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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea