Books: Order and comfort in an unruly world

Time to be in Earnest: a fragment of autobiography by P D James Faber pounds 16.99

On her 77th birthday, in August 1997, P D James wrote the first entry in what was to become a record of one year of her life.

Taking her cue from Samuel Johnson, "At 77 it is time to be in earnest", her purpose was to capture events that might otherwise be lost. She also wanted to provide "a partial autobiography"; a defence against the unwelcome biographers who increasingly pursued her. The result is a carefully crafted narrative that incorporates diary, memoir, and the author's views on matters as diverse as the literary significance of Cranmer's Prayer Book, a child's ability to differentiate between good and evil, and the perils of adapting novels for television.

It is a record of an extraordinarily busy, fruitful and observant life, in which achievement has been wrested from sometimes tragic circumstances. In recalling her childhood, P D James writes of herself and her younger siblings that "all three of us realised quite early in life that we were the children of an unhappy marriage". Her father, a civil servant, was reserved, sarcastic and unable to show affection, while her mother, Dorothy, was "sentimental, warm-hearted ... and not intelligent". In James's early teens Dorothy became depressed and was compulsorily admitted to mental hospital, leaving her elder daughter to cope with cooking, cleaning and the household laundry; a daunting task in the days before modern conveniences. Eventually her father found a local woman to help out, and James recalls the joy of finding a clean, ironed nightdress airing on her bedroom windowsill: "I was going to be looked after."

But James seemed destined to care for others. By a terrible irony her husband, Connor, returned from wartime service suffering from a mental illness which again required hospital care. By now the mother of two young children, James realised that in order to support her family she needed a career. Working by day as a clerk in the Health Service, she studied in the evenings for a diploma in hospital administration, gaining the regional prize in the final examination. She was promoted to a hospital board in Paddington, where she remained until her children grew up and Connor died, at the age of 44.

James's account of her husband's illness and its impact on the family is dignified, reticent and lacking self-pity. Thinking about Connor on what would have been his 78th birthday, she writes, "I know that he was glad to die and I never mourned him in the sense of wishing that it had not happened". Something of her anguish, however, slips out in her discussion of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. Approving Hughes's stoicism during years of calumny over the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath, James points out the impossibility for outsiders of understanding what it is like to live with a mentally ill partner: "Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent."

James went on to work for the Home Office in the forensic and criminal justice departments, while developing a parallel career as a crime novelist. Cover Her Face was begun in her mid-30s, when she "finally realised that there would never be a convenient time to write my first book". Overcoming what she describes as natural indolence, although already juggling a schedule that most people would find overcrowded, she wrote by hand in the early mornings before setting off for work. A committed reader of detective novels and particularly influenced by Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, there was never any doubt about what kind of fiction she would write. Fascinated by death and aware since early childhood of the fragility of life, she was attracted to the detective story by its potential for order and comfort in an unruly world, "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".

James's discussions of detective fiction and its development from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone to the tough, realistic novels of modern female writers are among the great joys of this book, along with her commentary on real-life cases, about which she is impressively knowledgeable. Her 14th novel, A Certain Justice, was published during the course of the memoir, and James gives a riveting account of just what is expected of a bestselling author: a gruelling programme of signing sessions, interviews, and foreign tours. The dozens of public engagements that she undertakes during the course of the year include presidency of the Society of Authors, sitting on the Liturgical Commission, attending the Lords in her role as life peer, and addressing the Jane Austen Society on Emma as a detective story.

P D James warns us not to expect titillating revelations, and this is indeed a most discreet memoir. In her reserve and humanity, love of poetry and enjoyment of good food and wine, James resembles her popular hero, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. She is further sustained by an enviable gift for friendship, of the feline as well as human kind, and what she describes as "the magnificent irrationality of faith". Her engaging memoir will delight and tantalise her many admirers.

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