Saturday, October 13, 2012

the importance of earnestness

Recently my friend Ruth left me a phone message recommending P.D. James' new novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (a sequel to Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, in James' signature genre, the crime novel).

I was not surprised by Ruth's recommending a book, but I was astounded to learn that P.D. James (aka Baroness James of Holland Park) is alive and productive at age 92 -- picking up the Jane Austen thread as so many novelists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and country dance enthusiasts have done in recent years.

I thought I had read all of P.D. James' works, but in looking up titles available for the Kindle, I found Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography and decided to read it right away. Pemberley could wait, I thought, until I caught up with P.D.James and re-read Pride and Prejudice.*

James began Time to Be in Earnest on her 77th birthday, taking the title from Samuel Johnson's observation (via Boswell, of course) that "at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest." I give the context of this quotation to show that Johnson was being descriptive, not prescriptive, in describing a man who is "not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity excelling what I remember in any other man." Indeed, James herself exudes "venerable dignity."

Time to Be in Earnest is a memoir in motion. Events in the present evoke parallels in the past to show how a long life's themes evolve and overlap. Though James is justifiably famous, this is not a self-centered celebrity memoir.** Within a simple framework of life events, James includes a great deal of commentary on the history and politics of her times, plus some insightful literary analysis grounded in her own development as a reader and writer. For instance, we learn that James read and re-read Jane Austen's works starting in grammar school.

Thus it is not a surprise that Time to Be in Earnest closes with the transcript of a talk James had given to the Austen Society on July 18, 1998: "Emma Considered as a Detective Story." This was more than ten years before the publication of Death Comes to Pemberley, but we can be sure that James remained very much in earnest about Victorian fiction and myriad other topics in the interim.

I wouldn't be surprised if P.D.James is working on a sequel to Emma or Northanger Abbey.
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* Though I had seen Becoming Jane when it came out in 2007, I have not re-read any Austen novels since graduate school. Pride and Prejudice has been sitting on my Kindle for months, just waiting for a lull in the recent Trollope onslaught.

** I'm not going to name names here, but I recently started reading one of these and gave up after a second chapter of pure narcissism.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License