Coming to Terms With P.D. James’ Homophobia

P.D. James in 2001.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

What’s a self-respecting lesbian to do when one of her idols turns out to have feet of clay? I had managed to forget that Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James of Holland Park, life peer in the U.K. House of Lords, who died Thursday, had consistently opposed LGBTQ equality measures. (She also signed a now notorious letter urging a No vote in the recent Scottish independence referendum, but that’s a whole other problem I was working through.) More specifically, she had voted against marriage equality and the repeal of the Thatcher-era Section 28, which tried to ban the “promotion” of homosexuality. And it’s not as if she avoided queer characters; everyone’s there in the early books, from the mincing, arty queen to the brooding closeted lesbian to the tortured closet case.

And yet …

Any scholar of the mystery/crime novel knows that there are significant issues with the worldviews of many of the great writers. Dorothy L. Sayers was notoriously anti-Semitic; Raymond Chandler didn’t exactly create great role models for women; black characters were noticeable more for their absence; and it is telling that, early in the life of the Detection Club, a British gathering of the great and good in the genre, they had to introduce a rule banning the introduction of “Chinamen” as villains, because it was such a cliché, even by the 1930s. Many writers of the Golden Age (around 1920-57) started out with regressive views and ghastly characters, but mellowed, changed their opinions, and reflected changes in society, the last being something crime writers excel at. Even Dorothy L. Sayers moved from one of the worst lesbian villains in (not much of a spoiler alert!) Unnatural Death to creating sympathetic and realistic lesbians in her later books.

P.D. James was born in 1920, and her first book was published in 1962, so she could, fairly, be considered part of that Golden Age tradition. She lived a fairly traditional upper-middle-class life, becoming a hospital administrator, then a civil servant, throughout adhering strongly to the precepts of a particular strand of Anglican Christianity known in shorthand as “high church.” Having been brought up in that particular sect of the Church of England, I can tell you that it is the closest thing you can get to being a Roman Catholic without actually acknowledging the pope. You get incense, confession, stations of the cross, some celibate priests, choral evensong, and richly decorated churches. It also has what is known as the “gin and doily” wing, often congregating around the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk—a place James knew well—which has a reputation for being a bit, well, camp and swishy. So her well-known devotion to that type of religious observance—she campaigned for the retention of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer—can’t have been an excuse for her opposition to gay rights.

Like her forebears in the genre, James’ gay characters evolved. By the time of her later, much more sophisticated books—beginning with the highly praised A Taste for Death in 1986—she provides a much more rounded view of society. Most notably in The Private Patient in 2008, sympathetic lesbians and gay men are central to the novel, even getting the last, significant, word.

In person, James was charm itself. She supported Silver Moon women’s bookshop in London by choosing to hold book-launch events and signings there, even though she could have commanded a much larger audience elsewhere. In an interview she gave me in the early 1990s, she expressed great admiration for the many talented feminist and lesbian crime writers who were emerging at the time, including Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky, and Lisa Cody. James’ great friend and colleague Ruth Rendell, whose approach to LGBTQ characters and politics in general is utterly different, is only 10 years younger. One wonders if James would have had a different view if she had been born even a few years later.

We can’t know that, though. So it seems that, like many other compromises we have to make, those of us who love her work (and can forget the ghastly Children of Men and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley) will have to continue to forgive her trespasses against us.