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Time to Be in Earnest

Cover of Time to Be in Earnest

Time to Be in Earnest

A Fragment of Autobiography
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In 1997, P. D. James, the much loved and internationally acclaimed author of mysteries, turned seventy-seven. Taking to heart Dr. Johnson's advice that at seventy-seven it is "time to be in earnest,"...More
In 1997, P. D. James, the much loved and internationally acclaimed author of mysteries, turned seventy-seven. Taking to heart Dr. Johnson's advice that at seventy-seven it is "time to be in earnest,"...More
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Description-
  • In 1997, P. D. James, the much loved and internationally acclaimed author of mysteries, turned seventy-seven. Taking to heart Dr. Johnson's advice that at seventy-seven it is "time to be in earnest," she decided to undertake a book unlike any she had written before: a personal memoir in the form of a diary. This enchanting and highly original volume is the result. Structured as the diary of a single year, it roams back and forth through time, illuminating James's extraordinary, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful life.

    Here, interwoven with reflections on her writing career and the craft of crime novels, are vivid accounts of episodes in her own past -- of school days in 1920s and 1930s Cambridge . . . of the war and the tragedy of her husband's madness . . . of her determined struggle to support a family alone. She tells about the birth of her second daughter in the midst of a German buzz-bomb attack; about becoming a civil servant (and laying the groundwork for her writing career by working in the criminal justice system); about her years of public service on such bodies as the Arts Council and the BBC's Board of Governors, culminating in entry to the House of Lords. Along the way, with warmth and authority, she offers views on everything from author tours to the problems of television adaptations, from book reviewing to her obsession with Jane Austen.

    Written with exceptional grace, this "fragment of autobiography" has already been received with enthusiasm by British reviewers and readers. The thousands of Americans who have enjoyed P. D. James's novels will be equally charmed. Diary or memoir or both, Time to Be in Earnest is a delight.

    From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts-
  • From the book

    PrologueA 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...

About the Author-
  • P. D. James is the author of fifteen books. Her most recent novel, A Certain Justice, was published in 1997. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Divisions of the Home Office, and has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 1991, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park. P. D. James lives in London and Oxford.

Reviews-
  • The New York Times Book Review

    "Deeply moving . . . . Page after page recalls a vanished world."

  • San Francisco Chronicle "A cornucopia of discernment, judgment, and wisdom."
  • The Washington Post "James neither overintellectualizes nor sentimentalizes. . . . Writing about commonplace events, [she] gives them weight and substance and so confirms their reality, investing them with a radiance that illuminates this fragment of autobiography."
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    Random House Publishing Group
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