Profile: PD James

PD James was born in 1920, the same year that Cherwell was founded by Cecil Binney and George Edinger. I, on the other hand, was born the day after Bill Clinton was inaugurated. 

It’s probably not that common for someone to feel a sense of terror at the prospect of meeting a 93-year-old woman, but, pacing up and down Holland Park Avenue in the driving rain (‘I must get there at exactly 11am!’), terror is exactly the emotion that I was feeling.

Never meet your heroes, they say, and PD James is exactly that for me. I picked up The Private Patient when it was published in 2008, and afterwards went back to the beginning and worked my way through the entire series of Adam Dalgliesh detective novels. In a post-Poirot world, PD James was my most important author. I didn’t admit it in my Oxford interview, for fear of being judged unworthy, but the only volume that had accompanied me was Death in Holy Orders (2001).

“Mr Hilton!” she says, offering me a hand, “or can I call you Nick?”. I assured her that she could, and she proceeded to use my shortened Christian name almost every time she answered one of my questions. Damn, I thought, she’s in her 90s but she’s twice as cool as most of my tutors and, best of all, she seems to understand the global importance of being Cherwell editor, labelling it a “terrific achievement”.

James never had the opportunity to study at university, despite being born on Walton street in Jericho. I ask her whether she regrets that, aged 16, she found herself beginning a long professional career. “Education is tremendously important and for those who are privileged enough to go to Oxbridge or any of the Russell groups, I think this is a marvellous start to life because you do meet other intelligent people. It is a very valuable experience of life, but it’s not the whole experience and it doesn’t last for very long.

“I’m sorry I missed it really, because having a few years to study a subject you’re genuinely interested in, and genuinely good at, is a great thing.”

James’ professional career has focused on bureaucracy, first with the NHS and then in a long spell at the Home Office. She remarks that the latter was particularly interesting to her, as it has to strike a “balance between personal freedom and good public order.”

For those familiar with his novels, the debate between personal freedom and public order is no stranger. Her hero, the reticent detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh, is entirely driven by twin desires for privacy and justice.

“I wanted him to have in him something of the old romantic hero but I wanted him to be a good policeman. I wanted him to be fairly private, someone whose source is not easily shared.”

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For a detective writer, having a successful poet for a protagonist poses something of a creative difficulty. Throughout the Dalgliesh novels, James resists the temptation to replicate her hero’s poetry, but the situation was nearly very different. “I had the same editor at Faber and Faber as Auden had and he said ‘we’ll ask Wystan to write some poetry for Dalgliesh’ and I was very keen on that, but unfortunately he died. I don’t know whether he would or not but I didn’t get any poetry for Dalgliesh. The critics would’ve said ‘how very unwise of PD James to attempt to produce poetry’ and I could’ve said ‘shucks to you, that was Auden!’”

When, in a fanboyish moment that ill-befitted the grandeur of her Holland Park residence, I quiz her on Dalgliesh (who she had ‘retired’ after The Private Patient) she teases me with details of a new work.

“He’s retired… well, not quite retired. He’s called back to do one last thing — but it’s going to be very different — and this will be actually the end of Dalgliesh. I’ve got an idea for one, I’ve got a plot. I’m working on the plot at the moment and I hope to write one more. It will be Dalgliesh and Emma really, the relationship between them, but there will be an investigation. There will be a murder.

“I’ve got the setting, I’ve got the victim andI’ve got the motive, but it’s very difficult at 93 because you’re desperately anxious that the book should be good and I don’t want to publish anything that I think’s inferior, I’d much rather rest now on what’s been achieved.”

I find that my excitement at the news of a concluding chapter to the Dalgiesh saga somewhat overshadows the slightly melancholy note to what she is saying. Times have changed since the publication of Cover Her Face in 1962, a novel which self-consciously harked back to the Golden Age of detective fiction. James acknowledges this, and notes, “the Golden Age was totally artificial really, and with war pending the artificiality was quite accepted… Virtue was virtue and evil was evil. People who committed murder got hanged and no one worried very much about that. It was quite a reflection of the years before the war and certainly the social divide was pretty strong.”

But times have changed, and the figure of the ‘Gentleman Detective’ has all but disappeared (Dalgliesh is often described as the last bastion of his stock character type).

“Nowadays they’re far more realistic and one’s got to be realistic”, she accepts without resentment. She can appreciate the way that Scandinavian crime fiction addresses social realities without ever feeling that it diminishes her own achievements: “I think that literature should give pleasure and I don’t think that’s said often enough.”

Simple pleasures that can be attained from a tightly plotted detective novel are at the heart of everything she writes. “I never felt I needed to do something more serious or rise above it. The detective story is in many ways more difficult. It’s got to be a credible plot, reasonable, exciting, intellectual satisfaction. It’s very interesting how many highly intelligent people love them.”

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She is, it seems, satisfied with the control that can be exercised over her plots. In a life that has seen tremendous highs and horrific lows — her husband died prematurely after returning from the war incapacitated by mental illness — she manages to remain philosophical about the whole experience.

“Nothing that happens to you will ever be wasted. That goes for the unhappy things as well as the happy things: it’s a lifelong thing really, and one learns from people and from experience. The experiences of falling in love and falling out of love, these things which are sort of central to the human life, and they happen as part of life for most of us: so nothing is wasted for the novelist.”

Her gratitude for life’s successes seems wholly genuine (“I’ve gotten a great deal of happiness from life, and, of course, a great deal of success and a great deal of money!”) and not burdened by false modesty. At 93-years-old she is still generous with her advice, and seems reflective rather than introspective. As someone who has grown up with her presence as a benign figure on dust jackets, it gives me a thrill every time she answers one of my questions.

Stepping out onto the street having helped pick up the junk mail from her hallway, I feel a burst of appreciation for the time and interest that she has offered. Like the Golden Age of detective fiction — and Victorian sensibilities about politeness — it might well all be built on an artifice, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though one of my literary heroes has lived up to every part of my expectations.

By the end of our conversation, and when attention had turned to her new novel, she seemed to become more nostalgic about “reaching the end of a very long life”. Without a hint of bitterness she tell me that, “when you’re 93 you have to face the fact that you’re not going to have all that many years left. It’s the small things you miss: the garden, getting the Sunday papers, walking in the park…

“But everything that happens — there’s something there that’s stored up — the griefs as well as the happiness, that’s living life fully. It doesn’t mean going all over the globe, Jane Austen managed to live fully in a small town. I’ve been so lucky, so fortunate, I feel very grateful.”