Beautiful liturgies and an atmosphere of real belief don’t always go hand in hand. But last Wednesday evening, at a service of thanksgiving for the life and work of P.D. James, they were perfectly interwoven. The Temple Church in London felt like a 12th-century stone ship riding on waves of April blossom; the choir was celestial, the readings profoundly moving. And at the heart of it all was a sense of collective gratitude for what Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, described during the service as “a long life lived in tumultuous times”—a life sustained by what P.D. James herself called “the magnificent irrationality of faith”.
“The queen of crime” not only worshipped regularly in the Temple Church, but also preached there. I wish I could have heard her. I remember an evening at the Royal Society when she confounded a group of scientists by insisting, firmly, on the existence of God. Her beliefs ran through her like words through a stick of rock, carrying her through the strict, gaslit childhood which she once described as “a period of almost continual anxiety”, and the loss of her mother and later her husband to mental illness. She understood sadness, and menace, but she also believed firmly in what Chartres called “the grace that can and does transform people”.
For anyone who knew Phyllis at all, the service would not have rung true without a good leavening of humour. On several occasions the pews rocked with laughter. Chartres, who had first “fallen under her spell” on a Prayer Book Society outing, was clear that even her faith could be a source of amusement. She made no bones about her dismay at modern translations of the Bible. “There was, thank God,” she wrote of her childhood home, “no Good News Bible—a version that is very bad news for anyone who loves either religion or literature.” She believed that the bureaucracy of the Church of England would be terrifying—“if it were efficient”.
Humour, in Phyllis, was closely allied to a sense of irony; and irony is perhaps the best foil to self-pity, which she conspicuously lacked. Yet, though tough-minded, she was long on kindness. Stephen Page, who runs her publisher Faber and Faber, remembered the huge personal support she had given him when, in 2011, Faber was rocked by the murder of one of its staff. (Visiting her in her Holland Park home, he said, he felt like a schoolboy spending a weekend with a favourite aunt. She was forever urging him to “eat up!”)
At murder, of course, Phyllis excelled. Page remembered how she liked to write the darkest stretches of her novels in a very dim light. But what drew her to crime was not ghoulishness or prurience, but what she called “the catharsis of carefully controlled terror”.
Phyllis was 94 when she died in November; most of those closest to her had gone before. Yet the church on Wednesday was packed. It was a measure of her appetite and gratitude for life that she continued to make new friends right to the end. One of these was my mum, whom she used to ring for chats, and with whom she corresponded. “I wish we lived closer so that I might occasionally be able to see you,” she wrote in her last letter. She’d just celebrated her birthday, with four generations present. “How thankful I am for all these blessings.”