The Bishop of Worcester writes:
THE term "national treasure" is over-used, but, if anyone
deserved it, it was surely the novelist P. D. James, Baroness James
of Holland Park, who died on Thursday of last week, aged 94, after
a long and creative life. She was much loved and admired.
The many crime novels with which she made her name were
first-rate literature as well as page-turners, acclaimed as much
for the sophistication of their characterisation as for the
ingenuity of their plot. She had a rare ability to observe
humanity. I remember her remarking wryly that she needed only to
change the hair colour of an acquaintance for that person to be
oblivious of the fact that he or she had been written into one of
Her observation was profound, however: "The greatest mystery of
all is the human heart," she said in a 1997 interview, "and that is
the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned.
I'm always interested in what makes people the sort of people they
What made Phyllis James remarkable was not only her exceptional
gifts, but the manner in which hardship had forged her own heart,
painfully but beautifully.
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford in 1920. Her father was
a poorly paid tax officer, and, when he was transferred to
Cambridge, she went to the High School for Girls there. Although
she excelled, particularly in English, her father could not afford
the fees to send her to university. Instead, she left school at 17
to work at a tax office in Ely. This was a matter of great regret
to her: she knew as a child that she wanted to be a novelist, and
years later wrote in her autobiography, Time to Be In
Earnest (2000), that she couldn't help regretting
"what I now see as some wasted years".
During the Second World War, she worked in Cambridge, issuing
ration books, and in 1941 she married Connor Bantry White, a
medical student. He qualified as a doctor, but was terribly
affected by his experiences of war, and returned in 1945 suffering
from a serious psychiatric disorder. He never recovered, and spent
the rest of his life in and out of various hospitals until his
death in 1964.
She said that, had this not happened, she would probably have
had a most ordinary life as a doctor's wife. Instead, in 1949, they
moved in with his parents, and she took on responsibility for
nursing him and raising their two daughters, while at the same time
being the breadwinner, with a variety of jobs in the Health Service
and then the Home Office. It was a hard life.
As she approached the age of 40, she began to fear that she
would never fulfil her ambition of becoming a writer. "It was a
now-or-never situation," she recollected. "I didn't want to end up
saying to my children and grandchildren, 'I always thought I'd be a
writer.'" Sheer determination prevented that from happening: she
completed her first novel in 1961 by writing for two hours every
morning before leaving for work.
Then there was good fortune: the crime novelist Cyril Hare had
just died, and her agent suggested to Faber & Faber that she
might replace him on their lists. To her surprise, her book
Cover Her Face was accepted, and was an instant success.
From that moment, her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, endowed with
the qualities she most admired in men, "courage, compassion, high
intelligence, and sensitivity", became many people's hero in a long
succession of novels with which she made up for lost time.
She continued in paid employment, retiring only in 1979, shortly
before she turned 60. From then on, she dedicated herself to the
literary life, becoming, among other things, a member of the board
of the Arts Council and Governor of the BBC, and chairing the
Booker Prize judges and the Society of Authors, at the same time as
immersing herself in her writing. All this was recognised when she
was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. Meanwhile, the
success of her eighth book, Innocent Blood (1990), made
her a millionaire overnight.
She was a genius with prose - which is probably why she disliked
being compared to Agatha Christie. Kingsley Amis called her "Iris
Murdoch with murder". There was certainly something of the
philosopher about Phyllis James, and she gave a good deal of
consideration to the nature of good and evil, often through the
musings of Adam Dalgliesh - the son of a vicar.
Like Murdoch's, her books often contained at least one religious
character and sometimes, as in Death in Holy Orders, they
displayed an intimate knowledge of how the Church works. The
difference between James and Murdoch, though, is that James was not
only an Anglican, but also a believer. That belief was central to
She served for some years on the Liturgical Commission, though
she was not happy with all developments in the Church, which she
loved. She was devoted to the language of the Prayer Book and the
Authorised Version, which clergy, she complained, had debased
"presumably on the basis that they are better writers than Cranmer,
or that God is unable to appreciate the more subtle rhythms of
17th-century prose". She was dismayed that so few people understood
the reference to the Prayer Book in her novel Devices and
These preferences were perhaps connected to her love of
tradition and order. She herself observed that, if she were reading
one of her own books, she would feel that it was written by someone
with "such a strong love of order and tradition that she is
obviously covering in her own personality some basic turbulence and
insecurity". I remember asking her why her writing was almost
exclusively confined to murder mysteries. "Because I am obsessed
with death," she replied. Death out of sequence was for her "the
most awful thing that can happen to a human being".
My last conversation with her was on the telephone shortly after
my wife Denise's death at Easter this year. She was distressed that
someone so young and with such promise had died. She had a great
affection for Denise, and had encouraged her as a writer from the
moment they met around 20 years ago.
Despite Phyllis's own terminal illness, she was determined to
provide an endorsement for Denise's final book, A Tour of
Bones. In it - one of the last things that she wrote - she
said: "This beautifully written book . . . compel[s] us to face the
reality of our own death. But this is a book which celebrates not
death but life, and how, by confronting the fear and inevitability
of our end, we can embrace life and live it more abundantly."
Through continually confronting death, Phyllis James embraced
life and lived it abundantly. We are all the beneficiaries of that.
I give heartfelt thanks to God for a remarkable and wonderful
person. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.