedy for grief, shock and human mortality.

The affair now was beginning to have some of the longueurs of marriage, but with none of marriage’s reassuring safety and comfort.

But there was in his bearing the innate dignity of a man who is at ease with his work, does it well and knows that he is valued.

What I wrote when I first discovered P.D. James