(suitably) delighted

I'm tremendously excited to announce that my contribution to Hila's My Favourite Book series has now been posted on her excellent blog, le projet d'amour. My very first guest post, what a thrill! Click here to read it. There was so much more I wanted to say about my selection and its author that it warranted a second, complimentary piece. Should you be interested, you'll find these additional observations below.

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My first encounter with P. D. James occurred via televised adaptations of her novels featuring policeman-poet Adam Dalgliesh. (I once dreamt that I had a grey tabby called Dalgliesh as a companion for Rebus... Two cats named after fictional detectives, what could be better?) Some time later, in our local bookshop's tiny English-language section, I came across Devices and Desires, which in my opinion showcases James at her finest and her writing at its most representative in terms of style, plot and setting. Her love of language and literature is evident in her impeccable prose. I would describe her as a more intellectual Agatha Christie, or perhaps Dorothy L. Sayers without the humour. If you love these authors, I believe dear Phyllis (as I always think of her; how could anyone possibly help but love a writer who uses "shan't" so naturally?) may very well be your cup of tea. Even in her more recent works, she makes few concessions to the omnipresence of technology in our modern world, and that, one feels, rather reluctantly; there's an almost timeless, old-fashioned quality to her books that I find wonderfully restful and comforting — just the thing for a quiet, introspective weekend.

Her latest tome, a pastiche of Jane Austen entitled Death Comes to Pemberley, appeared last year as she turned 91. For even more of her words, I highly recommend her autobiography-of-sorts, Time to be in Earnest, in which she combines diary entries made over the course of a year, from her 77th birthday to the eve of her 78th, with fragments of recollections prompted by events big and small in her bustling life as an internationally famous writer.

Sadly, James only wrote two Cordelia Gray novels: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman came out in 1972, followed 10 years later by The Skull Beneath the Skin. I've often mused on what the future held for Cordelia. Did she grow in confidence? Did her early experiences make her bitter or disillusioned? Did Pryde's Detective Agency ever embrace its unintended specialty, i.e. recovering lost cats?

You may be interested in knowing that a television series called An Unsuitable Job for a Woman was devised a few years ago, starring Helen Baxendale as the young private investigator. However, be warned that only the first episode bears any resemblance to the eponymous novel's plot, albeit in a modernized and much-altered adaptation, while the remaining three instalments are original creations. A small word of advice, if I may: to avoid any disappointments, stick to the books!

While re-reading An Unsuitable Job in preparation for my guest post, my mind kept drawing parallels between Cordelia and Jane Eyre (another favourite heroine of mine), perceiving a common thread that runs through both characters' lives: a little girl, parentless and all but friendless, suffers a difficult, miserable childhood as an outsider; later, she spends a few relatively happy, settled years in an educational institution where her gifts are fostered and valued; as she becomes a young woman, she develops a strong, upright personal moral code and remarkable maturity; hers is a naturally solitary disposition; she must make her way into the world by relying on her own inner resources; she is gifted with a fiercely independent spirit and an acute mind, and her quiet, self-contained dignity impresses all those who come into contact with her; although initially employed in a subservient position, she is soon raised to an equal footing by the man who hired her; placed in moral peril, she emerges battle-scarred yet unbroken. Surely, all of these similarities can't simply be the product of my imagination?

Obviously, the most significant difference lies in their "choice" of employment — although in each case there appears to be very little choice involved. Jane's situation as a governess is most definitely suitable (i.e. socially acceptable) for a woman of her status; indeed, though she calls it "a new servitude", it is the only position she can envisage occupying as she longs to leave Lowood. Soon after Cordelia came to the Agency as a temporary typist, her boss (Bernie Pryde, ex-CID), sensing her investigative abilities, began grooming her as his assistant, then quickly promoted her to full partner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was a highly unorthodox state of affairs in the early 70s. The public in general, and potential clients in particular, certainly have no compunction about expressing their disbelief or even downright disapproval of a female poking and prying into other people's affairs... Modern young ladies have such strange notions these days, but one mustn't encourage such things!

10 comments:

  1. I'm honoured that I'm the first to ask you for a guest post. Thanks so much for agreeing!

    I shall savour reading this when I have time to read it leisurely ...

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    1. At the risk of repeating myself: thank you!

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  2. Hi Danielle, my name's Sheila. Nice to meet a fellow fan of P.D. James! I very much enjoyed both your post at Hila's blog and this one. I am a long-time fan of James, and have read all of her books, except her most recent on Pemberley, which is on my reading list, and Time to be in Earnest. I will definitely be reading that when I can, I had no idea it was based on her diary entries. I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre a little while ago, and I can see what you mean. I must find time to re-read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, I often wondered about Cordelia too and wished there were more of that series. Maybe James has a surprise in store for us yet. If you find her prose timeless, I wonder if you've read any John le Carré, he's another favourite of mine and his writing gives me the same sort of beautiful chills. I had the pleasure of listening to her interview with the CBC journalist, Jian Ghomeshi a little while ago, just loved hearing her speak for the first time. Here's the link, if you'd like to hear it: http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2011/12/12/pd-james-on-q-uncut/.

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    1. Hello Sheila! It is indeed lovely to find more fans of Phyllis! Thanks for reading both my posts; it was a tremendous pleasure to write about a book and an author I love so much. I haven't read Death Comes to Pemberley either. It sounds like she wrote it to indulge herself, and why not! After a 50-year writing career, she certainly deserves it! Part of me hopes there is another Cordelia novel locked away in a drawer somewhere... Oh yes, that interview with Jian was delightful — thank you for reminding me of it. Isn't she amazing? It's hard to believe she's 91. I remember wishing she was my grandmother! :-)

      I'm not at all familiar with John Le Carré. Another author to get acquainted with — excellent!

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  3. I think women are rather taking over the hero market.

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    1. That's a rather interesting thought.

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  4. It was really nice to read both your guest post and this one! I liked how you went beyond simply describing the book and its main character, and drew parallels with you/your situation as well as with another character you love. Well done, Danielle!

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    1. Thanks! Et puis, comme tu le sais, «toute est dans toute»! ;-)

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  5. J'ai attendu d'avoir le temps de bien lire tes deux textes. Chère Danielle, je suis bien contente que tu aies choisi de revoir le format de ton blogue. Même rouillée, c'est toi qui le dit, je trouve que ta plume glisse très bien ! Superbes textes ! Et tu m'as convaincue d'explorer le monde de madame James !

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    1. De la baronne James, imagine-toi! :-) J'espère que son univers va te plaire; on y trouve une intelligence fine et beaucoup de perspicacité quant à la nature humaine... et puis elle écrit divinement bien.

      Tes mots me font un immense plaisir ce matin! Un gros merci!

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