Glimpses of Girton: P D James

Phyllis Dorothy James, later Baroness James of Holland Park, but better known as the writer, P D James, was an Honorary Fellow of Girton (2000). Born in Oxford in 1920, her Cambridge connection began at the age of eleven when the family moved there and she attended the Cambridge and County High School for Girls.

The College Archive houses over 60 boxes of her personal papers, including manuscripts of much of her work, research notes, lectures, articles and correspondence. Transferred to the Archive from various sources over an extended period, the cataloguing of these papers has been a major project this year and the catalogue is now available online on Janus here.


Photo caption: Page from the ‘Cambridge and County Girls’ High School Magazine’, 1936, showing Phyllis James listed among the competition winners, along with the opening of her winning story ‘Luve-Ni Wai (Blue Wings)’ (archive reference: GCPP James 2/1/1).

P D James had known from childhood that she wanted to be a writer: indeed, her first literary success was to win a competition at school with a short story entitled ‘ 'Luve-Ni Wai' (Blue Wings)’, published in the school magazine in 1936. She did not, however, begin writing in earnest until she was in her mid-thirties. Her working life had begun in a tax office in Ely, followed by NHS administrative work in London from 1948-68 (her first novel, ‘Cover her Face’, was published during this period, in 1962). She then entered the Home Office as a Principal: her eleven years in the Civil Service included work in the forensic and criminal justice departments. She retired in 1979 to become a full-time writer.

Her output was prolific. She wrote fourteen crime novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, two featuring the private detective Cordelia Gray, and three further novels. She also published non-fiction: ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree’ (1971, with T A Critchley, a historical reconstruction of the Ratcliffe Highway murders); ‘Time to be in Earnest’ (Faber 1999), which she described as ‘a fragment of autobiography’ and which includes childhood memories and her reflections on life and literature; and ‘Talking About Detective Fiction’ (2009), a personal look at the history of the genre. She also wrote short stories and a play entitled ‘A Private Treason’.


Photo caption: Page from P D James’ lecture notes on crime writing, circa 1972 (archive reference: GCPP James 3/1/1).

P D James lectured widely and produced scores of reviews, forewords, introductions and articles. Many of her lectures and articles were on crime writing, but she also wrote and talked about religious subjects, the preservation of the English language and other subjects of interest to her. Some of her work was adapted for film and television: Adam Dalgliesh was portrayed by Roy Marsden and Martin Shaw on ITV and the BBC respectively; her futuristic dystopian novel, ‘The Children of Men’, was made into a feature film of the same name in 2006; and in 2013, ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, her sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was dramatised for television.


Photo caption: Page from a typescript draft of ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, 2011 (archive reference: GCPP James 2/4/3/1).

P D James' connections with Cambridge and East Anglia were strong. As well as attending school in Cambridge, she was elected an Associate Fellow of Downing College in 1986 and she became an Honorary Fellow of Girton College in 2000. She had a house in Suffolk and East Anglia was the setting for a number of her novels.

She was an active member of a number of literary societies and learned bodies. In particular she was President of the Society of Authors and a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. Elected a Life Peer in 1991, she served actively in the House of Lords.  She also served as a Governor of the BBC from 1988 to 1993 and was an active participant in a number of BBC programmes: while guest editing Radio 4’s Today Programme in December 2009 she conducted a no-holds-barred interview with the then Director-General of the corporation, interrogating him over some of the issues at its heart, such as discrimination against older female presenters.

P D James continued writing into her nineties. She died in Oxford on 27 November 2014.


Published: 23 November 2017