I came to this book through a recommendation from Kate Macdonald in her excellent series of podcasts, Why I Really Like This Book. I'm with Kate on this one - I really like Miss Pym Disposes. Published in 1946, but clearly taking place in interwar England - the Second World War is never mentioned or hinted at - Tey's novel is a good companion read to Gaudy Night. Before the novel starts, Lucy Pym has escaped via a timely inheritance from her work as a full-time French teacher; having leisure in which to read and think, she has - much to her own surprise - written a popular and best-selling book on psychology. Now something of a celebrity, she has been asked by her old school friend Henrietta Hodge to deliver a guest lecture at the Leys Physical Training College, where Henrietta is now Principal. Lucy at first finds the environment of the College intolerable - the first bell of the day rings at half-past-five, and the food is revolting - but as she gets to know the students she is rather seduced by the Leys and the opportunity it gives her to spend time with the young. It is the end of the academic year, and the students are tense under the pressure of examinations and the annual Demonstration of their gymnastic prowess; the graduating students are also anxious about getting a job.
Henrietta, as headmistress, allocates her students as she sees fit when the Leys is asked to fill a vacancy; the drama of the novel revolves around her choice to give a plum job, teacher at a prestigious girls' school, to Barbara Rouse rather than Mary Innes. Barbara Rouse is a brilliant athlete but no scholar; Mary, with her intriguing face, the sort of face "around which history was built", is that tiresome thing, a high-achieving all-rounder. Everyone at the Leys thinks that Mary should have been given this job - except Henrietta, who obstinately insists it will go to Rouse (the students are habitually known by surnames in the novel). This decision causes an initial row and an eventual tragedy, and Miss Pym finds herself with knowledge that might change many lives.
The title comes from a quote from Thomas a Kempis, "Man proposes, but
God disposes". Miss Pym has several opportunities - all of them
unwelcome to her - during the novel to acquire information and to choose
whether and how to use it - in short, to take upon herself the
responsibility for disposal. Will she - because of or despite her
knowledge of human psychology - get it right?
The atmosphere of the Leys is both appallingly healthy - all the girls and most of the staff are fit and well-nourished - and emotionally strained. The Anglo-Brazilian student Teresa
Desterro, known in the College as the Nut Tart because of her origins and her glamorous clothes, tells Miss Pym that "you cannot expect them to
be normal", that the stress of the final term sends all the girls somewhat insane. Sometimes this can be a little sinister: when the girls hear that Miss Pym is going to stay on for a few days, she hears a chorus of voices through her bedroom window: "Miss Pym, we are so glad that you are staying [...] Yes, Miss Pym. We are glad. Glad. Miss Pym. Yes. Yes. Glad, Miss Pym". No wonder she then hears an inner voice suggesting she get away from the Leys by the first available train. In a novel of this period set in an all-female establishment, it's impossible not to wonder if lesbianism is implicit, and indeed powerful affections between women are an important part of the plot, but Tey approaches this so subtly that I'm still not quite sure what she was really implying, and her implications are mediated through Miss Pym, who may have her own reasons for further obscuring the meaning.
This is an artful, fascinating little book that resonated with me for a long time after I finished it, and I quite want to read it again now to see how it was done. The book is full of charming and interesting characters and Lucy Pym is not the least of these; she is a long way from the starchy spinster the title might lead you to expect. When her hand is kissed by a famous actor, "somebody behind tittered, but Lucy liked having her hand kissed. What was the good of putting rose-water and glycerine on every night if you didn't have a little return now and then?" The Nut Tart herself is a joyful and exuberant character, and the sub-plot involving the famous actor shows Miss Pym off to good effect.
The narrative is witty and combines light and dark to great effect. This was my first Tey and I see there are lots of others (and a series of books in which she appears as a detective) so I have plenty more to enjoy.