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"Great literature cannot grow from a neglected or impoverished soil. Only if we actually tend or care will it transpire that every hundred years or so we might get a Middlemarch."
- P.D. James.

P.D. JamesPhyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park OBE, better known as P. D. James, was born on August 3 1920 in Oxford, the eldest daughter of an Inland Revenue Official.  The family moved first to Wales and then, when she was 11, to Cambridge where she attended the Cambridge High School for Girls.  Due to financial pressures at home she left school when she was 16, first following her father into the tax office, then working in a theatre where she met her husband, Ernest Connor Bantry White, who was training to be a doctor.

They married in 1941 and had two daughters during the war years - she named her second daughter after her favorite author, Jane Austen.  Connor was sent to India during World War II with the Royal Army Medical Corps and returned mentally disabled. He was repeatedly hospitalized and finally institutionalized, before he passed away in 1964.

Taking on the financial responsibility for the family, James (who had been a nurse during the war) found work as a hospital clerk and through sheer persistence and intelligence worked her way up to principal hospital administrator at the North West Regional Hospital Board, London, in charge of five psychiatric hospitals.  She wrote her first novel, Cover Her Face (the first in the Adam Dalgliesh series) on the train to and from work; it was published in 1962. In 1968, she became a principal in the criminal policy department of the British Home Office, where she worked until she was able to retire in 1979 to write full-time. 

She was a Governor for the BBC (1988-93), and Chairman of the Literature Advisory Panel at both the Arts Council of England (1988-92) and the British Council (1988-93). She was awarded the OBE in 1983 and created a Life Peer (Baroness James of Holland Park) in 1991. 

She sits in the House of Lords (the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, comparable to the US Senate) as a Conservative.  She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  She chaired the Booker Prize Panel of Judges in 1987 and was President of the Society of Authors from 1997 to August 2013. The President of the Society, a position first held by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is considered the "ultimate honour" awarded by the British writers body. Baroness James has also received honorary degrees from many universities including Downing College, Cambridge; St Hilda's College, Oxford and Girton College, Cambridge. 

She has been awarded major prizes for her crime writing in Great Britain, America, Italy and Scandinavia. In 1999 she received the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award for long term achievement. She is published widely overseas including the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Argentina.

She says that her influences include Dorothy L. Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, but that her favorite novelist is Jane Austen ("an absolute mistress of construction").

She is the author of more than 20 books, most of which have been adapted for TV.  Her autobiography, Time To Be In Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, was published in 2000.  In 2011 she commented that The Private Patient (2008) would be the final Dalgliesh novel.

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"We English are good at forgiving our enemies; it releases us from the obligation of liking our friends."

"I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism."

"God gives every bird his worm, but He does not throw it into the nest."
"There comes a time when every scientist, even God, has to write off an experiment."

"A man who lives with nature is used to violence and is companionable with death. There is more violence in an English hedgerow than in the meanest streets of a great city."

"What a child doesn't receive he can seldom later give."

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This quote & biography originally ran in an issue of BookBrowse's membership magazine. Full Membership Features & Benefits.

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