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Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography

Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography

3.6 5
by P. D. James

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The great British mystery novelist P. D. James, otherwise known as the Queen of Crime, has redefined the genre over a career spanning close to forty years. TIME magazine called her the "reigning mistress of murder," whose vivid and compelling novels have made her one of the world's leading crime writers. Biographers have urged her to allow them to write about


The great British mystery novelist P. D. James, otherwise known as the Queen of Crime, has redefined the genre over a career spanning close to forty years. TIME magazine called her the "reigning mistress of murder," whose vivid and compelling novels have made her one of the world's leading crime writers. Biographers have urged her to allow them to write about her life, but she has always kept them at bay, valuing her privacy.

However, at the age of seventy-seven, P. D. James decided for the first time in her life to keep a diary for one year, foremost as a record of her thoughts and memories for her family and herself, but also as a "fragment of autobiography" for publication. As she beautifully describes the salient events of a dizzying year full of publicity duties, giving lectures and fulfilling other public commitments, she lets the memories flow, wandering back and forth through the years to illuminate an extraordinary life and to give striking insights into the craft of writing. The book became a New York Times bestseller – as have all of her recent books – and does more than simply satisfy the curiosity of her many fans.

Mystery author Eric Wright wrote in The Globe and Mail that "The final effect is not of a fragment, but of a finished miniature portrait of the artist in her 77th year. … The form she has invented, a kind of public diary, creates an intimacy that a major autobiography would never achieve. …a revealing portrait of a gifted human being, full of common sense and humour, someone we would like to know."

In the book, James comments on everything from architecture to literature to fox hunting to thedecline of moral values in modern Britain, and shares with us her love of reading and the joys of family life (she has two daughters, who live in the United States, and several grandchildren). However, she refuses to delve too deeply into the painful areas of her personal life now well in the past, though she has clearly experienced some hard times. "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." Readers have found this reservation admirable and elegantly refreshing in a time of "self-rummaging, self-serving autobiography" (Joan Barfoot, The London Free Press). Still, hints of pain slip in, and we may sometimes read between the lines.

Time to Be in Earnest is a privileged and engrossing look into the life and mind of one of the great mystery writers alive today, one who has earned comparisons with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. James is also deeply thoughtful, a remarkable woman who witnessed much over the course of the twentieth century. Whether describing motherhood in London during the bombardments of the Second World War, her fine career as a civil servant in the British Home Office, or her later life as a formidably successful writer, she sheds light on a lifetime of exceptional achievements.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In 1997, on the eve of her 77th birthday, noted mystery novelist James (A Certain Justice) decided to keep a diary for the first time ever, recording one year in her life. The result is this "fragment of autobiography," a mix of memoir, ruminations on everything from her writing career to Princess Diana's death, and literary criticism (James is a passionate admirer of Jane Austen and includes in an appendix a speech she gave to the Jane Austen Society on "Emma Considered as a Detective Story"). While James confesses to loving gossip in other people's diaries, she admits that her own has "little to offer in the way of titillating revelations." Although her discretion about the painful periods in her life (in particular, her husband's mental illness) is admirable in this Age of Indecent Exposure, it also makes for an impersonal and rather dull diary. The reader never gets a sense of the true James and the events that shaped her as a writer and human being. For larger collections.[Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00.]--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Keeping in mind the words of Samuel Johnson, "At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest," James decided to record feelings and observations about her world from her 77th to her 78th birthday. She wanted to capture the events, thoughts, and emotions of one year not only for her family but also as a record for herself. Much more than an account of day-to-day events though, she gives brief insights into what it was like to grow up in wartime England, her ideas about authors and the craft of writing, and the changes in the treatment of women. Mundane events such as catching the Oxford Tube mingle with more exciting activities such as book signing in Dallas. Readers looking for intimate revelations might be disappointed by the tone of her writing. In the prologue, she says, "There is much that I remember that is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things." And yet, as she speaks about her husband and his mental illness or the unhappiness of her parents' marriage, she doesn't gloss over some very sad moments. An enjoyable choice for fans of this British mystery writer.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Tony Gibbs
Written in the form of a diary of her 78th year, P. D. James's Time to Be in Earnest is, in fact, a partial autobiography - "a fragment," the author calls it. James, justly famous for her series of darkly brooding mystery novels, is a life peer, and she reveals herself in entries that form the record of one who takes her obligations in parliament seriously. She is also a woman whose past includes perhaps more than the usual share of personal sorrows, and an imaginative and precise writer whose notable opinions about other artists are always worth reading. But the best thing about this unexpectedly magical volume is the way in which its author embodies her country at its best, for this is, at bottom, a book about England, past and present.
Islands Magazine
[A] delicately constructed memoir . . . This book is no septuagenarian's exercise in nostalgia. . . . Her diary's deft, light touch covers a stark moral philosophy. . . . deeply moving, and all too short.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
From British mystery writer (and recent Baroness) James, an elegantly constructed, deceptively off-the-cuff reflection on her life and times that is by turns humorous, nostalgic, instructive, and ominous. In her tart fashion, James (A Certain Justice, 1997, etc.) initially notes that, rather than wait for interlopers to begin dissecting her life in unauthorized studies, it would be better (and more fun) to address the subject herself. In August 1997 she began a yearly diary in which her succinct daily entries arced inevitably backwards, using the medium to bring up long-neglected experiences in her own transformation from civil servant and young mother to acclaimed, best-selling author. In turn, she uses her personal journey to consider the tumultuous social changes that took place in Britain and British society (for whose popular culture and contemporary licentiousness she reserves harsh judgment). Although this approach sounds conceptually scattershot, there are a great many passages in this book of concentrated, unsettling power. These range from frightening yet acidly clear-eyed recollections of the war years to insightful considerations of the writing process and the mystery genre. As her journal coincides with the publication of A Certain Justice, she also portrays in restrained but humorous fashion the day-to-day chores of a top-flight popular writer "on the road"; at 78, James clearly relishes her contact with fans and her place in Brit-literary society, depicting her many speaking engagements at a variety of intellectual and social affairs. James is very adept in integrating consideration of her own past (including tales of her long-lost husband and of her ownyouth)into what is essentially a recounting of the present, both as response to the modern era and as a personal record not preoccupied with her "golden years." Yet, as the title implies, an urgency pervades James' setting down this selective kaleidoscope of memory, which makes her transitions seem smoother and her themes more universal (particularly her invaluable asides regarding her chosen genre). A charming, informative, and timely memoir, with vividly somber undertones, sure to be treasured by James' readers. (First printing of 50,000)

From the Publisher
Praise for Time to Be in Earnest:

"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

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(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.

Meet the Author

Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920 in Oxford, England, in the aftermath of the First World War. Her mother experienced emotional breakdowns, and her father could be frightening and was incapable of displaying affection. There was no money for James’s higher education, so at sixteen she went out to work, becoming a Red Cross nurse during the Second World War. She married a doctor, Ernest White (whom James chose to call Connor in the book), in 1941, but he returned from the war with mental illness (later diagnosed as schizophrenia), and until his death at the age of forty-four he was intermittently institutionalized. In the late 1940s, the couple was very poor. To support their two children, James worked full-time as a civil servant in a London hospital, and later in the Police and Criminal Law departments of the British Home Office.

From early childhood, P. D. James wanted to be a writer. She had a vivid fantasy life, telling stories to her younger brother and sister, and was clearly gifted. Yet she did not begin writing until her late thirties, during a difficult period in her life. “I was not only working full time, I was going to evening classes to get the professional qualification in hospital administration. I was visiting my husband in hospital on the weekend, and when the children were home [from boarding school], of course I was with them.” Realizing there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel, she began to write while commuting to work on the train. Even then, she preferred to steer clear of any autobiographical writing of her wartime experiences. Instead, she wrote a mystery novel, believing she might stand a better chance of being published since the genre was popular. “But also, I love the work of constructing a novel, and was happiest working within the constraints of detective fiction – the need for a plot, a puzzle, and so on. I found these constraints liberating.”

By the time James had published her third novel, her position at the Home Office gave her responsibility for the appointment of scientists and pathologists to all of England's forensic research laboratories. She was in touch with police authorities throughout the country and advised ministers on the legal problems relating to juvenile crime. Eventually, after Innocent Blood became a North American bestseller, she gave up her job to write full-time. In a genre that now includes such luminaries as Colin Dexter, Martha Grimes, Minette Walters, Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell, P. D. James is still considered by many one of the top practitioners of mystery fiction. Her books, known for their complex, nuanced plots, careful character development and rich evocation of place, have been made even more popular by television serial adaptations.

She has also kept up a very active public life. In recognition of her work for the Arts Council of Britain, the British Society of Authors and the BBC, James was appointed to the House of Lords in 1991, becoming Baroness James of Holland Park. She has served as a magistrate and as vice-president of the Prayer Book Society. So how does this upstanding pillar of the establishment write of incest, child abuse and violent deaths, with chilling descriptions of hideously mutilated corpses? It is a testament to her imagination: James herself has never known anyone who was murdered and has only ever seen two cadavers.

“I don't think I had a very happy childhood, but I didn't have the kind of childhood that you would expect to produce this dark imagination which I occasionally show.” She fears violence of all kinds, however. While murder is still rare in Britain, there are more incidents of irrational violence, and though she dislikes having bars on the windows of her basement, she also feels unsafe walking alone in her Notting Hill neighbourhood at night. She has a strong sense of morality, and exploring what drives a normally good person to cross the line that separates murderers from the rest of us is what makes her mysteries fascinating. “Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can never make reparation. People have been fascinated from earliest times by the motives, temptations and compulsions which drive people to this ultimate act of violence.”

With each new book, James starts with a place: often an ordered, closed, institutional or bureaucratic environment, such as the ceremonious law courts in A Certain Justice or the theological college in her most recent novel, Death in Holy Orders. She loves making the setting come alive, building narrative thrust and plot, and then reasserting order – though very often, since James is a realist and her police characters work in a contemporary world, justice cannot fully be achieved. Resolution is usually in the hands of detective Adam Dalgliesh, a character whom she has made a complex and sensitive human being, perhaps, as James has said, “an idealized version of what I'd have liked to be if I'd been born a man.” She also created one of the genre’s first female detectives, Cordelia Gray.

“The greatest mystery of all is the human heart, and that is the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned.” James’s explorations of character are subtle and complex, with few innocent victims and few completely unsympathetic killers. She muses: “I wonder if the personality is fixed or fluid, whether it is a rock or a moving river.” Her well-written, challenging books are given the respectful reviews generally accorded a major novelist in the British press. She is beyond worrying about being taken seriously, noting that “genre writing at its best is some of the best fiction we have.” As Margaret Cannon observed in a review in The Globe and Mail, “fans of P. D. James have known for years that the murder is just the edge of the story.”

P. D. James lives in an elegant 1930s house in London. Her favourite novelist is Jane Austen (“an absolute mistress of construction”) and she likes to reread Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope. She grew up reading female mystery writers and was influenced by Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. But while she has a high regard for the great American mystery writers (Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald) and the British novelists Anita Brookner, A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, James does not read much modern fiction. “I'm increasingly fond of biography, autobiography, history and letters.”

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
August 3, 1920
Place of Birth:
Oxford, England
Attended the Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 to 1937 and later took evening classes in hospital administration

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Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.