Time to Be in Earnest Info

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PD James (1920-2014) was not only the most stylish and
intelligent crime writer of her generation - she was an influential
figure in politics, culture and the media. In this, her only
autobiographical work, she considers the year leading up to her 78th
birthday, and looks back over her past: growing up in the 1920s and 30s,
giving birth during an air raid, working for the Home Office forensic
department, and her career as a novelist.

Average Ratings and Reviews
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4.17

674 Ratings

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Reviews for Time to Be in Earnest:

5

May 27, 2019

I am glad that I waited to read this after “Original Sin”. Yes this book has spoilers in it. So if you haven’t read the Dalgliesh series past “A Certain Justice” wait till after that to read this Autobiography. I read “A Certain Justice” a while ago so there were no spoilers for me.

From my perspective, this book, is that James was not afraid to mention that she was a Christian and attended C of E mass regularly. Also that she missed the use of “The Book of Common Prayer” and “The King James I am glad that I waited to read this after “Original Sin”. Yes this book has spoilers in it. So if you haven’t read the Dalgliesh series past “A Certain Justice” wait till after that to read this Autobiography. I read “A Certain Justice” a while ago so there were no spoilers for me.

From my perspective, this book, is that James was not afraid to mention that she was a Christian and attended C of E mass regularly. Also that she missed the use of “The Book of Common Prayer” and “The King James Bible” in modern services.

The thing that struck me the most was how her upbringing and faith influenced the way she wrote. And she used this plot device to a major effect in her novels. Which made them all the more intriguing and thought provoking.

She was open about things that happened in her life but still kept at a level of privacy that wouldn’t expose her and her family to any ill comments. She seemed like a very private person who did her best to share what she could of her life.

This book will give more of an insight to her writing style and keep you hooked for the rest of her books. ...more
4

Oct 31, 2017

First off, I really love this writer. I used to purchase her books as they came out, then when hardcovers got a bit pricey for me, I went soft-covers and/or borrowed from library. Her books are weighty, often long, filled with detail, and sometimes take a while to 'take off.' She was, for me, an example of a literary author who wrote mysteries. So I am, and was a fan...

This book is part memoir, part diary, part biography. At the beginning, James speaks frankly about not keeping a diary First off, I really love this writer. I used to purchase her books as they came out, then when hardcovers got a bit pricey for me, I went soft-covers and/or borrowed from library. Her books are weighty, often long, filled with detail, and sometimes take a while to 'take off.' She was, for me, an example of a literary author who wrote mysteries. So I am, and was a fan...

This book is part memoir, part diary, part biography. At the beginning, James speaks frankly about not keeping a diary throughout her life. Too much trouble, too little time. She worked, was the sole bread-winner for two daughters (husband in an asylum for much of his adult life), and frankly, was prob. tired after a long day. It took her a while to achieve status, prestige, recognition, and success. In other words, if she had time for writing, she was going to write something which might sell, hence the mystery, or what she often refers to as, the detective novel

But this book, 'Time To Be in Earnest,' which reflects on her 77th year, was written partly to make up for that lack of a diary. She discusses each day (written 1997-1998), citing quite meticulously where she is, what she's doing, where's she's going. (She had an extremely busy social life!) But interspersed inside of all this seeming trivia are anecdotes about her early life, her parents, her first jobs, where she lived, etc. So in that way the book is part memoir. She also talks - and these are the best parts IMO - about writing itself. The history of the detective novel, how it's changed, her favorite writers and books, and how she writes.

How she writes! If I owned a paper copy of this book I'd highlight those! (I own a Kindle edition, so maybe I can Kindle-light those parts.) For me, those are the most insightful and interesting things to read about Ms. James. How important locale and setting are; what she makes of dialogue, description, narration, and what the fundamental structure of a mystery, or detective fiction novel entails. I loved that, could re-read them over and over.

However, the book is filled with minutiae which might put off the casual reader. This is definitely a book for her fans, for those wishing more insight into how she worked, and how her background and life influenced her work. I wish she'd written more!

Four stars. ...more
5

Mar 21, 2017

I thoroughly enjoyed this brief synthesis of autobiography, diary and literary criticism. The cool intellect of P D James comes over on every page. Her account of her childhood, married life and the sad descent of her husband into mental illness are illuminating. What is most impressive is the breadth and volume of her daily life in the year she describes. The contribution she made across everything she did was noteworthy and perhaps a reproach to those less public spirited. I finished the book I thoroughly enjoyed this brief synthesis of autobiography, diary and literary criticism. The cool intellect of P D James comes over on every page. Her account of her childhood, married life and the sad descent of her husband into mental illness are illuminating. What is most impressive is the breadth and volume of her daily life in the year she describes. The contribution she made across everything she did was noteworthy and perhaps a reproach to those less public spirited. I finished the book with my appreciation of her greatly enhanced. She writes beautifully and anyone wishing to find a model could do no better than to read this short book. ...more
5

Jan 08, 2018

Delightful and Insightful

I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiographical account: James calls it a “partial record of one year” (of her incredibly active and full life), but manages to reminisce enough so that we catch glimpses of a great deal more of it. Her musings range from her childhood experiences growing up in England, to religion, current events and, of course, fiction writing. She shares thoughts on it all— thoughts which are insightful, well articulated, and a pleasure to read. I enjoyed Delightful and Insightful

I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiographical account: James calls it a “partial record of one year” (of her incredibly active and full life), but manages to reminisce enough so that we catch glimpses of a great deal more of it. Her musings range from her childhood experiences growing up in England, to religion, current events and, of course, fiction writing. She shares thoughts on it all— thoughts which are insightful, well articulated, and a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the peeks into British Life, English landscapes, and, as a great Jane Austen fan, I particularly relished the treatment James gives Austen, her “favorite novelist.” (Included at the end of the book is a superb foray into EMMA—a talk James gave at Chawton House—and reason in itself to read this book.) I have not been a big fan of the detective novel, but after reading this, I’ll be giving P.D.James’ books a try—beginning, of course, with DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY. ...more
5

Mar 15, 2009

I heard P.D. James being interviewed on NPR many years ago, and was intrigued. Not having been a "detective fiction" reader, it took me a while to pick up on of her books, but as soon as I did, I was hooked. So far, I have not been able to find murder mysteries that I like nearly as well as hers. Having read everything fictional she has written, I finally read this autobiography. If possible, I may have enjoyed it more than her fiction! She is an excellent writer, and the insights into not only I heard P.D. James being interviewed on NPR many years ago, and was intrigued. Not having been a "detective fiction" reader, it took me a while to pick up on of her books, but as soon as I did, I was hooked. So far, I have not been able to find murder mysteries that I like nearly as well as hers. Having read everything fictional she has written, I finally read this autobiography. If possible, I may have enjoyed it more than her fiction! She is an excellent writer, and the insights into not only her everyday life, but also her past that she includes in this book, are compelling and fascinating. I hope she continues to write for some time yet! ...more
3

Sep 05, 2008

This reminded me a bit of May Sarton's "At Eighty-two", though P.D. James at 78 seemed much more spry than did Sarton at 82. Several of the reviews quoted on the back cover of the book mention that we learn as much about James from what she leaves out as from what she includes. The decisions she made about what to write about are thus as interesting as the actual content.

She includes musings on various aspects of writing, the mystery genre, the difference between American and English fans, as This reminded me a bit of May Sarton's "At Eighty-two", though P.D. James at 78 seemed much more spry than did Sarton at 82. Several of the reviews quoted on the back cover of the book mention that we learn as much about James from what she leaves out as from what she includes. The decisions she made about what to write about are thus as interesting as the actual content.

She includes musings on various aspects of writing, the mystery genre, the difference between American and English fans, as well as reminiscences of her past, and her struggles with the gradual onset of old age. ...more
5

Aug 10, 2017

If you are a P.D. James fan, don't miss out on this lovely autobiography. Written in diary format over the year she turned 77, it is a brilliant look at not just the author, but the amazing person. As she would talk about a book she had written, I would glance at my shelf and there it was, begging to be re-read. And so I am- some, if not all. This woman's energy is incredible. How I would have loved to hear her in person. I have long loved her books, now I love the author.
4

Oct 09, 2015

I seldom read autobiography but loved this; P D James had such a distinctive, elegant voice that, as a huge fan of her novels, I found it a genuine pleasure to spend time in her company. It gave interesting insight into the life of a successful author and also some thoughts on the art of writing. The essay on Jane Austen's "Emma", included as an Appendix, was an unexpected bonus.
4

Jan 13, 2017

James never disappoints. Her prose is unfailingly lucid and elegant, her insights thought-provoking.
5

Aug 13, 2019

I re-read this gem after twenty years and liked it even more this time. The title is a quote from the great 18th century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, " At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest." Phyllis James wrote it in 1997 when she turned seventy-seven. It's not a conventional diary or memoir although there is plenty of autobiographical material. It's also reflections and musings on the art and craft of writing, not limited to the detective stories and three stand-alones for I re-read this gem after twenty years and liked it even more this time. The title is a quote from the great 18th century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, " At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest." Phyllis James wrote it in 1997 when she turned seventy-seven. It's not a conventional diary or memoir although there is plenty of autobiographical material. It's also reflections and musings on the art and craft of writing, not limited to the detective stories and three stand-alones for which P.D. is so deservedly famous. She died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four and remained actively writing and speaking until her death I consider her one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. (For anyone not familiar with her work, I recommend reading them in order.) ...more
4

Aug 31, 2012

Part diary, part memoire is, I think, the perfect recipe to enable the living to satisfy the fans, to avoid baring all, and to circumvent that rather dreadful cold ‘dead, stuffed, fish’ feeling.

This book also challenged me to think, recollect, and consider, ‘well, what did I do between August 1997 and August 1998? What, actually, did I achieve above and beyond my salary, above and beyond my day to day existence?’

That combination: asking what has happened today, and how one thought triggers Part diary, part memoire is, I think, the perfect recipe to enable the living to satisfy the fans, to avoid baring all, and to circumvent that rather dreadful cold ‘dead, stuffed, fish’ feeling.

This book also challenged me to think, recollect, and consider, ‘well, what did I do between August 1997 and August 1998? What, actually, did I achieve above and beyond my salary, above and beyond my day to day existence?’

That combination: asking what has happened today, and how one thought triggers another, one memory illuminates a second, a third, a fourth; the cascade is scintillating, illuminating, (hopefully) comforting, and often unexpectedly challenging. Retrospective analysis of personal motives can be fraught with risk. Our past accompanies us into the present, subconsciously guiding our future: our actions, our reactions, our likes, our dislikes, the decisions we make, the people we choose to, or are required to, associate with.

I have met and conversed with Mrs James. She is an observant woman possessed of a strong and knowledgeable experience of the achievements and limitations inherent within the human condition. Reading this book I felt unfairly voyeuristic at times. Unfair because I can appreciatively read of the strength of her admiration for Ted Hughes’ collection of poems ‘Birthday Letters”, whilst not admitting back to her that a copy of that book given to me is no longer in my possession; long since donated into the library of an English public school.

Autobiography, and to an extent, biography will, I think, always possess a fascination well beyond that of most novels of fiction. Human beings have a natural inclination to measure up and compare themselves one to another. “Time To Be In Earnest” serves better than most in grounding and reminding its reader of the value of maintaining a healthy sense of perspective; a warmly welcome reminder that even, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: …” (Ps.90).
...more
3

Aug 20, 2015

I can make a strong argument that P.D. James is the world's greatest mystery writer, but she falls short in the realm of memoirs. Time To Be In Earnest: A Fragment Of Autobiography has an innovative structure: James wrote a diary that spans from her 77th birthday to her 78th, and used her day-to-day experiences as jumping off points to, sometimes, reflect on writing, past eras of her life, the modern era, and crime. This seems like a good idea, but the daily accounts sometimes feel like dull I can make a strong argument that P.D. James is the world's greatest mystery writer, but she falls short in the realm of memoirs. Time To Be In Earnest: A Fragment Of Autobiography has an innovative structure: James wrote a diary that spans from her 77th birthday to her 78th, and used her day-to-day experiences as jumping off points to, sometimes, reflect on writing, past eras of her life, the modern era, and crime. This seems like a good idea, but the daily accounts sometimes feel like dull travelogues and James is too reserved to share much about the more personal aspects of her past. Furthermore, she interacts with a lot of people during the course of a year, but fails to really bring anyone to life on the page. That said, the book really shines when James writes about writing, her books, her thoughts on literature, writers, historic crimes, or her cat. In these passages, her dry wit and thoughtful analysis are a pleasure to read. Recommended for serious fans of James or crime fiction. ...more
2

Aug 27, 2018

Meh. She didn't need the money. She did a lot of name-dropping, and 'this is how wonderful my life as a successful author has made me and how popular I am' rather than reflections. She comes across to me as in insufferable snob, particularly about the fees for libraries. Now that she has money enough to buy any book she wants, she doesn't see it as a particular hardship for others to have to pay, although she does feel slightly badly about it. Bah.

I liked her better when she was catty about Meh. She didn't need the money. She did a lot of name-dropping, and 'this is how wonderful my life as a successful author has made me and how popular I am' rather than reflections. She comes across to me as in insufferable snob, particularly about the fees for libraries. Now that she has money enough to buy any book she wants, she doesn't see it as a particular hardship for others to have to pay, although she does feel slightly badly about it. Bah.

I liked her better when she was catty about Agatha Christie. She at least showed some humor, which is sadly lacking here. Maybe its too soon to read quite so much of her personal writing. I just finished the book on writing detective fiction. Parts of this are identical to that. lol Don't throw out the good stuff. She must be bored to death having to say the same crap about writing over and over again. It seems that she never gets enough of speaking, though. It can't take any effort after all the times she Dows it in a month, let alone a year, to say nothing of how many years.

She actually has become one of the characters in an Agatha Christie story that she so deplores. ...more
3

Jun 10, 2017

The book is gracefully and lucidly written, as one would expect. She is an opinionated person and I wish there wasn't quite so much about British politics, or so much name-dropping. Her energy in the chronicled year is impressive. One could wish that she had opened up more about her tragedies and regrets, including her very difficult marriage, but she is a reserved and very stiff-upper-lip person and what she presents in this fragment of memoir is carefully edited. The parts of the book I found The book is gracefully and lucidly written, as one would expect. She is an opinionated person and I wish there wasn't quite so much about British politics, or so much name-dropping. Her energy in the chronicled year is impressive. One could wish that she had opened up more about her tragedies and regrets, including her very difficult marriage, but she is a reserved and very stiff-upper-lip person and what she presents in this fragment of memoir is carefully edited. The parts of the book I found most interesting were those in which she writes about books, poetry and what it's like to be on the best-seller reading circuit, and her memories of World War II. If you are a fan and close reader of her fiction (as I am) you won't be surprised by anything you learn about Ms. James. This is the opposite of a tell-all. ...more
4

Dec 06, 2016

This is an interestingly structured memoir based around her diary for a year between 1997/98 and frequently using thoughts or events to digress into detail of various key periods and episodes in her life. Her language is a real pleasure to read and, even in her late seventies, she led an extraordinarily full and varied life full of vigour and energy. She has a tendency to be opinionated at times and perhaps in the second half of the book, sometimes gets a bit carried away with her views on this This is an interestingly structured memoir based around her diary for a year between 1997/98 and frequently using thoughts or events to digress into detail of various key periods and episodes in her life. Her language is a real pleasure to read and, even in her late seventies, she led an extraordinarily full and varied life full of vigour and energy. She has a tendency to be opinionated at times and perhaps in the second half of the book, sometimes gets a bit carried away with her views on this and that. However, having spent some time with her in 1989 on a British Council tour of Italy, I have some direct experience of the warmth and generosity of her personality. It was very good to feel that again through her writing in this memoir. ...more
2

Nov 03, 2019

P.D. James is an excellent writer of mystery, not so much memoir. She wrote about her year age 77-78. I was impressed by her stamina and all of the functions she attends. However, the book is dry and she seems a bit of a cranky, judgement type. Reading about how she tours was interesting. I got very few insights from the book .


3

Nov 10, 2017

Alternately fascinating and dull. Ms James uses the days in one year of her life as the basis for her biography describing episodes of her 77 th year and remembering and describing past events. The now parts— lectures given and attended, social engagements, meals sometimes in detail did not sustain my interest. Remembrances of her interesting life did.
4

Mar 21, 2018

I enjoyed reading this "behind the scenes" peek into an author's life, what goes on that inspires the mysteries, what other authors influenced P. D. James, and what led to any of her books to be televised. I took awhile to read this, but not because of how it was written. It was because I wanted to stop and look up the other authors mentioned and read about those various books.
4

Jan 20, 2018

P.D. James chronicles a breathtakingly busy life as one of Britain’s grand dames of literature. She weaves in reflections on her past, the art of the murder mystery and modern culture. In less artful hands, the account might turn discursive and jumbled. Not in hers.
4

Nov 04, 2017

A year of diary entries from English mystery writer P.D. James. I enjoyed her uncombative Toryism of the 'I can't help but think more might have been lost than gained', and feel that this book has come down to us from a much more civilized time.
5

Mar 26, 2018

A magnificent book by a wonderful person. While writing this book she was at the age of 77 still doing more than most 50-year-olds. There is so much in this book of help to aspiring writers that it should be a textbook for all writing classes in the English language.
4

Jan 16, 2019

most enjoyable parts: the opinions on writing crime fiction as a woman and the interspersed anecdotes of her early life and later career within the government. Paints a lot of her even though it is mainly a 2-year diary.
3

Aug 10, 2017

Interesting and different autobiography because it's written as a dairy. I gives you a peek into the thought and life of P.D. James.
4

Mar 06, 2011

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 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. ...more
4

Jan 31, 2016

In 1997, P.D. James began keeping a journal for a year--between her 77th and 78th birthdays. She planned that it would be a record of her year (without betraying any confidences) plus reflections on her life: her childhood, her education, and her writing career. The result is Time to Be in Earnest. As I was reading this book, I felt like I was having tea with a beloved aunt, who was reflecting on life and sharing what I needed to know going forward. It is clear that James has no idea what the In 1997, P.D. James began keeping a journal for a year--between her 77th and 78th birthdays. She planned that it would be a record of her year (without betraying any confidences) plus reflections on her life: her childhood, her education, and her writing career. The result is Time to Be in Earnest. As I was reading this book, I felt like I was having tea with a beloved aunt, who was reflecting on life and sharing what I needed to know going forward. It is clear that James has no idea what the future holds at age 77, so knows that it is time to record some thoughts while she still can.

James was a very private person, but devoted to family and friends. In the general biographical pieces I have read on James, her marriage is dismissed as a nothing: Oh, her husband was mentally ill, so she needed to work. In Time to Be in Earnest, James respects the memory of Connor and his privacy, her husband, but it is clear that she loved him deeply, and his illness cost her incredible pain.

1997 was the year that the Adam Dalgliesh novel A Certain Justice was published, so the journal includes discussions of book tours, publishers both in UK and UA, and the marketing of a novel. James talks about the changes in publishing since her first book, Cover Her Face, was published. I really enjoyed learning more about the process behind bringing a book to market.

My favorite parts are the discussions of writing, writing process, and the writing of mysteries. James was very thoughtful and deliberate in her approach to writing fiction, and I appreciate her insight.

James went on to live for many more years after Time to Be in Earnest was published and even added to the Dalgliesh series before dying in her 90s. I enjoyed the experience of reading about her, what it was like to grow up in England between the wars, life during WW II, as well as her work and family life after. This book is worth a visit. ...more

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