My job of making sure authors signed books, no matter who they were or when they could come in, extended to one Sunday when the store I was working at usually closed. It was the only day Baroness P. D. James could make it to sign hundreds of her newest title . And we needed that signature. A book club for signed first editions required her penmanship, if not, those who had ordered one would cancel, and the store would lose money.
I’d met Baroness James previously, and admired her, as a person, and a writer. But this was the first time I was able to spend real time talking with her. The store was opened by the owner, and he, myself, and Baroness James were alone in his office/library while I pulled book after book, already opened to the title page for her signature. I had recently finished her latest novel and remembered a description of a character as having a ‘ferret face.’ Naturally, as a lover of ferrets, I asked her about the reference, and what residents in the UK thought of the cute furry beasts. Apparently, not much! She explained what I had already suspected–ferrets were working creatures–kept to flush out rabbits and such. From her account, British people seem to have a bit of prejudice towards ferrets–they believe they bite and have no use for them as pets. This led to my proudly stating that ferrets were used for Diana and Charles wedding, to carry power lines underground so the world could watch the ceremony.
And then she expressed an opinion that slightly surprised me. She hadn’t liked Diana. She was of old school British stock. She felt Diana, Fergie and the younger group of royals had disgraced themselves with silly games and unbecoming behavior. She had no time for that kind of tripe.
I remembered that she had to leave school at 16 to support herself, and later married. Her husband had returned from WWII, ill, and she had to singly provide for her children. She worked in the medical field for years, and didn’t publish her first novel until in her 40s. After her husband passed away in the 60s, she worked in a government agency, the Crime Department, until retirement in 1979. Since that time she’s written several more novels, 14 in all, and became a conservative life peer in the House of Lords and was given the title of Baroness in 1991. And I could imagine, went through her life’s adversities with the famous stiff upper lip the English are renown for. She followed the royal family’s lead during WWII. They stayed in London during the blitz, enduring the horrors alongside the city’s populace, a great morale booster. No wonder Baroness James would find the former princess unsuitable.
Realizing this, provided a little more insight into Baroness James’ work, her protagonist Adam Dalgliesh is an expression of her experience and in a way, backbone. For me, his dimensions expanded after my conversation.
Baroness James is a delightful lady with definite opinions and stamina. She took a hectic signing schedule in stride, and made an extra stop just for us. And even back then she was no spring chicken, as it were. Born in 1920, she’s obtained 90! During that afternoon, I felt I was in the presence of a great lady, a symbol of what Great Britain once was, what it endured, and came back from.
I was quite pleased and relieved to be constantly in motion during the signing, otherwise my nervousness may have shown through, and I have a feeling she wouldn’t have approved. After all, I was only opening and closing books for a nice older lady who happened to be one of the most revered and famous crime novelists in the world.