Monday, January 17, 2011

Time to Be in Earnest: Review

Time to Be in Earnest: a fragment of autobiography is P. D. James's response to Dr. Johnson's advice that seventy-seven is "a time to be in earnest." The much celebrated and beloved writer of mystery novels has created a luminous memoir of one year of her life. During the course of that year she not only relates experiences of the current time, but travels in time to give the reader snapshots of her life. These snapshots are vivid--full of descriptive clarity and beautiful language, only to be expected from such an accomplished writer.

It would be hard to do full justice to this memoir in a review. The entries are so varied that one could only give the full flavor by recounting each and every one. James covers everything in this memoir from the elusive quality of memory to why women seem to dominate the mystery field (and if, in fact, they really do). She talks about numerous fellow authors, from Ruth Rendell to Dick Francis, without gossip and with genuine affection.

It was, in fact, difficult to do full justice to this memoir reading it straight through as I did. I think it would have been better to savour the entries over a longer period of time, perhaps in daily readings over the course of the year just as the memoir was written. There is so much here to absorb and consider. And I think it a mark of how much this book has affected me that I have numerous slips of paper peppered throughout--marking passages that I want to go back and reread and possibly add to my quote collection. Thus earning this memoir four and a half stars out of five.

In the last days of this memoir, James gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society. The entire address is given in an appendix to the memoir and is entitled "Emma Considered as a Detective Story. Someone who commented on my review of Emma suggested that reading these insights by James might better inform my reading of Emma (I wasn't a fan of this particular Austen novel) and that it changed her entire view of the book.

I readily admit all of James's points that give parallels to the detective novel. 1. That we have facts that are "hidden" but which the reader should be able to discover by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel. 2. That we have a reconciliation of those mysterious facts which brings order when the previously misinterpreted facts are seen in their true light. 3. That we have a self-contained set of characters forced into a sometimes unwilling proximity. However, none of this changes my opinion of the novel. In fact, it just might lower it. You see, if I am to compare Emma to a detective novel, then I would want that comparison to be positive. A good detective novel, in my opinion, presents the reader with all the clues and keeps him or her thoroughly mystified until the final unravelling. As far as I can see the only one mystified in Emma is Emma herself. I recognized the truth behind the "misinterpreted facts" early on. I was quite certain I knew who sent the piano to Jane (and was right). As a mystery novel, Emma fails for me, every bit as much as it did as a serious novel. Sorry, but Emma still remains one of my least favorite Austen novels.


Carol said...

I think there's a cracking biography of Baroness James to be written, but she is notoriously private. Unless her daughters are different, I'm afraid a biographer will have a difficult time with her. A shame, really, because her personal story is fascinating.

Jen at Introverted Reader said...

I don't believe I've ever read any of James's work, but this memoir certainly sounds like something I would enjoy. You've written a lovely review.

For the record, I don't care for Emma, either the book or the character, either. But didn't Austen say something like she was the only person who would like Emma?