At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest — Samuel Johnson
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been engaged this week in reading a P.D. James’s Death comes to Pemberley, watching the film adaptation closely, and studying Juliette Towhidi’s script once again, and decided to revise a blog I wrote for my Under the Sign of Sylvia II as a record of my reading, into a blog on what James has to tell us about her life, its connection to her mystery-detective stories, and the film adaptations of her work she has overseen over the years.
P.D. James’s A Time to be in Earnest, is a diary-as-autobiography, whose apparently upbeat terrain is belied by its constant theme of death, James is ever gripped by death, Death comes is her phrase again and again. She lived through World War II under the bombs, her husband became mentally ill from his experience in the military (as is not uncommon), and these experiences and her memories of a hard childhood, repeatedly end for her in sentiments whose gravity is underlined by her tendency to utter earnest consolation:
There is no point in regretting any part of the past. The past can’t now be altered, the future has yet to be lived, and consciously to experience every moment of the present is the only way to gain at least the illusion of immortality [though why anyone would want immortality is beyond me just now].
Yet she writes a success story, tells of all the famous people she meets, in one level produces a Horatio Alger story of deprived, poor and unlucky young woman makes good despite horrendous events occurring all around her, like WW2 and giving birth under the raining bombs. Whenever she can, though, she tells of consolation, compensation and occasionally joy: for example, she tells of one of her earliest moments of ‘intense happiness’ when she learned to read.
A butterfly becomes ‘one of those rare moments in which a fugitive beauty, briefly contemplated ,is experienced with a peculiar intensity, the sense of being a privileged spectator of a life, which however, brief is part of a mysterious whole.
Tellingly to me there is nothing like this in the detective fiction by her I’ve read thus far (4 novels, one non-fiction book on an early 19th century murder and police procedural at the time as it were). Detective fiction she seems (only seems) to approach in a business-like fashion though as a stylist she was a poet too:
“For me, setting, character, narrative are always interdependent” she says. “All fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangment by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form desgined to make it accessible and attractive to a reader.”
There is a section where she begins to discuss how mystery and crime fiction emerged from Sherlock Holmes stories, arguing that they are improbable and not scientific at all, nor the 1930s school of women writers; nowadays writers try more. She goes over the oddity that the Sayers school is still liked — she sees them as comfort books, a refuge — rather like Austen. I had found I didn’t like her detective fiction after all — though admitting to its strengths (deft description, able to hold you in the characters sufficiently that I at least wanted to know who did it), but I like this autobiography because it differs so strongly from her detective fiction. She is one of those who presents the horrors of deaths that these stories put before us, and then sweeps all under a rug of re-assertion of order. Everything tidied up at the end even if the murderer is not punished, so then all is well. She suggests that women especially find the conventions and the form of mysteries [focused ‘on murder’, which evokes ‘strong emotions’]) both satisfying and supportive.” She values limited realism above all. Myself I can’t respond to crime fiction this way.
It’s not uncommon with me to prefer someone’s life-writing to their fiction. James who is very much aware of her conservative political stance. I can see why her fiction on the surface seems more modern than say Sayers, is not quintessentially country house fiction: in fact she grew up lower middle class in England. I admire her control; in this book she is moving from the vivid present of 2000 and making comments as she remembers different aspects of her past while the straight narrative moves chronologically. The aspects chosen are for emotional connections and effect. See my review of her Death Comes to Pemberley.
Nonetheless, there is a hard-core sense of truthfulness and integrity that comes across that I am drawn to.
I woke at six with a feeling of vague unease, as if my mind were struggling free from the last clinging threads of a bad dream. It was another hot night and I had slept fitfully. Perhaps there had been a bad dream, but I had no conscious memory of it (p. 36)
It is woman’s memoir, écriture-femme as once would have been said. It is a diary across a year, the entries are organized according to the month she sat down and write each entry, with that entry labelled the day she’s writing. That gives it a cyclical structure as she often does the same thing over and over, or she sees family and experiences anniversaries, goes to all sorts of events to push her books.
Within this there is a chronological story which is (as I say) a more or less a success story. If you read with care, there are stages where she achieves this or that depsite great hardship (typical for men, Horatio Alger stuff) but again these are accompanied by powerful vignettes countering the feel of that: she gives birth to a baby while the bombs are dropping down on the hospital and we get this terrifying scene of how it feels to be under the bombs, the civilians. And the success story is accompanied by sharp critiques or vignettes of social life connecting them to day — a strong detailed frank description of her 5 years as governor at the BBC, She critiques what the institution has become; if it’s not there for excellence, it has lost its mission. Much of her inspiration for this or that story in her Dalgliesh series seems to have come from experiences on her different jobs — which included working for the military and health care. So then just plopped in are little critical essays on books she has read.
She writes of diaries:
The book, carefully hidden, is both friend and 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 politician’s diaries are invariably dull [The admiral did not find them so – he loved to read politician and earlier courtier-intrigue types, from Crossman back to Greville.] Perhaps some compulsive diaries write to validate this experience. Life for them is experienced with more intensity when recollected in tranquillity than it is at the living moment 
Why James writes this diary. She sees autobiography sophisticatedly: it is part fictionalizing, part shoring up, part compensation, wish-fulfillment, inventing a life that was not quite the one you had:
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 …
She would never call herself a feminist but in her book as she moves back to the chronologically told past, she is slowly creating a career for herself in life and reliving it through this book — even before her husband became permanently mentally ill. The cyclical nature of women’s life-writing comes by how she weaves a forward-thrust narrative with diaries entries of what happened on the days she’s writing the chronology parts and these other events give her an opportunity to muse on her art, and the arts and topics of those whose speeches she hears or conversation she participates in. She was part of a generation which were rewarded by being sent to fine schools for little money — she does not appear to understand how lucky she was nor that social forces today (which she has a way of deploring) would have deprived her of the education that enabled her to become a writer. I can identify the way I have done with other lower middle class English writers on their childhood.
Thus I enter into the world of this book despite so much against it from her skewed politics to her name-dropping. Beyond the utterances at the close of her stories, every once in a while she launches into talking about writing, books in a highly intelligent insightful way and the occasional deeply melancholy sentiments pulled up by wry scepticism show me where the power of her mystery novels comes from. What grates about James’s conservatism are her hobby-horses and name-dropping, the narrow minded distortions, especially about girls in schools, what is happening in education, that she keeps repeating. On name-dropping: a couple of names is fine, but when she lists them and each time she goes somewhere, who she sat next to — I suppose there are worse faults … In a way some of her favorite bete noirs are revealing of her; in this case, we should remember how she, as intelligent as she was, passing all the elite tests she did, still did not get to go to the best schools because her family did have to pay more for her to go than she could afford. Some of this fuels her books and gives them their power.
What she is remarkably honest and candid about in concise ways are her life and feelings which went into her mysteries. For example her fascination with death and how a murder tries everyone around it and brings out deep aspects of the people left as well as murdered and murderer, the presence of death itself. Her husband is a continual quiet memory throughout the book, his illness, his death. She acknowledges how authors do use real people as partial or even whole sources for their characters — in her case partial. How she uses herself as other authors use themselves. It’s the tone of this one — she does say she was much influenced by Jane Austen – and Anthony Trollope. Like him she has the gift of easy readability — one of the reasons for her commercial success
Towards the end of the book, James is invited to talk at Chawton. She includes a copy of her talk. Her section on Austen shows all her strengths and hobbyhorses too. Basing herself on the letters (and novels and common sense to), she’s simply truthful, candid: she suggests Austen did not marry because she saw endless pregnancies (and deaths in her near family from this); she talks of Austen’s repulsion at these bodies and quotes apt lines. Austen was seriously tempted to marry to be mistress of Manydown; why not? Marriage was a career option and they needed the money, but she declined the next morning. So traumatic for her.
Still Austen is not exactly grieving over Elizabeth, Edward’s wife’s death and she goes further than say he had that cottage well before Elizabeth died: he could have set them up much better. I was reminded of my feeling early in the letters that Edward’s attitude towards money and lack of generosity resembles John Dashwood.
James doesn’t idealize Cassandra Austen; she says it’s understandable given the mores, but Cassandra destroyed a precious large legacy. Beyond that she shows herself to be of the romantic erotic camp; she can’t enter into sympathy with someone who simply became a spinster; the feel is of see she’s weak or see how forbidding she was.
She’s read D. W. Harding and would call part of the feeling in the novels and letters “controlled resentment: ” the brothers are given careers, cared about individually; Jane’s piano is sold and if she made some sums from her novels, her life carried on controlled by the brothers and family. She does not want to impose a 20th century sensibility and (part of her hobbyhorses again) Austen was “hardly deprived by domesticity or a university education.” So much for college.
James says she first read P&P at 8 or 9. That is young. It was to her like Little Women — well I did read Little Women at age 10. She understands now she missed a lot but she loved Pride and Prejudice even from a young adolescent’s perspective.
She’s also frank about the origins of the society, how it grew, the rich American responsible for rescuing Chawton — which she does not idealize (literature of the country house is in danger of this): a 17th century house, it was and is at the time still dark. She attributes the growth of the society to the 1995 movie.
Most interesting are her discussions of detective and mystery and crime fiction as such and the film adaptations of her work.
She does not herself discuss her Death Comes to Pemberley but it fits in with all her criteria and stances. What Juliette Howtidi did in the movie was to pull the vein of disquiet, of death’s primal effect on everyone — as well as re-arrange the plot-design to be more effective and herself go back to Austen. Howtidi’s Death of Pemberley makes much of intense sibling relationships … and I think attempts to reconcile the early Darcy of Austen’s P&P with the later one by insisting on the deeper moral man and his aristocratic code of reticence and yes status. Which in this movie being made in a supposed egalitarian era he learns to put away.
In Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley, as in Maggie Wadey’s Mansfield Park, it is the man who is ritually self-humiliated and apologizes and learns from the woman — Darcy from Elizabeth (this is not in James’s novel at all). Towhidi’s Elizabeth is herself placed in the abject position by her own fears and how others treat in the mid portion of the movie, but that makes it deeper and more real. James is too reverential and her version of Death Comes to Pemberley neither makes of Elizabeth an active sleuth (like Jane Tennison) nor is she connected directly with the crime or anything about it directly. So James’s book is dull (more on the book itself in my next blog).
The crime novelist does not reject romantic fiction or science fiction in favour of murder through conscious choice. He or she needs to deal with the atavistic fear of death, to exorcize the terror of violence and to restore at least fictional peace and tranquillity after the disruptive terror of murder … John LeCarre is as much fascinated by personal treachery and betrayal as he is by the shoddy international bureaucracy of spying and the dangers and excitement of the chase. Espionage is his internal as well as external world.
The book turns very interesting when she reaches the filming of her An Unsuitable Job for a Woman for filming. It has a woman detective heroine, Cordelia Grey is central and is particularly insightful. She made the mistake (as she sees it) of allowing the successful producers to take her character, Cordelia and write another story of their own. This by the way is what Winston Graham refused to allow and what really brought the Poldark mini-series to a halt. He had originally only 4 completed by the early 1970s (used for 1975-76 first mini-series); then he had begun the 5th (with a 20 year gap to get over) and then was furiously writing the 7th just in time for the filming of the second series (1977-87). The producers asked if they could carry on with the characters and milieu themselves, promising utter faithfulness to conceptions &c. He knew they couldn’t; they weren’t him.
James had to learn this. When she was told her heroine’s story including pregnancy outside marriage, she was appalled, worse yet was the way it was done. Without typing out details suffice to say I believe the filmmakers when they rejected her alternative and said there was not much difference in theirs that mattered – to them. The details are important for those who want to see how really conservative socially James is when it comes to sexuality. She then had a helluva time making sure her name was not used, and another title for the series was invented. She writes as a warning. Had to get a very good lawyer to work at this
To add another kind of objection James had to the second mini-series or episode from her character Cordelia Grey. For the pregnancy, although James would never have done it herself, part of her objection was the huge addition of emotionalism such a development would accrue round the central detective figure. She suggests that while the detective figure is a character and needs to have real interest, they should also be kept apart, distanced, cool — Dalgliesh is that and, for example, Helen Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect. It’s not just an old-fashioned attitude towards sex outside marriage though it is that too.
She objected perhaps more fiercely to the story of the pregnancy. This is her woman’s point of view. She protests against how Cordelia is imagined as just letting herself get pregnant “by an old boyfriend” who casually disappears and now “brave little woman” she must bring up the child herself. James wanted to change it so that Cordelia meets someone who is fatally ill with whom she had a deep relationship, and out of real feeling, compassion for past, she has an affair with him. James talks about the irreponsiblity of the first story, but as is common in this book myself I think her moralizations do not voice what are her real objections or thoughts. Both stories have a woman getting pregnant without caring for the future of the child they might have, but the second shows much more bonding between the pair, real feeling (paradoxically – but then she didn’t want the pregnancy in the first place). The former is a male story: the idea of an encounter without ties and get away — one sees this everywhere on the Net for example in thesematch.com groups. And then attaches it to idealizing the single mother as that’s thought popular. James really does write as a woman from a woman’s perspective and is not attracted by the latest fashionable stereotype.
The other one is about detective fiction that’s serious even if it’s entertainment and in the end a (false James admits) imposition of order and rationality and justice on the world (which allows the reader to escape says James). She talks of the poorness of the script: Cordelia never sees the body; the body murder scene must be detailed centrally, crucial to all detective crime stories is this key scene and it’s best that the detective examine it. That makes the story serious. it’s best that the detective examine the corpse. That makes the story serious. In Death Comes to Pemberley the return to the crime scene in the film is obsessive; in the book Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate watches Dr McFee thoroughly examine how death occurred and listens to all he says and we really get a sense of the mood the man must’ve had just as he died, of the body as containing this previous person frozen.
James suggests therefore that in the film version of An Unsuitable Job their not bothering to have Cordelia even there shows just how superficial was their interest in the genre and book. All they were interested in doing was making a pop program which took least effort of thought. The answer then is most of what is dramatized in the character of Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is fantasy, a kind of re-insertion into an 18th century sequel novel of what are conventions for modern detective-crime novels’ examination of the body. In Prime Suspect there is always a thorough observation of the corpse and procedures about it. In Breaking Bad I see the same thing done (examination) to anyone who dies or is killed.
Although this is not true of James (as she was of an age when people do learn to drive with more ease when cars were rare and public transportation very good in the UK), her continuing not to drive in later life is a sign of un-ease with the tempo and a number of other things characteristic of modern life and made intense on the road. She is a highly intelligent woman and she does bring out these characteristics as she worries herself and goes about to find ways to get places and get herself back. Occasionally she is stranded and traveling takes much longer. She is active socially, but even more she is continually out there supporting her books, publicizing herself, negotiating deals for films and talks and going to places where important known writers are and getting prizes with them . She does tell us far more about all these trips more than the times home — which must be long as every once in while voila a new book comes from her.
I find her to be someone whose understanding of her own fiction is not fully conscious; when she talks of “serious literature” most of the time she gets irritated by what the author wanted to do. I can tell when she misreads because a favorite is Trollope and she often objects precisely to the very point the author may be making with his or her character, denying its reality and then bad-mouthing the character for. She writes herself:
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 … And there are other matters over which memory has exercised its efl-defensive censorship. Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious
James and Trollope
James mentions Trollope numerous times and says she often takes one or more Barsetshire novels with her when she travels. Since appears to go out a good deal! I can see how her fiction relates to a vision of his which we find in Downton Abbey (pro-hierarchy, depictions of the world as so many upstairs and downstairs &c), but curiously each time she descends to details she appears to complain. Which makes me suspect that her vision of him which we find in Downton Abbey is actually inaccurate and that her reasons for loving him are not faced up to.
Three passages stuck out. She complains almost bitterly about Lily Dale (from The Small House at Allington). She says she “came” to Trolllope in her 30s and since then he has provided “enormous pleasure.” Then that Lily Dale is a “monster,” she’s glad Crosbie escaped Lily (even if he is “a cad”), pities “poor Mrs Dale” destined to spend her “old age” with the “resolutely single and masochistic Lily Dale.” Just thinking about these words gives me renewed energy: I know Trollope seems to inveigh against Lily in his Autobiography but what he is inveighing against is the readership which sees her choice sentimentally, then he calls her a “prig.” Inside the fiction, the cases are made nuanced and each time she is either badly hurt for real or she sees that marriage would be a bad idea (with Crosbie seeing forever how much more she wanted him), and at the close of the book we are told she is at peace — has a comfortable sum of money and no longer bothered by so many things (pp. 37-38). PD James consciously loathes Lily Dale because she sees her as self-indulgent and has no inclination for retreat herself. And James had a hard younger life — the parents impoverished, the father fighting hard for a gov’t job at last.
But I suggest that she also loved the kind of character Lily Dale represents — of which there are so many in Trollope, from Mr Harding to Lady Mason.
By the time she finished with The Duke’s Children one wonders why anyone reads it, much less wants to produce an unabridged edition. “Only Lady Mabel Grex” “engages her sympathy”, Lady Mary is “obstinate charmless,” the heiress Isabel “irritating” (“it’s obvious [Trollope] was in love with his creation”), then the young men, Lord Silverbridge and brother are “amiable nonentities,” hopeless cyphers, and she says Trollope gives as wives to his men women “who are content to treat them as lord and masters.” She even has to say the Duke who she has liked so much now loses her “sympathy” when he treats Mrs Finn with “ungentlemanly callousness and injustice,” (p. 222-23). ). She doesn’t mention (seem aware) of how Madame Max is re-engineered from an independent European divorcee who married for money the first time and when she made a mistake the second pays him to stay away, to become a chaste widow for Phineas Finn can marry her.
In this case one sees again she has not entered into the value scheme of the novel. It’s true that Lady Mabel is meant as a tragic figure, but she is uninterested in the father-son conflicts, how Lady Mary is standing in for Lady Glen and doing what Lady Glen could not when young (stay firm for the man she wants and against the life she doesn’t), and she ignores the central absent-present figure of Lady Glen as well as the complex semi-corrupt figure of Frank Tregear.
She does praise The Way We Live Now in one of her frequent diatribes against some aspects of modernity: here it’s that literary novels today do not write about large social issues, do not examine “the dilemmas and concerns of our age” the way Dickens did. Where is there a brilliant portrait of a financier like Melmotte? She also likens Trollope’s TWWLN to Tolstoy’s War and peace.” (Tolstoy seems ever a name to conjure with.)
She has not read much of the Booker prize books then and is (as is seen in the rest of her book) out of sympathy with their politics. She feels modern soap operas on British TV are more in sync with popular readerships. Maybe. Hard to say since people are so distinct and large groups really don’t exist the way it’s presented in mass media. she would absolve herself as mystery stories (according to her) are entertainments, meant to reassure (yes that inexplicable idea recurs again and again all the while she will tell of some horrible death in this or that book).
Trollope would not have been surprised, he knew a lot of his readership did miss the point he tried to make in many of his books. Yet she read on and is candid and truthful about her responses so produces a revealing example of typical readers.
It may be that the majority of people in the UK are coming to feel no one represents their interests and a book about politicians or politics turns them off, but politics is just everywhere — all stories are utterly shaped by perspectives ultimately political.
P.D. James fails to recognize as valid another political vision is part of it too; she speaks on the same platform as Salmon Rushdie for example: he’s a political writer, but his vision is global. He and others see the larger view of how militarism and colonialist exploitation around the world are driving domestic politics in the UK and elsewhere. To pick a popular mystery series, Prime Suspect was continually political, exposing all sorts of wrongs in bureaucracies of powerful agencies especially — and it was popular. True that James identifies with the detached Dalgliesh — and (I am told) perhaps meant him to marry Cordelia eventually. She was herself a woman living on herself — later in life with a beloved cat, Polly-Hodge:
I will probably move on to read her mystery which is said to rehearse the Jane Austen P&P story from afar (The Murder Room), (I’ve now read three, her first, Cover her Face, A Taste of Death and Death Comes to Pemberley, and her Maul and Pear Tree and Talking about Fiction), but her autobiography is to me very interesting, full of life and (like the mysteries) her prose is so readable. She has wonderful sheerly descriptive gifts. I have bought her Maul and Pear Tree and look forward to her take on a specific murder story of the long 18th century era.