Monthly Archives: January 2014

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scots author best known for her mystery novels. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English grandmother. She was born in Inverness on 25 July 1896.
She published her most successful novels in the 40’s – The Franchise Affair (1946) and Brat Farrar (1949).

She was an intensely private person; she shunned photographers and publicity and gave no interviews to the press, was deeply reserved, and was “proud without being arrogant, and obstinate, though not conceited,” according to Sir John Gielgud, a lifelong friend. He observed that she was “kindly and thoughtful … but the idea of having to talk about herself to a stranger terrifie[d] her.”

Tey was an active and happy young person; she was not particularly studious but took great pleasure in gymnastics. Friends said that she was an accomplished gymnast, often delighting her pupils with almost professional feats of acrobatics.

She was educated at Inverness Royal Academy, and, from 1914 to 1917, at the Anstey Physical Training College in Erdington, Birmingham. During the war years she taught fitness classes for factory workers. She taught briefly in schools in Liverpool and in Oban where she was injured in a gymnasium accident which she later used as a murder method in her novel Miss Pym Disposes.
Tey didn’t marry; however, biographers agree that, like many of her generation, she was engaged to a man who died in the First World War. Tey’s novels feature a series of independent women who actively avoid marriage. Their attitude suggests that successful people do not seek fulfillment through others but through themselves. The author seems to have held similar views.

Using the pseudonum Gordon Daviot, she became the author of plays as well as novels. Her first, “Richard of Bordeaux,” about Richard the Second, played on the West End for a year. It was, John Gielgud writes in his memoirs, his own “first . . . success as a director.” He remembered the play, and its author, fondly: “Shakespeare’s Richard, though a wonderful part for an actor, has no humor and can be monotonously lyrical — Daviot’s play was amusing and its pacifist angle had a great appeal when it was produced.”

During the last year of her life, when she knew that she was dying, she avoided all her friends. She died of cancer of the liver at her sister’s home in February, 1952, at the age of 55. Most of her friends were unaware that she was ill, and Sir John Gielgud was shocked to read news of it in The Times during a matinee performance.

Published in 1946, Miss Pym Disposes isn’t a conventional murder mystery. In fact, it would be better to approach this book, not as a mystery, but as fiction. Tey wrote mysteries, and it has a murder in it (maybe), so it must be a mystery, right? If so, it subverts the genre. There is little mystery in it and virtually no detecting. It is more a study in psychology and ethics – how people live together and how communities maintain internal coherence. Can we direct others’ lives? What is our responsibility for others? Does the law have exceptions, nuances, distinctions? Is anyone justified in taking a life? Is one justified in keeping not divulging what one knows about a crime, for any reason?

Subtle clues of character build up to the tragedy. Action packed this is not.

I can’t decide whether I like this book. I read The Daughter of Time years ago; I was expecting something like it in this book. Expectations can be tricky. In this case, expecting a mystery will disappoint you. Expect an intriguing psychological study. Readers who appreciate ambiguity will enjoy Miss Pym.

Miss Pym Disposes takes place at a physical training college for young ladies. Miss Pym is a former high school teacher turned best-selling author of a pop psychology book visiting an old friend who is now the principal of a women’s physical training college. Miss Pym becomes interested in the lives and personalities of the college students and their teachers and, when a death occurs, reluctantly is involved in the circumstances surrounding the event.

The book makes numerous references to Tey’s personal interests. For example, both Miss Pym and Daughter have actors and other theater characters, as well heroes/heroines who believe in gaining insight into a person’s character traits by reading their faces. Miss Pym sets off at the end of the book ready to write another book, this time about face-reading. Detective Gordon relies on his power of face-reading to analyze Richard III. Tying together the theater and Richard III, in Miss Pym, an actor invites Miss Lux, the medical lecturer at the school, to attend a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” with himself in the title role. She has been rebuffing his advances for some time, but that isn’t the only reason why she says no. “Richard III,” she says, is “a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play.” The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, allowed Tey to argue this thesis at length.

The world of English women’s physical training colleges, mid-20th century, was a completely unknown world for me. While I learned about something I hadn’t known existed before, I now know far more about the subject than I wanted. Actually, there are some questions about the institution I am curious about, but I Googled the subject and got zilch.

Actually, even as an Anglophile, I found the Briticisms hard-going. I thought I had read enough books to be up on English references, but evidently not. Anyway, that and the period references almost made me give up. It’s very interesting as a period piece: the atmosphere and attitudes of the period are very evident. (I grew up in the 50’s, but in Texas, not in England.)

The school is a cloistered existence; the students and the teachers live very claustrophobic lives. Their every moment is governed by bells, by rules, by regulations. The students wear uniforms; the Principal even parcels out jobs to the graduates. The students don’t seem prepared to enter the world as adults; I’m not sure how old they are, but they have hardly had any opportunity to mature.

I don’t know whether I ever cared about Miss Pym, or Lucy; I don’t know whether I cared that much about any of the students. Maybe I did – I wished that Mary Innes had stood up for herself. The whole culture was frustrating to me; the circumscribed world that these characters live in was exasperating. The morals of the time were so restrictive, particularly in the areas of gender and sex; we post-war Boomers had so much to revolt against! I just finished reading So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World (now published as Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century), the story of a sensational murder that took place in 1953. In this book (a true crime), two girls commit the murder. The murderer in Miss Pym has much in common with those girls.

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Filed under Literary Genres, Mystery