Miss Pym Disposes - Josephine Tey

It seems to me that the skill of writing a light book often gets ignored. Serious books wear their purple prose like hard-won bruises and hammer home their demand to be taken seriously. Light books carry you along swiftly with smiles and wit, distracting you from the prose that gives the book its strength and hiding its serious intent from anyone who doesn't have the inclination to look for it.


This book is very skillfully written to deliver introspection without ever appearing to step too deeply into psychology. Take this passage, where Miss Pym reflects on why she is inclined to stay for a while at this college she had previously been determined to leave after only one night:


"There was no good in trying to diddle herself about why she wanted to stay a little longer; why she was seriously prepared to forgo the delights of civilisation that had seemed so desirable—so imperatively desirable—only yesterday morning. It was nice to be liked.


In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kowtowed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said good-bye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms."


I love the easy intimacy of this: with the complex sentence structure to suggest careful reflection and the soft alliteration to sustain the feeling of humorous insight. Yet the serious points are all there and lose none of their weight in the telling.


Then, as we get to the end of Chapter Five when Miss Pym is going to bed having just agreed to stay for a few days, we get the first indication of spookiness in the whispered reactions of the girls in the rooms facing the same courtyard as Miss Pym's:


"A great stillness had settled on Leys. The chatter, the bells, the laughter, the wild protests, the drumming of feet, the rush of bath water, the coming and going, had crystallised into this great silent bulk, a deeper darkness in the quiet dark.


‘Miss Pym.’



The whisper came from one of the windows opposite. Could they see her, then? No, of course not. Someone had heard the small noise of her curtains being drawn back.


‘Miss Pym, we are so glad you are staying.’


So much for the college grape-vine! Not fifteen minutes since Nash said good-night, but already the news was in the opposite wing. Before she could answer, a chorus of whispers came from the unseen windows round the little quadrangle. Yes, Miss Pym. We are glad. Glad. Miss Pym. Yes. Yes. Glad, Miss Pym.


‘Good-night, everyone,’ Lucy said.


Good-night, they said. Good-night. So glad. Good-night."


That set off my spook alarm. There's no obvious threat yet suddenly the school feels like a prison or a zoo. In which case, what does that make Miss Pym?


My reading also offered me a book recommendation. Miss Pym borrows a book called "The Young Visiters" that was apparently well-known in 1946 as a book that would make everyone smile.


The publisher's summary says:


A short “society novel” written by Miss Daisy Ashford at the age of nine. The notebook containing the novel was rediscovered by her in adult life and sent by a friend to Frank Swinnerton, the English novelist, critic, editor and essayist. Published in 1919 by Chatto and Windus, with its original misspellings and an arch introduction by “Peter Pan” author J. M. Barrie, it was an immediate bestseller. Its child's view of high society (dukes and earls having ‘levies’ and residing in the ‘Crystall Pallace’) and its heavily romantic plot make it an engaging and enduring popular work.


So I added a copy to my TBR pile.