Tuesday, June 5, 2012

150: The Self-Empowered Woman: P.D. James

Dear Followers,

It seems fitting this week--when so many eyes are focused on London due to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee--that today's blog be focused on another amazing white-haired much-admired Englishwoman. I have been a fan of P.D. James ever since 1980, when I read Innocent Blood, which was her first best-selling novel in America. By now, of course, her dozens of books have earned her millions of fans around the world.

Born on August 3rd, 1920, in Oxford, England, Phyllis Dorothy James is today referred to as Baroness James of Holland Park (OBE, FRSA, FRSL), but when she was younger her life was far from enviable. She grew up during the Depression, and when she was a teenager her mother was in a mental hospital. That meant that James had to care for her younger brother and sister. At age 16 she had to leave school and go to work because her family was always in need of money (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Even though her jobs included work in a tax office, as an assistant stage manager for a theater group, hospital administration employee and civil servant work with the criminal section of the Home Office, James always wanted to be a writer (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

In her words "I never doubted that [writing] is what I could do and wanted to do and psychologically needed to do...I think I was born knowing it. From an early age I used to tell imaginative stories to my younger brother and sister. I lived in the world of the imagination...writing was what I wanted to do--almost as soon as I knew what a book was." 

Raised as an Anglican, James--who is a Lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society--has made no secrets of her religious faith. "At a very young age, I moved away from the idea of the benign gentlemen up there in the sky. I think I always believed that God was not visible. I always thought of him as an in-dwelling spirit...I do continue to believe in the existence of God, that he is loving and that it's possible to be in contact with him...I do believe in redemption through love. That is my religion..." (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). 

In 1941, James married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an Army doctor, and they had two daughters. But when he returned from World War two he suffered a mental breakdown, ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and she had to support the family (12: Hard Times). In 1968, she took the civil service open exam and began work in the Home Office. In her words "They didn't normally want people who'd left school at 16, and very few women were successful. But I was number three in the country on the exam" (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

James began writing books in the mid 1950's, and her first novel Cover Her Face (published when she was 42) introduced readers to the perennially popular Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. With strict work habits instilled in her from childhood, the detective novel appealed to James' pursuit of perfection. She told an interviewer "A detective story is very easy to write badly, but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into 80 or 90 thousand words--not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters...It takes me as long to develop the plot and work out the characters as to write the book. Sometimes longer." (10: The Critic Within). In those days, she would write from six until eight am and then go to work; she retired from her work in government service in 1979.

Never afraid to speak her mind, James recently ruffled feathers after she visited Sommerville College, Oxford and took note of the portraits of the first woman to graduate from the college versus those who are currently enrolled "If [those first female graduates] came back today, they would be horrified to see what kind of society we live in...So often this so-called independence means that you are paying someone else to do your work--you go out to work in order to earn money to pay the woman who is looking after your children. She is enjoying your children instead of you." And as a sitting member of the Tory side of the House of Lords, she became an outspoken opponent of political correctness (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

P.D. James has enjoyed a vastly successful career writing crime fiction, and in the genre she is as popular as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell and/or Patricia Cornwell. Obviously, she has spent decades being fascinated by mysterious death (7: Magnificent Obsession).

The young woman who for decades was never able to attend university (or start a career as a young writer)somehow managed to brilliantly--if belatedly--make her dream come true. She now has seven Honorary Doctorates and over a dozen major writing awards (8: Turning No Into Yes). James has always referred to her two daughters as "an absolute delight," and she has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren (16: Intensive Motherhood). 

When asked what her detective fiction said about her, James--who is now 91 years old and still writing--replied "That I am a woman who likes life to be ordered. In a long life, I have never taken a drug or got drunk...because the idea of being out of control is appalling to me...What I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation of murder...It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."

Looking forward to your comments...

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