Lucy’s capacity for doing nothing was almost endless.
So the title character is described in Josephine Tey’s 1947 novel Miss Pym Disposes. It’s not that Lucy Pym lives a life of idleness, but that she has a knack for living in such a way that Nothing – as an almost tangible accomplishment – drapes upon her as a mantle.
The story follows a psychology lecturer’s brief stay at an English college of physical training for young women (the precursor to modern physical therapy and physical education university majors).
We learn at the outset that she once taught younger girls (fourth form, in English parlance) but retired at quite a young age when she received a small inheritance, enough to live on but not necessarily to thrive upon. In her idleness she picked up a book on psychology and found it unbelievable. She went on to read thirty-six more books on the subject, found them all incredible and decided to write her own book comparing each to the other.
It was a best seller.
Lucy Pym found herself with an income and celebrity she never imagined possible, and even though her schedule became filled with book signings and lecture halls in reality her life became more Nothing than it had ever been. So when the Principal of Leys College of Physical Training, an old school chum, invited her to be a guest lecturer, Lucy accepted. She really had nothing better to do than speak about her book to a group of teenage girls.
When Nothing Rules
Josephine Tey’s literary mysteries of the mid 20th Century are rich and varied. She is deft with the details, revealing and hiding as needed to keep the mystery fresh to the last page. But her characters are what keep the pages turning in succession almost of their own accord.
Miss Pym’s character is rather reactive, even though she considers herself more an observer than active agent in her time visiting the college. The students are the ones who truly move the story along, from the Head Girl Nash to the Brazilian dance student escaping a failed love affair by enrolling in this completely English institution.
Yet the story is told through Lucy Pym’s eyes, and her shortcomings in understanding human nature – despite having written a best seller on psychology – are the reader’s shortcomings as well. In her slavery to a life of Nothing, she is unable to see that the college is not a place where nothing happens but one where the human condition is played out in ways both mundane and sensational.
There are two points in the story, though, where Lucy Pym must decide what to do with information only she possesses – well, only she and the malefactor she suspects. This is where the significance of title Miss Pym Disposes comes in. It is not disposal in the sense of throwing away an item after its usefulness has passed, but in the sense of divine right:
To arrange or decide matters: “to do as God disposes”. (dictionary.com)
It is not that she is eager to play God, but that she feels she has no choice. And when she finally comes to a decision what to do with her unique information the reader is left to wonder whether she took the better course. Unexpected events always overtake the decision. This is because, as one character says when discussing why one should leave decision-making to those paid to make the decisions:
Unless you are clever enough to “see before and after” like the Deity, it’s best to stick to rules.
No one, especially not someone like Lucy Pym, sees all the consequences of their decisions. And as much as she enjoys being a best selling writer and the celebrity that came with it, she really knows nothing about psychology. In fact, she does not even know herself all that well.
It is because she took up psychology on a whim – “it seemed interesting” – that she has no real allegiance to it. She is as apt to rely on the construction of a student’s face to categorize the student’s character – the supposed significance of wide set eyes and the like – as she is to base her judgment on psychological analysis of action and word.
This is where she fails herself as well. She is so full of Nothing that she misses the deep urgings of her own mind telling her to leave the college by the next available train, to return to London and her life of book parties and high tea, to beat a retreat before there is anything known to retreat from. But she ignores the words that lay deep in her subconsciousness as she falls asleep early in the book.
Go away from here. Go away while the going is good. Go away. Away from here.
A Theology of Something
Miss Pym Disposes is a deeply theological book without the least evidence of trying to be theological at all. That is because it is a practical theology, in the most plain sense. This is theology as it is lived in people’s day to day lives, not as it is written in tomes and texts.
I was struck by the tools Lucy Pym failed to employ, tools that are available to us all. In a temporal manner, she could easily have allowed those who are paid to make decisions to make them. She didn’t “stick to the rules.”
She also failed theologically. She didn’t trust those in authority to be able to handle the information she possessed, even though someone like her friend the College Principal would have much to add to the meager – albeit unique – store of information Lucy could offer. Just as only God sees the before-and-after and so only God knows how to dispose righteously and justly, the Principal, although not omniscient, is at least a god-like character in the sense of having comparatively infinitely more knowledge of the students in the before-realm than Lucy has.
This is the failure of Lucy Pym: she has no faith and so disposes as she sees fit. This lack of faith is the Nothing which permeates her life. By not having faith in her friend, she represents all who do not yet trust God.
Faith is the tool she may lack but it is one which God has given his people to draw upon. It brings us much more than a life of Something as opposed to Lucy Pym’s life of Nothing.
With faith, we are transformed from a life of Nothing to a life of Everything.