Phyllis Dorothy James – an ode to a Nightingale!

A journey has come to an end – her life was a living message that we ought to battle and overcome challenges facing us. And it was a celebration of ageing with grace – she achieved stupendous success as a writer in her golden years and lost none of her prowess while penning her last novel when she was 90 years old.

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Like a novel she wrote, she was an original Nightingale – her tones were rich in truth and fidelity.  And that is such a rare commodity in today’s world where everyone is trying to manage the optics and a spin is the convenient reality that is fed to the masses.

There is enough that we know and admire about P D James as a writer. Surprisingly she started writing rather late with her first novel appearing when she was 42 of age and was an inspiring tribute to the murder mystery genre in the tradition of Agatha Christie. A bright spark was seen that went on establish her long reign as the ‘Queen of Crime’.

She set the tone of the literary whodunnit – a combination of Agatha Christie and Jane Austen put together. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the dour detective and private poet, represents the best in the tradition of ‘Gentleman Detective’. She used him well to convey her convictions of such diverse topics like religion, marriage, reservations of being a performing Monkey for the publishers, managing the machinations of upper echelons of the bureaucracy etc. But I cherish her even more for the message she conveyed by her conduct and attitude. The key gems are –

Life is no fairy tale and candy floss endings are best left to movies

She had no illusions about human nature and its evil manifestations. Though she often set her stories in upper class and élite locales, the devices and desires could be devious. Positivity is fine as an approach to life but surely one cannot be naïve enough to walk blindfolded in the urban jungle. She showed a deft use of having a strong and shrewd personality so that one could ward off the constant snipes of ‘not-so-straight’ situations.

Don’t carry a chip over your shoulder

One can easily make a laundry list of the various disadvantages to give up easily in not pursuing to do the best in us. James showed us the way to constantly battle the odds – she had a disturbed childhood, her parents were never on best of terms, her father was far from affectionate towards her and yet she constantly strived for his approval. Later on she coped with a husband who was a disturbed personality. Eventually she struggled as a single working mother and still found enough ambition in herself to work for 6 years and publish her first novel when she was 42 years old. A great spirit and ‘never-say-die’ attitude at its best.

Learn to move on and adapt to the changing world

She wrote for nearly 50 years and for the most part her world view was reflected through her most celebrated character – Adam Dalgliesh. While the core of his personality remains unchanged, she shows remarkable aptness in adopting to modern changes – be it in the new developments of crime detection or the latest social trends. We see the changing society reflected in her work and undoubtedly this helped her retain the connect with her younger readers. And yet I like the way she respected her literary traditions – she never ‘dumbed down’ her work and the English language was never reduced to the lunacy found in the texting world.

Remain true to your convictions and be a realist about your goals in life

Early on she sets her message about happiness in life being a gift rather than a right. She does not shirk responsibility or strife. She acknowledges that in an imperfect world, one needs a bit of luck to even get what we think we deserve. And yet as things keep changing and impermanence is a way a life, it is best to be stoical and accept one’s reality.

Such wonderful life lessons from a graceful lady who should inspire us to look forward to challenges in life and to enjoy the success we earn through our blood,sweat and tears.

By: Terry O'Neill Collection: Terry O'Neill People: P D James Courtesy: Getty Images
By: Terry O’Neill
Collection: Terry O’Neill
People: P D James
Courtesy: Getty Images

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