Miss Pym Disposes is my second Josephine Tey novel, after I read and had a fairly lukewarm experience with The Daughter of Time last year. (Reading that review back, I’m surprised I was relatively positive – I don’t remember the book fondly a year on). I’d read enough reviews that said this was a different kettle of fish to give it a go – and, with reservations, I am very glad I did.
The eponymous Lucy Pym is a former teacher. At the start of the novel, she has recently found success in writing a short non-fiction book on psychology, which unexpectedly became a runaway bestseller. Being lauded in literary circles as a psychological expert is fun for a while, but it also becomes overwhelming. When she gets a letter from an old schoolfriend, Henrietta Hodge, asking her to come and give a lecture, she welcomes the opportunity to get away from London for a night. Miss Hodge is now the head of a women’s physical education college, Leys, which trains its students to be PE teachers or physiotherapists (the two qualifications, in 1946, seem to have been interchangeable). Once there, she is amazed by the beauty, health, and vitality of the students, and by her old friend’s commitment to and joy in her work. Miss Pym has quite a nasty mind in many ways (we’ll get there); among other things, she has always assumed that, because Henrietta is unattractive and unromanced, she is therefore unfulfilled. She is quite astonished to find that Miss Hodge – quite unlike Miss Pym – loves her work and has committed a great deal of herself to it.
The fond pride on Henrietta’s large pale face was startling, almost painful, to see; and for a little while Lucy forgot the students below and thought about Henrietta. Henrietta of the sack-like figure and the conscientous soul. Henrietta who had had elderly parents, no sisters, and the instincts of a mother hen. No one had ever lain awake at night over Henrietta; or walked fore and back in the darkness outside her house; or even, perhaps, sent her flowers. […] Henrietta had been apparently doomed to a dull if worthy life. But it had not turned out like that. If the expression on her face had been any criterion, Henrietta had built for herself a life that was full, rich, and satisfying.
The time at which I read it added extra poignancy to the scenes about teaching: although I knew this was set in a college before I picked it up, I didn’t realise that it was set in the run-up to the senior students qualifying and starting their first jobs. As it happens, my third year student paediatric nurses are about to register and start first posts; some of them I have followed through their whole programme, since the Before Times of October 2019. This has been the hardest period in which to train as a nurse for many decades, and it’s not as though it is a particularly easy course in normal times. Like the students at Leys, they deal with blood, sweat, and tears (and assorted other bodily fluids), get up in the wee hours, work late into the night, balance physical and theoretical learning, and otherwise commit themselves to a very draining three years. I’m extraordinarily proud and I think most of them are going to be exceptional nurses. Reading this book, I felt that Tey really captured how I’ve been feeling the past few days. Admittedly, if Miss Pym is taken as any example, Tey seems to feel that it’s somehow unseemly or unwise to invest too much in the success and growth of one’s students – Miss Pym is appalled by how much Henrietta cares – but I felt like she depicted it well nonetheless. Henrietta is not always a good teacher, but in contrast to Miss Pym, she’s clearly in the job because she loves it and not because it’s a living.
Despite the dab hand at characterisation with Henrietta, a couple of the students, and Miss Lux (another teacher), though, the setting is the real star of this novel, I think: much more than any of the characters, the college feels real and well-rendered. This is a sort of backwards mystery – we know it’s a mystery of sorts because it’s a Josephine Tey novel (and, with this edition, because it has one of the lovely Penguin Crime covers), but most of the novel is given over to the build-up to whatever is going to happen. Until quite far in, the reader does not know what that something will be – I certainly had several guesses, some closer than others. Because of this, the atmosphere of the college leading up to things is the only clue we really get, and it’s wonderful. (The writing is wonderful, I mean, not the atmosphere). We get the sight of all these very passionate young women, all proud to be students at the college, ambitious, working themselves to the bone to be the best they can be both physically and academically – but we also get the occasional hint that this intensity is not good for people; that perhaps the combination of competition, exhaustion, stress, and perfectionism might tip someone into doing something very unwise indeed.
As you may have gathered, I think this is a fantastic novel. However, I wish Tey had less unpleasant views. Like The Daughter of Time, this book is heavily informed by her devout commitment to the pseudoscience of physiognomy. Miss Pym makes snap judgements about people’s characters based on whether or not she likes their faces, and then allows this to form a key aspect of her judgement throughout. I can’t explain the moment at which this bothered me the most, as it would be a huge spoiler, but there are several points in the novel where this belief in physiognomy influences the story, and the only person who ever challenges it is Henrietta Hodge – whose opinion we are meant to discount because she’s biased towards other unattractive people. I think the reader is meant to agree with Miss Pym. The book also contains shockingly casual use of racial slurs far beyond what I’ve encountered in other novels of the era, to the point where I was really thrown out of the narrative once or twice. At least Tey’s opinions about class don’t really come up here as they did in Daughter of Time, I guess? I mean, there is definitely a bit of judging who is the right sort of poor and who the wrong sort, but it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative.
I enjoyed this a great deal. I haven’t said much about the plot – that’s because the puzzle is pretty minimal, and this is much more psychological fiction than crime novel. I mean that as a compliment. However, if my next Josephine Tey read also has her passion for physiognomy baked into most of the pages, I think I might give up trying to work through her novels. It leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.