Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiographyby P. D. James
In 1997, P. D. James decided to undertake a book unlike any she had written before: a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Structured as the diary of a single year, it roams back and forth through time, illuminating James's extraordinary, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful life." "Here, interwoven with reflections on her writing career and the craft of… See more details below
In 1997, P. D. James decided to undertake a book unlike any she had written before: a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Structured as the diary of a single year, it roams back and forth through time, illuminating James's extraordinary, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful life." "Here, interwoven with reflections on her writing career and the craft of crime novels, are vivid accounts of episodes in her own past - of school days in 1920s and 1930s Cambridge ... of the war and the tragedy of her husband's madness ... of her determined struggle to support a family alone. She tells about the birth of her second daughter in the midst of a German buzz-bomb attack; about becoming a civil servant (and laying the groundwork for her writing career by working in the criminal justice system); about her years of public service on such bodies as the Arts Council and the BBC's Board of Governors, culminating in entry to the House of Lords. Along the way, she offers views on everything from author tours to the problems of television adaptations, from book reviewing to her obsession with Jane Austen.
The New York Times Book Review
"The form James has invented, a kind of public diary, creates an intimacy that a major autobiography would never achieve, a window through which we can glimpse the Baroness going about her day, and hear her reflect on it, and on her life.... [It is] a revealing portrait of a gifted human being, full of common sense and humour, someone we would like to know." — The Globe and Mail
"Fascinating...an elegant, enjoyable amalgamation of memoir and journal." — Literary Review
"A rare jewel." — The Times (London)
"Such a delight." — Frances Fyfield
"James clearly has found her own healing art. Her 'fragment of autobiography' is deeply moving, and all too short." — The New York Times Book Review
"A monument to…James' remarkable working life. She is a heroine, not of our time, but of her own; her story is an improving one. But it is the good humour with which it is encountered that makes it memorable." — Anita Brookner, The Spectator
"Delightful...touching.... It is like a string quartet in which themes appear, slide away and recur. The result is a memoir of charm and feeling which retains its dignity and reserve. — Scotland On Sunday
“Deeply moving, and all too short.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A cornucopia of discernment, judgment and wisdom.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
“A charming, informative and timely memoir … elegantly constructed.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Energetic, thorough, excitingly fierce, and [at times] terribly sad.”—Financial Times (London)
“James’s thoughtful, endearing book is both candid and cagey, agreeably informal and yet tightly controlled … She has given us a delicately balanced, consistently interesting and finely written account of herself, full of wisdom as well as common sense.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“Certainly a wonderful read … An artful book – what else would you expect?”—Antonia Fraser, The Mail on Sunday
“Delightful, touching … balanced by modesty and free of hubris, like a string quartet in which themes appear, slide away and recur … a memoir full of charm and feeling.”—Scotland on Sunday
“A rare jewel. Engaging … Very human … We are allowed to know that her calm, sane, affluent plateau was hard-won.”—The Times
“A work of great value, both for casual readers and students of literature. There was no need to label it a fragment – it is a distillation of her entire life.”—The Toronto Star
- Random House Publishing Group
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- Edition description:
- 1 BALLANTI
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.52(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.65(d)
Read an Excerpt
A diary, if intended for publication (and how many written by a novelist are not?), is the most egotistical form of writing. The assumption is inevitably that what the writer thinks, does, sees, eats and drinks on a daily basis is as interesting to others as it is to himself or herself. And what motive could possibly induce people to undertake the tedium of this daily task--for surely at times it must be tedious--not just for one year, which seems formidable enough, but sometimes for a lifetime? As a lover of diaries, I am glad that so many have found time and energy and still do. How much of interest, excitement, information, history and fascinating participation in another's life would be lost without the diaries of John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Fanny Burney and Francis Kilvert. Even the diary of a fictional Victorian, Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, "simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication," would have its appeal.
I have never up until now kept a diary, largely because of indolence. During my career as a bureaucrat, a working day spent mainly in drafting reports or speeches and writing letters or minutes left little incentive for further writing, particularly the recording of trivia.
And any writing, if it is worth doing, requires care, and I have preferred to spend that care on my fiction. My motive now is to record just one year that otherwise might be lost, not only to children and grandchildren who might have an interest but, with the advance of age and perhaps the onset of the dreaded Alzheimer's, lost also to me. It willinevitably catch on the threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat, so that this will be a partial autobiography and a defence against those who, with increasing frequency, in person or by letter, announce that they have been commissioned to write my biography and invite my co-operation. Always after my refusal there is the response, "Of course, once you have died there will be biographies. Surely it's better to have one now when you can participate." Nothing is more disagreeable than the idea of having one now and of participation. Fortunately I am an appallingly bad letter-writer and both my children are reticent, but at least if they and others who enjoy my work are interested in what it was like to be born two years after the end of the First World War and to live for seventy-eight years in this tumultuous century, there will be some record, however inadequate.
I have a friend who assiduously keeps a diary, recording merely the facts of each day, and seems to find satisfaction in looking back over, say, five years and proclaiming that "This was the day I went to Southend-on-Sea with my sister." Perhaps the reading of those words brings back a whole day in its entirety--sound, sense, atmosphere, thought--as the smell of decaying seaweed can bring in a rush the essence of long-forgotten summers. The diaries capturing adolescence, I suspect, are mainly therapeutic, containing thoughts that cannot be spoken aloud, particularly in the family, and a relief to overpowering emotions, whether of joy or sorrow. A diary, too, can be a defence against loneliness. It is significant that many adolescent diaries begin "Dear Diary." The book, carefully hidden, is both friend and confidant, one from whom neither criticism nor treachery need be feared. The daily words comfort, justify, absolve. Politicians are great keepers of diaries, apparently dictating them daily for eventual use in the inevitable autobiography, laying down ammunition as they might lay down port. But politicians' diaries are invariably dull, Alan Clark's being a notable exception. Perhaps all these motives are subordinate to the need to capture time, to have some small mastery over that which so masters us, to assure ourselves that, as the past can be real, so the future may hold the promise of reality. I write, therefore I am.
Perhaps some compulsive diarists write to validate this experience. Life for them is experienced with more intensity when recollected in tranquillity than it is at the living moment. After all, this happens in fiction. When I am writing a novel, the setting, the characters, the action are clear in my mind before I start work--or so I believe. But it is only when these imaginings are written down, passing, it seems almost physically, from my brain down the arm to my moving hand that they begin to live and move and have their being and assume a different kind of truth.
A diary, by definition, is a daily record. I very much doubt whether this proposed record of one year in my life will be a diary within the proper meaning of that word; certainly I can't see myself recording the events of every day. I feel, too, that many social events can't properly be mentioned since I have no intention of betraying confidences and some of the most interesting things I learn are said to me in confidence. I love gossip in other people's diaries, while recognizing that its interest is in inverse proportion to its truth, but I suspect that this record will have little to offer in the way of titillating revelations. And to look back on one's life is to experience the capriciousness of memory. When I was very young and leaving church with my mother, she told me that the hymn we had sung, "Blessed Are the Pure in Heart," was sung at the funeral of a friend of hers who had died in childbirth with her baby during the great flu pandemic which followed the First World War. Now I can never hear it without thinking of that young mother and her child, both dead before I was born. No effort of will can banish a vague unfocused sadness from my thoughts every time that hymn is sung. And the past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography.
So tomorrow, on 3rd August, I shall write the first entry in a record which I propose to keep for one year, from my seventy-seventh to my seventy-eighth birthday. Will I persist with this effort? Only time will tell. And will I be here at the end of the year? At seventy-seven that is not an irrational question. But then is it irrational at any age? In youth we go forward caparisoned in immortality; it is only, I think, in age that we fully realize the transitoriness of life.
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. And there are other matters over which memory has exercised its self-defensive censorship. Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious. This seems a merciful dispensation; I have no intention of lying on a psychiatrist's couch in an attempt to hear their waking growls. But then I am a writer. We fortunate ones seldom have need for such an expedient. If, as one psychiatrist wrote--was it Anthony Storr?--"creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict," then I, a purveyor of popular genre fiction, and that great genius Jane Austen have the same expedient for taming our sleeping tigers.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I'm a big P. D. James fan. I found her to be a wonderful companion. Her observations about the changing world in which we live, and her tolerant bemusement about herself as well as the rest of us made me smile on nearly every page. I was nervous about reading this memoir/diary, since I didn't want to find one of my favorite novelists - in any genre - was a person I didn't like. I needent have worried. She is a true lady and a gem. I thoroughly enjoyed being her friend for a few days. - I sent copies to several friends.
And have an interest in the working mind of a writer. You might wish to compare with other women writers talking about their writing as it touches their personal life and you will find a great similarity mom
Miss James, as usual is very readable, and describes many interesting incidents in her daily life. She shares much of her approach to writing, but not much of her personal life. It seems she is either a very private person, or is saving much for an authentic autobiography. I found that I learned more about the personal life of the late Dorothy Sayers than I cared to, and found the information gratuitous, and unnecessary to this work.