15 thoughts on “Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes

  1. The title caught my eye (being a Barbara Pym obsessive!) and I used to read very little detective fiction (being a coward) but this wonderful post, and your whole series, will change all that… Thank you!


    1. The Pym in the title IS a coincidence, but I think you’ll enjoy the quiet and methodical unfolding of the novel. There are also some very sharp social observations to enjoy too, a la Miss B Pym.


  2. You’re really making me revisit my past this week! I recently sent Miss Pym to an old friend as the college reminded me so much of the school we were at in the late 1940s, where the headmistress was a retired gym teacher who had trained at Dartford College of Physical Education in WWI. I’m wondering if the ageing actor might have been John Gielgud, since he had played the lead in Richard of Bordeaux, by Tey’s alter ego, Gordon Daviot. We did that at school, too, directed by another teacher who was a huge Gielgud fan.


  3. Tey never does mention World War 2 and rationing in any of her novels written in the 1940s – I wonder if she felt that she would make them ‘timeless’ so that they could be read without being dated by future generations. In any case I don’t think it matters. Enjoyed your review very much, Miss Pym is one of my favourite Tey novels and I do agree, she was a far better writer than Agatha Christie although perhaps this is not fair as Christie was a genius at plotting and was thus an entirely different kind of writer.. Wish that Tey had lived longer and written more though.


  4. I just finished this book and tremendously enjoyed it, as I did your review. Some things struck me, though. I am not so sure that Miss Pym´s judgment is “absolutely to be trusted” – it is stated in the beginning that the success of her book was not so much due to its subject-specific quality but rather to its having been written at the right time to meet a demand for literature of this type. While Miss Pym certainly has the right instincts, we (as the readers) should not blindly rely on her judgment, just as she keeps questioning it herself. (This is a refreshing take on the all-knowing detective who sees through everyone else). The scenes in which Lucy talks to Teresa about her impressions of the college, Henrietta explains her decision and obviously the ending all show that Miss Pym does not always get the entire picture and her judgment can be as flawed as anyone else´s. This, in turn, raises the question whether Henrietta´s decision is indeed such an instance of bad judgment. At that point in the story, both of the options she has to decide between appear equally unsuitable, each for its own reasons – so perhaps the worst judgment Henrietta displayed was to choose between those two at all and not consider a third alternative. (Although this probably would have set the same events in motion, just with a different victim.) (Granted, one character later acts in a way to redeem herself, but Henrietta, when faced with her decision, has no way of knowing this – especially since until it was known that Miss Unsympathetic was not just injured but actually dead, this character was perfectly willing to benefit from her misfortune.) Also, while there is no mention of food rationing, there is a certain lack of food noticeable in the background. The one meal at the college that is described – “beans and milk pudding” is rather spartan; the students talk about being hungry all the time and stealing food someone else got sent from back home is “the one crime of the college”. (At some point, even the teachers talk semi-wistfully about the food at the students´ party). While this may be due to the dietary and exercise regime of the college, it increases the atmosphere of tension among and pressure on the characters, and also makes a point about “lack of proper nourishment” (in the non-physical sense) for certain characters – but at the same time it also fits in with the real-life experience of food rationing going on at the time of writing.


    1. Golly. Thanks for this. I’m not sure I can make a sensible reply because the novel is not fresh in my mind, but I’ll have a go. On the food issue; it was certainly standard for British boarding schools and the less well endowed colleges to not have great food. That’s why food was sent from home. Also see Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ for terse remarks on that subject, and any boarding-school novel from the 1960s backwards. It’s just a British thing: institutional food was dreadful. Also, if there were food rationing in place, then there would be very little available in the cafés and restaurants that the characters visit, so I think my point still holds up.

      I do take your point about Miss Pym’s judgement, and her potentially unreliable narration.


  5. I am enjoying MIss Pym Disposes, but certain references baffle me. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2 Miss Pym wonders if she should “go in her mock” (or, mook, as Project Gutenberg Australia has it), then uses Charles II as a good excuse for not bathing. I can’t find a translation of this phrase. Do you have one?


    1. Regional English cultural reference! ‘Mook’ here is a rendering of the Lancashire / NW English accented ‘muck’, ie, she would dress without having a bath. A morning bath ws the norm for the middle and upper classes at this period, because they had servants to deliver the hot water, or had modern bathrooms with hot water taps and everything. Anything else I can help you with?


      1. Thank you! This ‘muck’ is a new phrase to me. I’ve been searching the internet for “go in my mock.” No wonder I found nothing, but I’ve encountered quite a whole lot about Charles II. To change the subject, I wonder whether Daughter of Time started out as a stage play. It all takes place in Alan’s hospital room, and the entire cast totals 6. One of the best passages I’ve ever read in any book was Marta’s description of her leading man’s “stroke” in the middle of his performance. Only a short paragraph, but I felt as though I had been around the world and got back just in time for tea. Switching again, The Franchise Affair was a stunner, though I missed Alan Grant. The town was lovely to look at. Attorney Blair was a delight, and even the detective he hires was wow. Tey gave the impression that you could slice your hand just by touching him. I like Tey’s books because she explores areas no one seemed to even think of at the time. It’s as though you believed a square has 4 sides, and along she comes and shows you it actually has 6.173.


      2. It could very well have done, since it only has one set (unless you have the British Library scenes in a spot at stage front). I saw a splendid Georgian house in Pershore the other day that would have been perfect for The Franchise Affair, had it had a large walled garden. The raised pediment completely blocked the view for all the servants’ rooms: very satisfying to see.


  6. Josephine Tey was a great mystery writer of that era.. I became a fan when “Brat Farrar” was serialized for BBC Radio’s “Book at Bedtime” in 1965. I found it mesmerizing.These days of course a simple DNA test and the story of impersonation would have ended right there.


  7. I have only read this novel for the first time in 2020 under CV-19 lockdown so here I am 4 years late! I agree with your wonderful analysis and would make 2 points:

    First, I believe Josephine Tey avoided the war and rationing to prevent her books becoming quickly dated in fast changing circumstances. She likely assumed rationing would be lifted speedily before publication and could not foresee that the Labour government would keep rationing in place for years after the war when virtually no other country did. It was not fully lifted until 1953 under Churchill’s second term. That said, I live in an English village like the novel’s setting. Everyone here has gardens. allotment or acres of land. Many keep hens and grow all their own produce. Church fetes grown with cream cakes and fresh cheese. The countryside is not London and so much of our impression of WW2 is from London sources – the Blitz, evacuation, rationing. In the countryside, surrounded by rich farmland, the population was not bombed, accepted evacuees and still grew all its own food in gardens in abundance. ok, so no bananas or pineapples! There was no rationing of eggs or butter or summer berries round here as they were all home produced. So I think the semi rural setting of Leys and the Bridlington cafe could account for an abundance of food.

    Second, I don’t think Henrietta shows bad judgement. What she shows is bias and favouritism possibly based on a crush. She is perfectly able to rationalise her judgement which Lucy, Miss Pym, believes to be her genuine and reasoned opinion. Of course, it’s bad politics with an unexpected tragic result.

    It’s a terrific read although Brat Farrar remains my own favourite of Tey’s novels. But then I’m a guy!


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