‘Unless you are clever enough to “see before and after,” like the Deity, it’s best to stick the rules… Do the obvious right thing, Miss Pym, and let God dispose.’
Miss Lucy Pym is a ex-teacher of French who had become, much to her own surprise, something of a celebrity on the lecture circuit after publishing a popular psychology book. She has agreed to speak at a women’s physical training college as a favour to her old friend Harriet , who runs the place.
Miss Pym falls in love with the life of the college, so different to her London lifestyle, and I think a little bit with the girls (or at least their legs – there is a lot about their legs).
Two by two the students somersaulted upwards on to the high boom, turned to a sitting position sideways, and then slowly stood up on the narrow ledge. Slowly, one leg lifted, the muscles rippling in the light, the arms performed their appointed evolution. The faces were calm, intent. the bodies obedient, sure, and accustomed.
She rapidly becomes an accepted fixture around the place, and a keen and affectionate observer of its inhabitants. The golden girl ‘Beau’ Nash, the passionate and wise South American Desterro, cheerful Dakers, unpopular but dedicated Rouse, Innes who looks like a tragic heroine: all become friends. And so do the staff: the determinedly single Miss Lux, Swedish Miss Fröken (fröken means ‘Miss’ in the sense of a teacher, interestingly), Lucy’s friend Henrietta who has built her college and lives and breathes for its success. There is a large cast of characters, which Tey brings to life so effectively that I’d read most of the book before realising that there hadn’t been a crime yet. Just watching the characters interact is a pleasure, and they are a revelation to Miss Pym too. She soon begins to doubt her calling:
As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French.
And when the crime does occur, Miss Pym finds herself with a unique dilemma. She knows what she should do, but she doesn’t think the consequences of doing the right thing justify doing it. Or do they? Should she let God dispose, or should she decide?
I reckon this is Tey’s best book. I’m really annoyed it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. There is so much in here: a wonderful cast of characters, an idiosyncratic setting, musings of the value of psychology, a massive moral dilemma…
There are even foreshadowings of Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time, with lots on the value of faces as an indication of character, and some opinions on Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play’.
Anyway, go and read this if you haven’t already.
Miss Pym Disposes
First published in the UK, 1946, by Peter Davies Ltd
This edition Arrow Books, 2011
Final destination: A keeper
Harriet Devine’s Blog: Lucy comes to doubt aspects of her own knowledge of psychology at the end of the novel. She decides her own real strength lies in ‘character as betrayed by facial characteristics’, and resolves to write a book about it. This aspect of psychology clearly interested Josephine Tey herself, and is at the basis of several of her other novels. In fact The Daughter of Time, published five years later in 1951, in which Detective Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed, arrives at a radical re-interpretation of the character of Richard III based on a portrait, could well be the book Lucy was planning to write in 1946. I came to the conclusion that Grant was Lucy’s friend ‘Alan’, to whom she refers in passing from time to time.
Clothes in Books: Miss Pym Disposes is rather a sinister book, because it is set in such wholesome surroundings. Everything is too perfect, the girls are healthy and clean-living. Something is sure to go wrong, and it does.
Reading, Writing, Working, Playing: I really enjoyed how Tey explored various ethical and moral issues here. The school is not a democracy–at best, it is a benevolent dictatorship, and the students and staff must bow to the autocratic whim of the principal even when they know she is being tacitly unfair and unjust.
Novel Readings: By the time I’d finished the novel, though, I had realized that the “crime itself” had actually happened much earlier, but was an act of injustice (at least, arguably so) rather than an overt offense against any rules or laws. That act precipitates the actual crime, and must be understood for the crime to be seen — as Miss Pym struggles to see it — in a way that answers the very difficult question of what to do about it.