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Obituary: BARONESS JAMES OF HOLLAND PARK

by
05 December 2014

PA

Earlier this year: P. D. James cuts the ribbon and officially opens the new crime department at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London,on 18 June

Earlier this year: P. D. James cuts the ribbon and officially opens the new crime department at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London,on 18 ...

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 novels.

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 are."

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 her life.

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 Desires.

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.

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