New Year’s Eve seems like a good day to finally post these valedictory thoughts.
I don’t claim any level of personal acquaintance with PD James, but she was an Honorary Fellow of my old Oxford college, St Hilda’s, and also a regular at the annual Crime & Mystery Conference there, which I attend as often as I can. I think I’ve only missed three or maybe four of those since 1994. So I have had more opportunities than most fans to hear her speak and occasionally, to talk briefly with her.
She always took a personal interest in whoever she was speaking to, remarkable when you consider how many thousands of people she must have met in the briefest of encounters. One year at the St Hilda’s crime conference, I was substantially pregnant with my second child. The weather was hot and sultry and more than once, Baroness James of Holland Park appeared beside me, asking if I was alright, and did I want to sit down or perhaps she could get me some water? The next year? ‘Oh, my dear,’ she greeted me with a smile, ‘now, do tell me, was it a boy or a girl?’ I told her I’d had a second son and her congratulations were wholly sincere, no mere politeness.
I have pages of notes which I made while listening to her talk about aspects of the writing craft and the writing business, at St Hilda’s and elsewhere, notably during her tenure as President of The Society of Authors. She offered far too much good advice for me attempt to detail it here. I particularly remember her talking about the sense of place in her books, and how that was so often her personal starting point for a story. I especially remember her talking about the nature of malice and yes, evil, and how that isn’t something separate from everyday life and that’s what makes it all the more menacing. She was also, always, a passionate advocate for the literary value of genre fiction, upholding its merits when dealing with narrative, plot and character. And so much more besides.
Since I write SF and fantasy, I also remember a question from the floor at some event or other, when she was asked what she thought of the film adaptation of her novel, The Children of Men. She smiled and with a distinct twinkle in her eye, said she would much rather see a good film loosely based on a book than a bad film that was a completely faithful adaptation.
Or is ‘twinkle’ the right word? That seems a bit too cosy. ‘Glint’ seems rather too hard though and she definitely wasn’t hard. But as Val McDermid said ‘there was nothing cosy about Phyllis’. She’d lived far too demanding a life to indulge in sentimentality. Let’s not forget that Baroness James of Holland Park wasn’t born to rank, wealth or privilege. She was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s but never went to university herself to study. Her father didn’t believe in such things for girls. She married young and then found herself supporting her family when her husband returned from the Second World War mentally ill. She would refer to such events in her talks, as and when some facet of her own life might be relevant to the topic at hand. Always matter of fact, never looking for sympathy, praise or such like. I think she would have found the idea of anything of the kind preposterous. But those experiences assuredly gave her a sound understanding of the unfortunate and the underdog which informed her professional and political life as well as her fiction.
Her literary interests went far beyond crime writing. She was an expert of the work of (another St Hilda’s alumna) Barbara Pym. As recently as last November, she gave a talk at the Bodleian Library to mark the Pym Centenary. I particularly remember her talk at The Oxford Literary Festival a few years ago, where she spoke without notes for 45 minutes, standing at the lectern, and then took questions for a further quarter of an hour, giving each one a considered and erudite answer. Since my mother is a tremendous fan of both Barbara Pym and PD James, she came up to Oxford for the day. Since I am on the college media network committee, and was thus involved in helping run the St Hilda’s day of programming, I was able to introduce Mum to her. Once again, even in that briefest of meetings they made a personal connection. (And seeing what that encounter meant to my mum meant everything to me.)
Then there was her interest in Jane Austen and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. I don’t mind saying, I approached the book with some reservations, having read a slew of truly dire Jane Austen continuations when I was a bookseller. Thankfully I liked it, and all the more so after hearing her talk about the process of devising the story and the thoughts that had prompted it, most particularly about the burdens of service and obligation on the likes of Mr Darcy and what that says about society, then and now.
That was at a St Hilda’s event for the English School, and the room was packed with students and alumnae and the occasional classicist like me . When PD James explained that she’d opted to write that book rather than a new crime novel because she so disliked the thought of leaving a Dalgliesh unfinished if she died half way through writing it, there was… not a murmur nor a whimper but a sudden and palpable stillness as everyone looked at her at once. The unspoken words on every tongue were ‘Oh no, don’t say that!’
She looked back at us all with the faintest of smiles, and observed dryly, ‘Anyone who has reached my advanced age without coming to terms with their own mortality must be a very strange and unhappy individual.’ As everyone looked at their shoes or their notes, just a little bit abashed, she continued briskly on with her shrewd analysis of (I think) George Wickham’s character.
So that’s something, I suppose. To know that she was at peace with her own mortality and with the consolations of her faith, at the end of a life so very well lived by any possible measure. It was still a shock to hear of her death though. She had always seemed so indestructible as well as indefatigable. It’s only in the past couple of years that she showed visible signs of aging, notably her deafness which she regarded as a confounded nuisance.
As the cliche goes, her work will live on. But there’s more to her legacy than that. I know I’m by no means the only writer over the years who’s seen her as a role model in countless ways. As we will continue to do.
Indeed, that’s largely the reason why I’m finally posting this more than a month after her death. I’ve been writing this piece in fits and starts ever since the end of November. That’s when the EU VAT catastrophe was just unfolding and was suddenly and unexpectedly taking up all my time. I did have more than a few moments’ indecision about what I should be doing and where my priorities should be. No word of a lie; thinking ‘What would PD James do?’ genuinely helped clarify my thoughts. She would have considered tackling such damaging and ill-thought-out legislation was the most pressing task at hand!