A tiger in the drawing-room

P D James and her detectives struggle to bring order out of looming chaos.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The eyes, remarkable steady and direct, are recognisably those of the child in a photograph taken 70-odd years ago. Right now, they are rather fierce. "It was a deplorable way to have behaved to a writer."

The eyes, remarkable steady and direct, are recognisably those of the child in a photograph taken 70-odd years ago. Right now, they are rather fierce. "It was a deplorable way to have behaved to a writer."

Baroness James of Holland Park, Phyllis to her friends, is talking about the television series by Ecosse Films based on her novel An Unsuitable Job for A Woman. Helen Baxendale, who played the leading character Cordelia Gray, became pregnant during filming, and the company decided that Cordelia should become a single mum. They didn't consult her creator, with the result that there will probably be no more Cordelia Gray books. "They've deprived me of her entirely. She's now an unmarried mum! That's absolutely intolerable. It's as if they decided they would marry Dalgliesh to a pop star. He's my character and if I want to marry him off, I'll marry him off!"

Nearly 80 now, P D James still has rosy cheeks and bright hazel eyes. When we touch on subjects about which she feels deeply, it shows in her face. The pink gets deeper, her eyes turn moist. Her voice gets formidably sharp. She's reticent about the sexual lives of her main detectives, the professional policeman Adam Dalgliesh and the amateur Cordelia, though she was quite tantalising about Dalgliesh. "Are you in love with Dalgliesh?" I asked. "Not at all," she said pinkly. She keeps him on a tight rein in the books, explaining that poetry and the job take up his energies. Widowed long ago, he still has no partner. When I say that he doesn't seem to have much of a sex life, the response is a rapid: "That may change!"

It's not Cordelia's fall from moral grace that her creator most dislikes but the loss of authorial power. And the struggle for control crops up again and again in the conversation. In her new book, Time To Be In Earnest (Faber, £16.99), subtitled "a fragment of autobiography", James refers to "sleeping tigers" that lie in the personality, and of writing as a means of taming them.

Self-control is a touchstone: Ted Hughes's reticence about his marriage is admired, Earl Spencer's outpouring at his sister's funeral condemned. But the book contains some controversial views. James objects to what most people would consider the most loving and admirable of "confessional" books, John Bayley's account of Iris Murdoch. "Would the Iris Murdoch of the novels and the philosophy have wanted these intimate and sometimes demeaning details made public? I think not."

Our interview takes place in a room furnished with good antiques, fine English china. Yet two things here remind me of a totally different woman: the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Much of her art, Bourgeois has said, is a working-out of the theme of the silenced girl, the woman with no control over her life. P D James possesses a small Victorian sculpture, The Veiled Bride. It shows a girl with her face obscured by a shroud-like marble covering. "I always wanted a Veiled Bride", she says. And over the mantelpiece is a 17th-century painting of a pale young woman with narrow part-closed eyes and tight-shut lips. Both are disturbing images of female suppression.

James seems determined to keep her own emotions caged, yet this must have always been a struggle. She is plainly a woman of strong reactions. But she wants to keep the tigers in. When I ask her about recollections of the past, she defines the beasts. "The most traumatic moments of your life - the most difficult, perhaps the most tragic moments if you have a husband who dies young and was mentally ill - they are sleeping tigers. Unhappiness, trauma, fear. I haven't stressed the most difficult parts of my life. It would be distressing to my daughters and also disloyal to the memory of my husband."

Certainly, there was plenty of trauma before writing brought fame, respect and wealth. Her mother suffered from a mental illness which meant that the young Phyllis had to take responsibility for her small brother and sister. Marriage brought more pain, because her husband returned incapacitated from the Second World War and never recovered psychologically. She had to support the family, working in the Home Office almost until retirement age. Yet her books were by then bringing in considerable amounts of money. That serious child, that responsible woman, did not take financial risks by giving up the day job.

P D James is one of the most innocent Tories I have ever met. Time to Be In Earnest is the diary of a single year, 1997-98, which most Tories would prefer to obliterate from their minds. Yet Baroness James was out and about giving talks to local Conservative Associations. When she was a teenager, her family had a fascist housekeeper called Dusty, who attended meetings in black trousers and a black turtle-neck sweater. "I think she was seduced by the glamour of it and the young men and the rather naive patriotism." She thinks Pinochet should not be extradited. "I would never justify him, but if he's so evil why was he received here as an honoured guest? " She would send him back to Chile.

Looking closely at horrors is not her style. She has never actually been involved with a murder, nor seen a victim. Her new book records that a US interviewer asked if she had visited Myra Hindley in prison. "I replied that since there was nothing I needed to say to her, or presumably she to me, and nothing I could usefully do... a visit would be too much like morbid voyeurism."

For her last Dalgliesh book, A Certain Justice, she did extensive research into the lives of judges and barristers. I asked what investigation she had done into the lives of the working-class characters. "I don't think I need to do research. My novels go right across the spectrum. In A Taste for Death, I have the daughter of an earl and little Darren who is the child of a prostitute. People said to me 'you must have known a Darren'. I haven't... I have no difficulty in writing about things which I've never experienced but have imagined."

She doesn't have much time for authors who focus on the brutal realities. But on the subject of the alleged division in the ranks of the Crime Writers Association between the young, tough Black Leather Jackets and the Blue Rinses, who write traditional mysteries, she collapses into laughter. "I'm just not part of that world of antagonism - it repels me. Life is too short to occupy my mind with anything so childish".

In any case, she is one of the few British mystery writers who has escaped from the narrow stereotype and achieved the respect granted "literary" fiction. The gulf between P D James and newer writers is not between types of crime genre, but between her traditional concept of the novel and newer approaches. She quotes Graham Greene: "Every writer has a splinter of ice in the heart". For her, the writer is an observer, external to the narrative. The author's voice is that of order and reason.

When I ask about her difficult childhood, she says that "It was overshadowed by anxiety. Perhaps that's why I write the kind of books I do, bringing order out of disorder, resolving the tension, affirming that we live in a world we can control. The detective story has a particular problem at the heart of the novel that can be solved by human intelligence." The bright eyes are peering sharply at me. I'd hate to be around when those tigers escape.

PD James, a biography

P D James, creator of the detectives Adam Dalgliesh, Kate Miskin and Cordelia Gray, was born in 1920. Her husband was a doctor who suffered from mental illness after his return from the war and died in 1964. She has two daughters and five grandchildren. During a long career in the civil service, she worked in the Forensic Science Service and the Criminal Law Department, retiring in 1979. Cover Her Face was published in 1962 to immediate acclaim. Her 12 other crime novels include An Unsuitable Job for a Woman , (1972), The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) and A Certain Justice (1997). P D James was created a life peer in 1991. She chaired the Booker Prize judges in 1987 and served as a BBC governor until 1993. Time To Be In Earnest (Faber) includes childhood memories, and her reflections on life and literature.