Fear For Miss Betony by Dorothy Bowers

aka Fear and Miss Betony

published 1941

At the Bodies From the Library conference in London in June, I talked about crime novelist Dorothy Bowers, and I have been working my way through her books.

1941 brought Fear for Miss Betony, which most people, including me, think is her masterpiece, and which The Times reviewer said was the best mystery of that year. Miss Betony is an older single woman, a retired governess, a type we see all the time, but there is nothing cosy or twinkly about her. Facing an uncertain future, she goes off to help out a former pupil who has moved her girls’ school out to the countryside because of the war, and who fears there is something funny going on.

The school is sharing the premises with the last few patients from a care home (this is not wholly convincing) and something is certainly going on. Miss Betony is smart and capable and brings a logical brain to bear.

There are almost no male characters, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, or several works by Ethel Lina White. (White is the author Bowers most reminds me of).

I’ve seen in several places the same quote (which I suspect is just repeated, copied) that Bowers was a champion of the fair play mystery, but I don’t agree. Miss Betony is a terrific book – atmospheric, puzzling, clever – but there are two pieces of information which are withheld from the reader – a mysterious piece of paper, and a name that it beggars belief isn’t recognized by someone. (And Shadows Before offers an awe-inspiring shedload of information in the final chapter which no-one could possibly have known.) That doesn’t bother me actually: I like being surprised and will give some leeway, but I would argue that that is not what she is good at.

The amount of late night running about is spectacular - a topic that we very much enjoy here on the blog, with a glamorous example here in an Agatha Christie, and the trope discussed in this post. But here the exoticism is lacking, even in sleepwalking. Miss B enquires kindly about one of the girls: “Nothing badly wrong, I hope?”

“Nothing really. Only constipation and sleepwalking and a touch of hysteria—which seems to be catching in this benighted place.” To Emma they sounded a formidable trio enough, but nothing short of leprosy looked like daunting Miss Deakin.

Later the same Miss Deakin ‘strode in, repeating, “Naughty, naughty,” in a voice crammed with vitamins.’ Bowers very much had a gift for character as well as a good line in humour.

In fact Fear For Miss Betony has a full house of great tropes, my particular favourites – teashop, school, and fortune tellers, as well as goings on in the middle of the night. It isn’t cosy or sentimental in the slightest, but it IS a rattling good read.

The central scene in Fear for Miss Betony comes where she visits the Great Ambrosio – the one important male character in the book. He will read her palm and also consult his crystal ball. It is magnetically well done, a wonderful extended section. (He really only makes that one appearance, which is a shame but perhaps an artistic decision).

Now apparently Bowers was a life member of the Society for Psychical research and the Ghost Society, which shows a great interest in the topic, especially as these are two very different groups, opposite ends of the supernatural spectrum. The Ghost Society is a group that was founded in the 1860s – Charles Dickens was a member – and then kept falling into abeyance and being revived: in 1936 it had been started up again, began accepting women for the first time, and seems to have been more of a social dining club – a bit like the Detection Club of the world of the Ouija board.

It makes me wish she had used more of her knowledge of this area in her books. Perhaps she would have if she had lived longer – think of Gladys Mitchell, who surely loved a ghost and a séance, or perhaps she might have gone on along the lines of some of Sarah Waters’ books such as The Little Stranger and Affinity.

One last point to wonder about: the book starts with Miss Betony suffering a terrible humiliation. She has applied for a place at an almshouse for distressed ladies. One of her ‘friends’ says to her: “You mustn’t be disappointed if they consider your case unfavourably, Emma. The Homes were intended for gentlewomen, you know, and your dear father was in trade, after all.”

Dorothy Bowers’ own father was a very successful businessman, running bakeries and becoming a pillar of the towns they lived in. The family was obviously very much aspiring middle class, with private education for the girls. Had Bowers’ suffered such a slight herself along the way? In the case of Miss Betony it at least led to her going off for more of an adventure in life… let’s hope it was the same for the other Miss B. More about her own life here.

Education, lessons, serious teaching – none of this features very much in the book, but still I liked this picture of schoolgirls from the Imperial War Museum. They are the daughters of fishermen, at a Belgian school in Brixham, Devon, in 1944.

Magician picture from the Library of Congress.


  1. I thought of Miss Pym Disposes, too, Moira, when I first started reading your post! And I can see how the book might also inspire comparisons with Gladys Mitchell. It sounds like an interesting combination of different themes, even if they don't all play major roles in the novel. And that class-conscious remark - vintage! Thanks for sharing this one.

    1. Thanks Margot - I think something we both enjoy is a crime story set in somewhere like a school or college. It always draws me in...


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