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“…College griefs were wild and bitter…” #MissPymDisposes #JosephineTey @BacklistedPod

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Although I have more reviews to come of lovely #ReadIndies books, I wanted to share some thoughts today on an old favourite which I was impelled to revisit when I heard it was to feature on the Backlisted Podcast – “Miss Pym Disposes” by Josephine Tey. I’m sure Backlisted needs no introduction here; I’m a huge fan and their podcasts are always entertaining, pithy, funny and enlightening – and always very dangerous for those of us suggestible types who can’t resist wonderful sounding books. However, I often haven’t read the books they feature; this time, however, I had, as I read all of Tey’s books back in my twenties and her novels are some of my favourites. I’ve revisited “The Daughter of Time” regularly (it’s brilliant!) and also “The Franchise Affair” during this blog’s life; however, despite happy memories of “Miss Pym…” I don’t think I’ve re-read it for some time. So when the Backlisted schedule was announced, I couldn’t resist…

As I said back when I covered “Franchise….” ‘Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh (25 July 1896–13 February 1952) a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot, under which name she wrote plays with an historical theme.’ Although her novels are categorised as crime, they’re often a little left of centre; “Franchise…” is an intriguing look at an accusation of kidnap; and “Daughter…” a historical investigation. Tey has a regular detective, Alan Grant, who appears in many of her books, but “Miss Pym…” stands alone in that it’s not so much about a crime as the psychology behind crime; and her central character is the author of a book on psychology!

As the book opens, Lucy Pym has been invited to Leys College by her old friend Henrietta Hodge, who is the principal there. The college is a physical education one for girls, and the regime is intense. The students seem under immense pressure from morning to night, studying PE, medical subjects, dance – you name it, they seem to do it, with the results being high class students who go on to prestige positions when they pass their exams. There is much at stake at Leys, therefore, and Miss Pym is intrigued by what she sees. Initially invited to give a talk to the girls on her book, she ends up becoming involved with the College and its denizens; staying on to see how the end of term demonstrations go, she’s witness to odd behavior from certain students, machinations behind the scenes and inexplicable behaviour by her old friend. A dramatic accident causes her to rethink her initial judgements of the students and staff; but how will she deal with events when she is put in the position of having to decide the future of some of the girls?

As a psychologist she began to suspect she was a very good teacher of French.

Tey was a wonderful writer, and that quality really shines through in “Miss Pym…”; I once again found myself completely involved in the world she creates and I couldn’t put the book down, staying up far too late to read it and finishing it in two sittings. I was always drawn to stories set in boarding schools when I was young (brought up on Enid Blyton!) and so that element appeals anyway. However, the psychology is what’s particularly relevant here (as it was, perhaps, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”, another favourite); not only of a grouping of people under one roof, but also the intense pressures they face. Emotions are bubbling under the surface, futures are at risk, and the differing backgrounds and personalities the girls bring to Leys can create all manner of issues. Lucy Pym cannot always read the girls correctly, and neither can we; and that’s the point, maybe. We can jump to judgement too quickly without seeing the underlying causes of behaviour. And Tey leads us through Lucy’s experiences so skilfully that we feel we’re part of the story ourselves, and just as invested in the girls and their futures as she is.

There are so many wonderful characters in the book, including the various staff members with their own issues, especially the anxious Henrietta who is intensely worried about the reputation of her college. The students range from the engaging Beau Nash, to whom everything in life is served on a plate; Innes, a troubled girl who should be lined up for a bright future; the unpopular Rouse who struggles to reach the necessary grades; and the exotic and entertaining Teresa from Brazil, known as the ‘Nut Tart’. Even those pupils with a lesser role are brilliantly painted, and the story is not without male characters, in the form of Teresa’s distant cousin Rick, who is enchanted by her; and the ageing thespian Edward Adrian, an old admirer of Miss Lux, one of the academic staff.

There’s so much about this book to love and so much I could ramble on about here: Tey’s capturing of the atmosphere and essence of Leys; the way she allows Lucy Pym to be subtly drawn into the way of life their until she feels a part of it herself; Lucy’s own psychology and her response to the affection the girls display for her; the contrast between that and her own controlled and austere life back in London. Really, there are so many elements in this novel that I possibly hadn’t appreciated on my first reading!

The book’s been released as a green crime Penguin, though it’s more about psychology than crime.

Of course, running through the book is an inevitable moral conflict; Miss Pym is aware of a wrong which has been done and has it within her power to influence how things will turn out. In the title of the novel, “Disposes” is used in its literary meaning of determining the course of events; and Miss Pym has to decide what is the morally right action to take. It’s not easy, and Tey saves a delicious twist right until the end (which I *did* remember as I approached it, but which still gave me a frisson when I reached the closing of the book).

It was obvious to me during this re-read why I hold Josephine Tey’s books in such high regard, why I’ve held onto them all these years, and why each revisit is such a joy. Her prose is wonderful, her characterisation and her settings brilliantly realised, and her books completely engrossing. There’s much more to her work than simply a mystery and these are books that linger in the mind long after finishing them. I should mention that there are perhaps minor linguistic terms that we wouldn’t use nowadays, an inappropriately jokey reference to rape and an occasional broad brush to characterisation of students from other countries (sometimes from as far away as Scotland and Wales…) As a Scottish person I didn’t find this objectionable, and I always think context is all, so I these didn’t detract from my deep enjoyment of the book.

So re-visiting Leys College and its denizens alongside Miss Pym was a pure joy and a happy way to end February (when I was *supposed* to be reading indies). As I write and schedule this to coincide with the Backlisted main release, I haven’t yet listened to the podcast and I’m really looking forward to finding out whether I agree or disagree with the participants, and what insights they bring (I am sure there will be many). If you haven’t encountered Backlisted before, I highly recommend you start exploring; and if you haven’t read the work of Josephine Tey, this novel might be great place to start – you’re in for a treat on both counts! 😀

“A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm’d with Terrors…” @i_am_mill_i_am @BacklistedPod #journaloftheplagueyear #defoe

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A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Well, we seem to be spending time in slightly dark territory on the Ramblings at the moment: from the impulse to self-destruct we move on to plague… I blame external forces of course (lovely Fitzcarraldo volumes and flash sales, the Backlisted Podcast); nevertheless, I don’t always want to be reading lighter works, although after these two I think I might need some contrast… 😉

Daniel Defoe is, of course, best known as the author of “Robinson Crusoe”; it’s a book I read some time ago, pre-blog, and of course everyone probably knows the plot. I’ve heard him called the inventor of the novel as we know it, and certainly his characters and works have entered into the collective consciousness. “A Journal of the Plague Year” is a more unusual beast; it’s purportedly just that, a record of the year the Great Plague took hold of London, killing hundreds of thousands of its population, as well as spreading to some other parts of England. Our narrator is only identified at the very end of the book by a pair of initials, H.F., and he stays in London during the plague as our witness.

So we follow H.F. as he watches the Bills of Mortality announcing the number of deaths; as he ranges the oddly deserted streets, noting the marks on the doors of people’s houses indicating infection, with a Watchman stationed outside to let nobody in or out; and as he visits the plague pits, dug to bury the dead as there are so many of them that the traditional methods have gone out of the window. H.F. relates tales tragic and hopeful; of families dying out completely, of the charity of human beings, of the watermen down on the river going into hiding on their vessels, of a group escaping into the country and setting up camp. And over all of this the spectre of the plague looms and rages, killing seemingly indiscriminately, coming and going in ferocity, until the people of London wonder, at the height of its power, if anyone will actually survive.

But alas! This was a Time when every one’s private Safety lay so near them, that they had no Room to pity the Distresses of others; for every one had Death, as it were, at his Door, and many even in their Families, and knew not what to do, or whither to fly.

“Plague” is not a book that’s a quick or easy read, but it *is* incredibly vivid and compelling; Defoe captures the landscape of Mediaeval London and its people quite wonderfully, and it’s obvious that he knew both well. The City comes alive, with its narrow winding streets, dirt and grime, bustling population and wooden buildings. Really, the city itself is the main player in the story; HF, although he reveals a little about himself, is an observer and chronicler, there to be our eyes and ears, giving us a terrifying glimpse into the past.

…there was more of a Tale than of Truth in those Things.

You might wonder whether a book like this is relevant to us in our modern world, but it most certainly is. So many of the elements of life Defoe writes about are incredlby modern: from the quack doctors and those peddling scam cures, to the nascent mass media to the folk devils created by the popular imagination, this is a world very recognisably ours. So many things resonated with me; truly, humans and their quirks and their world might change superficially but underneath we’re still pretty much the same and driven by the same desires and fears.

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see practis’d since.

The writing and the narrative structure are fascinating as well. The book is incredibly atmospheric, with Defoe/H.F. capturing the sense of impending doom that spreads over the city, that feeling of being trapped and unable to escape the coming doom. The concept of the streets of London being empty and deserted is one that nowadays we would always connect with some kind of disaster taking place, and it was no different back in Defoe’s day. In many ways the book set the template for plague literature to come; for example, Camus draws heavily on it, although his book is an allegory. The book is very discursive, too, contrasting H.F. going back and forward between events with laws and regulations, statistics from the Bills and stories of individuals or groups trying to escape the plague. That structure echoes the ebb and flow of the plague as it moves from west to east across London, its virulence rising and falling, until finally the tide turns and its strength diminishes before finally dying away. Interestingly, the forthcoming Great Fire of London is referred to, although oddly H.F.’s narrative implies the plague was gone before the scourging flames of the Great Fire arrived to finish it off. Strangely, I believe modern thinking is that H.F. might be right…

Penguin Classic and Norton Critical Edition – both have a lot going for them!

I found “Plague” an utterly absorbing read, one which opened a window onto an area of the past as well as convincing me that the underlying nature of human beings really doesn’t change. Certain sections were quite chilling, particularly the part when H.F. visited the Plague Pits where people were being flung nightly in an attempt to keep everyone properly buried. These pits are still there under the modern city of London we know, and have been excavated in recent years when works are done in the metropolis; it’s a little scary how the past reaches out into our lives. I was also struck by the fact that, despite the city having been razed by the later fire, so many of the place names H.F. mentions are familiar ones which still exist now. Apparently, the city was rebuilt over the original street plan, but with brick instead of wood and no open sewers – all of which must have been a vast improvement on the narrow, filthy and teeming streets of plague time…

So – is this history masquerading as novel or the novel as history? I don’t actually think that matters for a book as special as this. Defoe himself was five when the plague broke out, so may well have had some memories of the tumult. Additionally, he had an uncle called Henry Foe (H.F.!) who stayed in London during the plague, and it’s probable that he drew on his uncle’s memories or journals. However, he’s known to have consulted any number of reference works on the period, and knowing enough about what had happened coupled with his talents as a writer combines to make the narrative a most convincing one – and as has been said elsewhere, the nearest thing to a gripping contemporary account.

You might wonder why should you read this book nowadays? Any number of reasons, really. To get a glimpse of human beings under extreme situations, and a look at old London before it was lost in the fire; to see that there really isn’t much in our modern world that hasn’t happened before; and to enjoy the writing of an early master of the novel. “Plague” is dark reading in places, but there are also uplifting moments and an underlying faith in the fact that whatever gets thrown at it, humanity will survive. I don’t know that I would have picked this up if the Backlisted Podcast hadn’t sung its praises so highly; but I’m really glad I did!

*****

As you can see from the image, I have two different editions of “A Journal of the Plague Year” – I suffered raging indecision when trying to decide which edition to buy and ended up with the Penguin Classic (you can’t go wrong with a Penguin Classic) and the Norton Critical Edition. Both are excellent versions to have, being based on the original 1722 edition, but the supporting material is different in each. The Penguin comes with useful notes and chronology, Anthony Burgess’s introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition, as well as glossary and map. The Norton Critical version perhaps looks a little more widely, with excerpts from other plague literature which come up to the contemporary, as well as other material from the time. I read the Penguin because the type was bigger(!), the book easier to hold (Penguins tend to flop open nicely and stay in place), and the extras were just enough for me at the time. However, I’ve been dipping into the Norton supporting material too, and it *is* good. So maybe if you can find both of these versions at a reasonable price, you should consider investing in them both… 🙂

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