James and Austen: Sisters in Mystery
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment
By P.D. James.
Knopf, 2000. xiv + 288 pages.
Reviewed by Mary Person.
What do Jane Austen and P.D. James have in common? Other than outstanding plots, well-defined characters and settings, and elegant prose, it would appear that their lives, separated by time and culture, have little in common. But the ties of great writers stretch across the years, and it seems that Jane Austen is the professed favorite author of P. D. James as she articulates in a fascinating new book by the respected detective novelist.
In P. D. James' autobiography of one year in her busy life (1997-1998), Time to Be in Earnest, Jane Austen unexpectedly but prominently plays a role. James is asked to address the AGM of the Jane Austen Society held at Chawton House in Alton on July 18, 1997, Austen's home for the last eight years of her life. As she recounts her day there, she speaks knowledgeably about the upkeep and the fate of the Chawton property. Because this "autobiography" tends to start with the happenings of each day and then wanders into musings triggered by streams of consciousness, she moves to Austen's life. She is reminded of the death of Edward Knight's wife, Mary, and her death at Godmersham following the birth of their 11th child. James speculates whether Jane did not marry because of her repugnance of pregnancy. Although postulating that duty or advantage would be more important than "romance" for Austen, she thinks that the real reason that Austen never married was that she thought that she would have had to abandon her surrogate child: her writing.
Throughout the autobiography, James speaks often of her admiration and esteem for Austen, even to the point of counting her as a major influence on her own writing, along with Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. If you are a devotee of the detective novel and/or a fan of P. D. James, you will enjoy how often she writes of how she conceives and articulates her own craft and how she views the work of other authors, past and present.
However, the surprise of this book is in the details! The Appendix includes the full text of her address at the Jane Austen Society entitled, "Emma Considered as a Detective Story." Although there is no crime per se in Emma, James postulates that there is, indeed, a mystery. The facts of this mystery are obscured by the author but can be fairly discovered from the clues inserted. Since most of the clues filter through Emma, who seems to deliberately ignore them, Austen essentially leads us astray in the same way that Agatha Christie attempted to lead us astray. Essentially, James makes the case that several "mysteries" surround the human relationships in the village of Highbury, and these mysteries drive the narrative. Austen, in the manner of the detective novelist, effectively deceives the characters with situations that are open to misinterpretation.
The title of Time to Be in Eamest derives from a reference to Dr. Johnson ("at seventy-seven, it is time to be in earnest") and the volume itself shows P. D. James to be a wide-ranging author, lecturer, and humanitarian. The year that the book retells includes reminiscences of her entire life, which has been varied, heroic, and tragic. It is comforting to know that she is like us in so many ways, and sees worth in Austen as an accomplished author.
Mary Person is an associate professor Elementary Education at Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota.
JASNA News v.16, no. 3, Winter 2000, p. 29
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