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TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A fragment of autobiography


by P. D. James

Ballantine Books, 2001 (pbk)
ISBN: 0345442121

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

At the age of 77, mystery writer P. D. James wasn't quite ready to do a full-scale autobiography, and didn't care to collaborate with those who wanted to write her biography. As a compromise, she chose to keep a record of her life for one year, from her 77th to 78th birthday. The result is, as the subtitle suggests, a fragment of an autobiography, but what a charming fragment it is.

There are topics she decided not to include, such as gossip and "titillating revelations" she has learned in confidence, interesting as she finds those things in other peoples' diaries. She also would not record some of her more painful memories, which, she says, "are over, must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven ."

What does she talk about? This is not a daily record of events, but a charming mix of present-day activities with her family, casually mentioned meetings with royalty and high government officials, honors bestowed, and thoughts on modern culture, interspersed with happenings from her childhood and youth. We learn that she does not approve of cell phone users who constantly disrupt her peace in restaurants, public conveyances, and everywhere else. She was uncomfortable with the public outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died, feeling empathy with the Queen, who more properly mourned in private. Especially interesting to me are the passages on how her writing career developed. She explains that she decided to write as "P.D." James rather than "Phyllis" because it was "enigmatic and would look best on the book spine," not because she was trying to make readers think she was a man, although many did think so.

Even though she did not intend to include the more difficult parts of her life, some idea of what they were show up from time to time. Both her mother and her husband, a war veteran and physician, suffered from mental illness, and this obviously had great impact on her life as a child and as a married woman. Her comments about this are understated, almost matter-of-fact, and all the more poignant for it. In one passage she talks about Ted Hughes, who had just published a collection of poems about his relationship with his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, after refusing to comment on it for 35 years. James says she had always had great respect for Hughes for the dignified silence he had maintained, even as he was being vilified for being somehow responsible for Sylvia's tragic life and death. She says, "...no one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what that means. Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent." This says volumes about James' feelings on both her parents' marriage and her own, and the deep pain involved.

There is quite a bit of reminiscing about the war years - World War II - which seem to have been a time for her, as for many who lived through it, of heightened emotions both good and bad. In one entry she describes the birth of her second daughter during a period of German bombing. Her husband was away in the military and she was living with her in-laws. While in the hospital, the mothers were moved into the hallway at night and the babies sent to the basement. It is obvious the thoughts and fears she had then are still vivid after all those years: what if a bomb hits and I can't find my baby? What if I'm hurt and can't get to her? Another time, after she was back with her family, a bomb did hit the house during the night and she awoke to a breeze coming through the non-existent roof, her baby in the crib covered in broken glass.

This is a must-read for fans of P. D. James' writing, but it is also a fascinating look at the life of a complex, talented, and interesting woman that anyone will enjoy.

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