(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Unlike many authors, British novelist P. D. James has been neither a diarist nor an inveterate letter writer, and she regularly discourages potential biographers, but on August 3, 1997, her seventy-seventh birthday, this doyenne of modern mystery writers started keeping a record of the ensuing year. She was inspired by Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest” as well as her desire to preserve “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.” The published book deals with only about 100 days of the year’s 365, and James admits it is “incomplete, with more omitted than has been recorded.” For example, she deliberately skips events “painful to dwell upon” and “other matters over which memory has exercised its self-defensive censorship.” Authorial disclaimers notwithstanding, Time to Be in Earnest is more than a mere “fragment of autobiography”; rather, it is an expansive memoir in the guise of a diary that progresses chronologically, but James often becomes retrospective as present experiences recall the past. Because her daily routine usually includes speeches, organization meetings, and sessions of the House of Lords (she became Baroness James of Holland Park, a life peer, in 1991), the book abounds with her ideas about such matters as detective fiction, authors classic and contemporary, discrimination against women in the workplace, and suggestions for reforming the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), House of Lords, and Church of England. About the last, she says that from childhood she has

inherited a love of and devotion to the Church of England which is still strong, although . . . much of its former dignity, scholarly tolerance, beauty and order, have been not so much lost as wantonly thrown away, together with its incomparable liturgy.

A keen sense of belonging to a community of professionals has led her to involvement and leadership positions not only with the board of governors of the BBC, but also with the British Council, Society of Authors (of which she was president), Whitbread Literary Awards, and Booker Prize committee (whose panel of judges she chaired in 1987). Among her public activities in her seventy-seventh year, she twice appeared as a panelist on a BBC quiz show; taped a master class about novel writing for Meridian Television; spoke to the Southwold Archaeological and Natural History Society, Scottish Medico-Legal Society, Essex Autistic Society, Jane Austen Society, and Dorset Victim Support; and also lectured at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, St. German’s Cathedral on the Isle of Man, and Trinity and Lincoln Colleges, Oxford. Because her fourteenth novel, A Certain Justice, was published in this year of record (1997), she also had many obligatory receptions, signings, and tours, including a fortnight in the United States, brief trips to France and Norway, and a planned Australian tour for which she gave previsit interviews.

With seemingly boundless energy, James makes her rounds primarily by public transportation—buses, trains, London’s underground—rather than by taxis or chauffeured cars, and visits with children, grandchildren, and friends are interspersed with the public and official activities that fill her daily calendar. Presumably on days not included in the diary she was planning or writing her next novel, book review, or speech.

Aside from describing her hectic schedule, commenting about people she meets and meals they share, and summarizing lectures, James does not write much about less immediate matters. She manages, however, to give pithy revelations of her childhood: a peripatetic lifestyle because her father frequently changed jobs; a loving father and mentally ill mother, who stayed together largely due to a Victorian obligation to marriage vows; supportive and nurturing grandparents; sound traditional schooling; and a freedom from fear and want that fostered an overall security. Consistent with a stated reluctance to deal with the unpleasant, James does not write much about her husband Connor or her marriage, a union that was marred by his mental illness, periods of institutionalization, and early death. About her husband she makes just two extended statements:

I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life. I think of Connor with love and with grief for all he has missed: the grandchildren in whom he would have taken such joy, my success, which would have made the burden of mental illness easier to bear—as money always does—the journeys, the laughter, the small triumphs and the day-to-day living we haven’t shared.

Later, on his birthday:

I still miss him daily, which means that no day goes by in which he doesn’t enter into my mind: a sight which he would have relished, a joke which he would have enjoyed, something seen or read which could be shared with him, the reiteration of familiar gossip, opinions, prejudices, which are part of a marriage.

From these comments she segues into extended commentaries about mental illness and...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)