Time to be in Earnest by PD James is not a conventional writer’s autobiography. Instead it is the year in her life between her 77th and 78th birthdays during which A Certain Justice, the tenth Adam Dalgliesh book was published, and in which dates, places and events trigger memories from her life. She died in 2014 at the age of 94 and was prolific to the end. Her final book Death Comes to Pemberley was published in 2011 and two editions of short stories were published after her death.
James sets the tone of the autobiography in the Prologue, “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.” Her diary entries, some brief, some long, make this an ideal book to dip in and out of. She is a pragmatic, factual commentator who is at times forthright, other times secretive.
Like all good autobiographies, familiar names are scattered throughout – Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, Frances Fyfield, Salman Rushdie – and we are shown glimpses of her writing methods, particularly interesting is her discussion of the setting in Devices and Desires, eighth in the Dalgliesh series. She writes about the origins of detective fiction, its evolution and techniques, the development of forensic science as well as her favourite authors and books. Just as entertaining though are the glimpses into James’ private life, her family, her cat Polly-Hodge, her assistant Joyce McLennan.
It is impossible to read James’ memories of childhood, the war, motherhood and marriage, without making connections with her books. Her fascination with history, nature and architecture, and her faith, all add depth to her writing.
If nothing else read it for Appendix Two. ‘Emma Considered as a Detective Story: Jane Austen Society AGM, Chawton, Saturday 18th July 1998’ is a fascinating take on Emma. But if you love reading PD James’ books or detective fiction in general – or you are a writer curious about how a great did it – read this book. This is not a how-to book, more a snapshot of a year in the life of a great writer.
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