I want to find a Miracle Man to bring Alfred Hitchcock back to life (or a time machine to bring him forward) so that I can go beg, coerce, or otherwise convince him to make films of all the Josephine Tey novels (not just A Shilling for Candles) – and particularly Miss Pym Disposes.
By this point in my reread of Josephine Tey it’s more than clear that she did not write ordinary books. The cover blurb clearly gives out that Disposes is a murder mystery, but the story is in no rush to do anyone in. And that is brilliant, and cruel. We are introduced to Miss Pym, and become friends. It didn’t take long at all to come to care about her – still surprised and honestly delighted at her completely unanticipated fame and relative fortune, at her still-new ability to go wherever and do whatever she pleased. There are times and circumstances in which it is almost as nice (almost) to see good things happen to good people as to have them to oneself; it’s lovely to watch Miss Pym as written by Josephine Tey exploring the sort of freedom I’d wish for my own life – and which, come to think of it, may have been a glimpse into Miss Tey’s own feelings; there is, apparently, much of Josephine Tey (pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh) in Miss Pym and the girls and ladies of the school: Elizabeth Mackintosh was, according to the Times obituary (via this site) “born and brought up at Inverness and was trained as a physical training instructress at the Anstey Physical Training College, Birmingham”.
Along with Miss Pym we meet the inmates of the Leys school for young women, and seeing through her eyes there are perhaps two students who are less than lovely, and one instructor; everyone else is charming, and indispensable. Which is when the memory that this is a murder mystery begins to niggle … Which of these will be the victim? Worse – which will be the killer? For once there is no hint in the blurb (at least in my edition); the hideous cover of my copy makes it look like a student, but covers are notoriously unreliable. It’s a different sort of suspense than is often found in the genre – rather than being kept waiting to find out whodunnit or whether this one will escape the murderer or that one escape the law, here it is a wait to see which of these people I’ve quickly come to like will a) die and b) be responsible. Neither is a more appealing prospect than the other; it didn’t take long before I really didn’t want any of them dead, nor did I want any of them to be capable of killing anyone. It is sadly rare to read a book in which the characters are so well-made that their plotline becomes genuinely distressing.
Not a negligible accomplishment for less than a hundred pages.
The whole book is less than 250 pages (depending on the edition). And in that short space a world is built and built well, and brought to crisis, and passes from view again. The sphere is a narrow one, the close, closed community of a girls’ school (with a concentration on medicine and physical education – physical therapy, gymnastics, and dance), and specifically the senior class – young women barely able to call themselves adults who have toiled physically and mentally to achieve this end: final exams, and the “Dems” (a Demonstration of their physical prowess in gymnastics and dance before families and visiting dignitaries), and the doling out of first posts. In other words, the beginning of the rest of their lives. In the wider scheme of things it is all very small and petty and unimportant. To each of the people involved, it is, literally, her life. The instructors have known these girls, and the girls each other, better than their own families for the past four years. Their entire time spent in the school has been leading up to this year, and this year has been focused entirely on this week or so, and in this week or two every decision and every misstep will leave a lasting impression. It’s a situation drenched with stress and tension and pressure, and ripe for something or someone to give way.
And, finally, someone does.
I won’t say much about the “accident” or its repercussions, or even what I thought about the mystery; I wouldn’t want to spoil what to me was a terrific story, and there’s very little I can say that wouldn’t spoil it.
In fiction I’ve seen a lot of boys’ boarding schools, from Dead Poets Society to To Serve Them All My Days, and innumerable mystery and other novels in between – and, of course, there’s Harry Potter for a co-educational boarding school. This is the only example I can think of off-hand of a girls’ boarding school, and it’s a whole new world, completely alien to me, like a lot of Americans. The completely insulated quality of life, spent with the exact same people every day, 24/7 and nearly 365, where going in to town is a novelty and a treat – this is not the sort of school experience most of us are used to, and it’s a whole different psychological set-up – and filled with girls and women it’s quite different from the aforementioned boys’ (or co-ed) schools I’ve seen. Like all those settings, it’s strangely attractive – like a starship, in a way – but at the same time strangely off-putting in its claustrophobia. The additional factor of unrelieved femininity only ratchets up both reactions: it’s a whole world where every single person will understand the alarm of the snapped bra strap or the wretchedness of “that time”, but there is also the primal truth that while women can be the most caring of creatures they can also be the cruelest.
In other books – especially The Franchise Affair – characters put forward some pre-FBI theories of profiling – certain “types” are more or less prone to certain behaviors. One anecdotal observation was that long-nosed people tended to stay and listen to park orators, while short-nosed people walked away. Today Josephine Tey – or at least Miss Pym – would be part of the BAU.
- A Shilling for Candles – Josephine Tey (agoldoffish.wordpress.com)
- The Man in the Queue – Josephine Tey (agoldoffish.wordpress.com)
- The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey (agoldoffish.wordpress.com)
- The Singing Sands, Josephine Tey (concatenatus.wordpress.com)
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Re – a girls’ boarding school, how about (e.g.) ‘Cat Among the Pigeons’ by Agatha Christie?
Oh, excellent, thanks! I don’t think I’ve read that Christie, but I apparently own it – I will have to hunt it down.
Just finished the book, and loved your review; followed it here from Goodreads. So apt; you expressed so much of what I felt.
Re: girls’ boarding schools, there’s plenty of that in mid-20th century British children’s books, from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s to Elinor Brent Dyer’s Chalet School series. But the only books that hold up to this one in terms of a finely observed little society of young girls are the fabulous series about the Marlow family by Antonia Forest. Not for nothing has she been compared to Austen in her ability to describe people and their motivations. Only four of the books are actually set in school, but they’re all wonderful in a way that completely transcends and subverts the school story genre. Start with Autumn Term; it’s a good appetiser though not the best of the lot, but it’s the beginning and you will have much more wonderfulness to look forward to.
The other book to read in this context is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers, who must have been a contemporary of Tey’s and is probably my favourite of the Golden Era of British crime authors. Like Miss Pym, it’s a mystery, set in a women’s college in Oxford, seen from an outside visitor’s viewpoint, though here, it’s more the staffroom that comes under scrutiny than the students. Also one of Sayers’ best; the only thing is that it falls late in the timeline of her Lord Peter Wimsey series. It can stand on its own, but you will appreciate it much more if you read some of the earlier books, especially if you like British crime stories anyway. At least, start with Strong Poison, then read Have His Carcase and Murder Must Advertise before you get to Gaudy Night. And follow that with Busman’s Honeymoon.
I hope you enjoy! I’m off to discover more of Josephine Tey — Daughter of Time is the only one of hers I’ve read before this.
Thank you! I’ve been a huge Sayers fan forever (I’m due for a reread soon), but I will definitely look for the other books you mention!