Josephine Tey: A Life
by Jennifer Morag Henderson
Sandstone Press, 2015, 426 pages, £9.99
Josephine Tey is known today for the six mystery novels she wrote in the six years before her death in 1952: Miss Pym Disposes, The Franchise Affair, Brat Farrar, To Love and Be Wise, The Daughter of Time and The Singing Sands. In 1990 the UK Crime Writers’ Association voted The Daughter of Time the greatest mystery novel of all, and The Franchise Affair came eleventh on the same list. Before she became a novelist she had had a successful career as a playwright, writing under the pseudonym “Gordon Daviot”, beginning in 1933 with the West End success Richard of Bordeaux.
Not a great deal of information about her has been publicly available. She spent most of her adult life quietly looking after her widowed father in her home town of Inverness, where she was Elizabeth MacKintosh, the fruiterer’s daughter. When she died after becoming ill while on holiday in Sussex, her death notice in the Times appeared under her “Gordon Daviot” pseudonym, with no mention of her real name or “Josephine Tey”.
Jennifer Morag Henderson has written what is, surprisingly, the first biography. The time gap since Tey’s death means that none of her friends are alive to talk about her, but Henderson has discovered much that was not previously known, and has managed to fill in some of the gaps in public knowledge.
Tey (to use the name by which she is best known) was born in 1896, the first child of Colin and Josephine MacKintosh. Colin was from a poor farming family from the west coast of Scotland, Josephine from a slightly better-off Inverness family of mixed Scottish and English background. In Inverness in the 1880s, Colin’s family set up a fruiterer’s business, of which Colin, the hardest-working and canniest of them, was soon in charge. He worked there until his death in 1950, making enough money to buy a good house for the family and give his three daughters a sound education. The family holidayed annually at the nearby village of Daviot, which Tey commemorated in her first pseudonym, and where she instructed her ashes to be scattered.
After doing well at school in Inverness, Tey decided against university and chose to study Physical Training at Anstey College, a women’s institution near Birmingham, beginning in 1915. (She later used an institution very like Anstey as the setting for Miss Pym Disposes.) Physical Training was a rigorous, broad and highly regarded course that prepared its graduates to be mostly either Physical Education teachers or physiotherapists. During and after the First World War its graduates were in high demand. The poor physical condition of many conscripts led to a call for physical education in schools; and tens of thousands of wounded soldiers needed physiotherapy.
This review appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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The college’s students volunteered as nurses locally during the war. Probably while volunteering, Tey met and formed a romantic attachment with an officer of the Cameron Highlanders, but he was killed shortly afterwards in France in 1916. His identity is unknown; Henderson has narrowed the possibilities down to two.
After graduating, Tey worked in various teaching positions in England and Scotland before finding a congenial place at a school in Tunbridge Wells, amid countryside in Kent that she fell in love with, later writing of its “shattering beauty”. She was not there for long, though, as her mother fell badly ill with cancer in 1923 and Tey’s father asked her to come home and look after her.
Tey’s mother died later that year, and Tey stayed on to keep house for Colin. She missed the teaching career that had just begun to progress satisfactorily, along with her independence and her newly-discovered corner of England, but she never seems to have considered not staying with her father in Inverness. It was simply her duty to stay. Their relationship appears to have been steady rather than affectionate.
Colin spent his days at the shop, and Tey found time between her domestic duties to begin her writing career. At first she wrote short stories and poetry, achieving occasional publication in literary magazines.
She met another local poet, Hugh McIntosh, also of mixed Scottish and English background. Two years older than Tey, he had been an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and had been awarded the Military Cross at Passchendaele. After the war he had served in Ireland, Palestine and Nigeria before being invalided out and moving to Inverness in 1924. The two writers encouraged each other and appear to have become close, but he died of tuberculosis in 1927. She later used one of his poems, alongside one of her own, in To Love and Be Wise.
Was he the love of her life, as Henderson insists? As with much of Tey’s private life, the evidence is too sparse to be conclusive.
Tey never had another sweetheart. As it did to scores of thousands of women of her generation, the war consigned her to spinsterhood. But, like many others, she made the most of the situation, later writing, in her final novel The Singing Sands, a tribute to the choice of the single life in pursuit of a professional career—although in the novel the choice was made by her detective, Alan Grant.
Love and death play a relatively small part in her six post-war novels. While the range of human affections plays a strong part throughout, in only two novels does a romance develop between any of the characters, and in each case the story ends before the lovers-to-be have even touched. Even more remarkably, there are only three deaths, none of them gruesome. I know of no other crime or mystery writer who has written such gripping novels with so few corpses or clinches.
Between 1929 and 1931, as “Gordon Daviot”, Tey published her first three novels, with moderate success. Only one was a crime novel: The Man in the Queue, set in the theatre district of London’s West End. She had begun to take regular holidays in and around London. In Inverness, where there was little theatrical activity, she went to the cinema once or twice a week, usually on her own, but in London she went to the theatre. In 1931 the performance of the up-and-coming young John Gielgud in Hamlet made such an impression on her that when she went back to Inverness she wrote her first play with him in mind as the lead.
She felt that Shakespeare had been unfair to Richard II, presenting him merely as a vain and irresponsible king. Tey wanted to show Richard more fully and over the course of his life, and wrote Richard of Bordeaux with that end in mind. When she had finished it she sent it to Gielgud. He liked it straight away. Without meeting Gordon Daviot or even knowing “he” was a woman, Gielgud agreed to direct and act in it. It was an enormous popular and critical success, running for fourteen months in the West End, and making stars of Gielgud and his female lead, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, each of whom bought a house in the country with the proceeds.
Tey also gained financial independence for herself, enabling her to make more frequent visits to London to buy the well-cut tweeds she favoured and to visit her new theatrical friends. One of them, Ffrangcon-Davies, asked her to write a play for her about Mary, Queen of Scots. Tey was reluctant at first, as she disliked Mary, but eventually she wrote Queen of Scots, and Ffrangcon-Davies starred in the title role. Unfortunately, Tey’s ambivalence about Mary was reflected in the play, in which Mary appears as a rather foolish woman, and the play was not a hit, though it had a respectable West End run.
Tey wrote mostly plays for the next ten years, many of them with biblical settings. But she also wrote another mystery novel, A Shilling for Candles, a biography, Claverhouse, and at the invitation of Universal Studios, who had bought the film rights to Richard of Bordeaux, she adapted an American novel into the film Next Time We Love, which starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. She wrote two successful plays for the new Citizens Theatre Company of Glasgow: the biblical drama The Little Dry Thorn as “Gordon Daviot” and the comedy Cornelia under another pseudonym, “F. Craigie Howe”. Valerius, one of the plays she wrote during the war, had an all-male cast, and she shelved it till the war ended, rather than have the main parts acted by conscientious objectors.
Scottish literary, cultural and political nationalism was stirring, but Tey had little time for it. In The Singing Sands she satirised both Gaelic folk nostalgia and Scottish nationalism, while writing fondly of Scotland in general. She despised the anti-English resentment of so many of the new nationalists, and the cynical stoking of old hatreds for political ends. She loved England as well as Scotland. Her detective, Alan Grant, an Englishman of Scottish antecedents, has no illusions about Scotland. In The Daughter of Time he describes the seventeenth-century Covenanters, revered by some of the Scottish nationalists, as “the exact equivalent of the IRA in Ireland” and “as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation”.
Once she started writing mystery novels straight after the war, settling on the name Josephine Tey, she wrote little else. She was immediately successful, and Penguin soon published her three outstanding novels, The Franchise Affair, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, in its famous green-and-white covers—although not before some debate in the company about whether they could truly be categorised as crime novels. She was rare among Penguin writers of the period in successfully refusing to have a portrait photograph on her books.
Neither she nor her novels could be neatly classified. She avoided publicity and said little about her work. As a result, casual remarks to friends—such as that writing mystery novels is like knitting—were repeated later by commentators as if they were serious statements about her art.
A close reading of her novels in conjunction with knowledge of her life, as Jennifer Morag Henderson has done, shows how Tey’s life and opinions turn up in her plays and novels in various ways. Throughout her work genuineness battles against phoniness—and wins. The Daughter of Time, which is not really a crime novel at all, but a novel about historical truth and historical research, includes many comments (by the characters) about the misuse and abuse of history, mostly in this case by the Tudors, who had an interest in sullying the name of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. Brat Farrar, a gripping suspense about an imposture, gives an ingenious twist to this contest between the genuine and the phony.
In The Franchise Affair one of the characters, speaking on the phone to his girlfriend, the daughter of a trendy bishop who has taken the fashionable side in the affair, tells her exasperatedly:
your lot are never interested in justice, are they? Only in injustice … What do I mean by your lot? Just what I say. You and all your crowd, who are for ever adopting good-for-nothings and championing them against the world. You wouldn’t put out a finger to keep a hard-working little man from going down the drain, but let an old lag lack the price of a meal and your sobs can be heard in Antarctica. You make me sick …
It is not developed explicitly in the book, but the division Tey draws here between those who think it most important and virtuous to take a public stand against injustice, and those who think it most important and virtuous to live justly, is a subtle and reassuringly conservative one. Such observations, spoken by the characters and integral to the plot, are scattered through her novels. They add to her acute characterisation, wit and intelligence to make her novels eminently re-readable.
The great shortcoming of her novels is that there are so few. Her most productive years were marred by ill-health and fatigue, and she was diagnosed too late with liver cancer and died at fifty-five. Apart from a few minor bequests she left her estate to the National Trust.
I have enjoyed these recent weeks spent in Tey’s company, reading this biography and re-reading her major novels. And yet, one never quite gets truly close to her. Despite Jennifer Morag Henderson’s best efforts, the elusive Elizabeth MacKintosh, in her elegant tweeds and sensible shoes, is continually disappearing from our view around a corner, busy about her life and keeping her secrets.
George Thomas is deputy editor of Quadrant.