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Time to Be In Earnest

Hardcover | Knopf
April 2000

Paperback | Ballantine
February 2001

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On the day she turned seventy-seven, internationally acclaimed mystery writer P. D. James embarked on an endeavor unlike any other in her distinguished career: she decided to write a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Over the course of a year she set down not only the events and impressions of her extraordinarily active life, but also the memories, joys, discoveries, and crises of a lifetime. This enchantingly original volume is the result. Time to Be in Earnest offers an intimate portrait of one of most accomplished women of our time. Here are vivid, revealing accounts of her school days in Cambridge in the 1920s and '30s, her happy marriage and the tragedy of her husband's mental illness, and the thrill of publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962.
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As she recounts the decades of her exceptional life, James holds forth with wit and candor on such diverse subjects as the evolution of the detective novel, her deep love of the English countryside, her views of author tours and television adaptations, and her life-long obsession with Jane Austen. Wise and frank, engaging and graceful, this "fragment of autobiography" will delight and surprise P. D. James's admirers the world over.

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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 will inevitably 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.

Excerpted from Time to Be in Earnest by P. D. James Copyright 2/27/01 by P. D. James. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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