Further thoughts on PD James

Some further thoughts on PD James – excerpts from the paper presented to CWLC Feb. 19, 2013 by Ruth Hilland.

Her early life was difficult – her mother died young, her husband, a medical doctor, returned from the war mentally ill. James had to support the family, and through sheer persistence and intelligence worked her way up in the British civil service, and became a Principal in the prestigious Policy Department.   Her awards were numerous, culminating in the Order of the British Empire, and her appointment as a Life Peer, Baroness James of Holland Park.

She became a successful author, and wrote 24 novels.  The outstanding feature, as well as the painstaking research, was always the setting – her novels were inspired by a place rather than by a method of murder or a character’s story e.g. the setting in Original Sin, the castle-like office building shrouded in fog, along the Thames – evil and menacing.

James recognized she always had a streak of morbidity – she was always fascinated by death – she remembers speculating as a child how many of her fellow students would die before the end of the summer holiday! She recognized that there was likely some deep psychological reason for this preoccupation, which she never wished to explore. She was content to say that writing was a form of therapy for her – she quotes Anthony Stern as saying that creativity is the satisfactory resolution of internal conflict.  She claims in her autobiography that she and Jane Austen, her great friend, have the same expedient – their writing – for taming sleeping tigers – and they can be grateful for this.

James is not interested in having serial mass killers as her murderers – she finds them mundane, boring. She finds a law-abiding citizen, educated, much more interesting – he steps over the line – a much more satisfactory story – also more believable as the murderer in this case is someone to whom we can relate. And she does not deal with social problems, drugs, alcohol, abuse – her world view is conservative, her murderers are respectable middle class people. In fact, she reveals herself in her autobiography as being proper, dignified and reserved – almost prudish – which is hard to reconcile with her chilling, elegant and very smart detective novels.

In her writing, her murders are hideously grisly and grotesque – she makes no apology for this, says the writing of a murder mystery should be vivid and realistic enough to enable the reader to share the shock, the horror and the revulsion.

She found that once her characters took root in her mind, they revealed more and more of themselves, in ways neither expected nor planned by her. It was as though all this existed in some limbo of the imagination – it felt more like a process of revelation rather than creation. She admits the process of creation is mysterious – to all writers and artists.

She quotes one writer who tried to explain this – E.M.Forster, who wrote Passage to India, 1984. He ascribes real importance to the subconscious – feeling that with most artists, whatever their medium, this gets close to at least a part of the truth of the creative state:

“In it a man is taken out of himself, he lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something that is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of this mixture he makes a work of art– and when the process is over, when the picture, or symphony or lyric or novel is complete, the artist looking back on it will wonder how on earth he did it.”

Regarding old age, James spoke easily of dying, just hoping it would not be in the middle of book! She stated that old age was a time to recognize and accept with such fortitude as one can muster its inevitable pains, inconvenience and indignities and rejoice in its few compensations. She finds that one of the sadnesses of old age is that new experiences never match the exhilarating excitement of youth. She adds this is probably a mercy since pain and suffering are not as acute either.

James’s favorite novel was The Private Patient, written in 2008.  She expected this would be her last – the tone is softer than in her previous novels.  Detective Dagleish finally gets married to his long-time lady love, to everyone’s relief. A young woman, who has survived a terrible rape, for the first time in her life finds unexpected happiness and peace in the true love of a friend, an older woman. James ends the novel with this passage, which I feel we can take as her final word, her final message, epitaph if you will –

“The world is a beautiful and terrible place.  Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earthly living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.”

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