Tuesday, 26 April 2016

"Josephine Tey: A Life" - finally, a biography of the greatest British crime writer of them all

The following review will appear in the next issue of The Salisbury Review (please visit the august organ's splendidly cool new website). I'd normally wait until the magazine appeared on 1st June before posting it on here, but my pancreas and I have had a severe falling out (it went nuts over some nuts), and, until I can actually start eating solids again, I'm not really up to writing anything new - although, given the amount of heavy-duty painkillers in my system, the results might be a bit Thomas De Quincey, and therefore more entertaining than my standard fare. As for Josephine Tey, if you haven't read her, or have only ever read The Daughter of Time, I really recommend getting to know her better - The Singing Sands and Miss Pym Disposes are (currently) my two favourite Tey novels, although The Franchise Affair is also brilliant...

Too sexy for his shirt in Richard of Bordeaux
Josephine Tey has always been a bit of a mystery. She was, we’d been led to believe, a painfully shy, unmarried (probably lesbian) Highland woman who trained at a physical education college, worked as a PE teacher in various parts of England, then opted for a reclusive existence at home in Inverness, ostensibly to look after her widowed father, but really in order to hide herself away from the world. She wrote a few plays and detective novels to fill her lonely existence, infrequently darting down to London in order to visit one of her sisters. Until the appearance of this biography by fellow-Invernessian Jennifer Morag Henderson, it’s been rather hard to match the standard portrait of a timid provincial with the woman who, as Gordon Daviot, wrote Richard of Bordeaux, the wildly successful play which made John Gielgud a star in 1932, and who, as Josephine Tey, produced The Daughter of Time (1951), voted the greatest of all mystery novels by the British Crime Writers Association.

In that extraordinarily original book, a hospital-bound Scotland Yard detective staves off boredom by investigating the notorious 1483 “Princes in the Tower” murders. He concludes that not only was Richard III innocent of any involvement in the princes’ disappearance, but rather than the evil, murdering hunchback of Tudor myth, he was in fact a considerate and decent ruler. On an admittedly more modest level, Henderson’s biography does a similar job in correcting some of the misconceptions about Josephine Tey.

Birmingham’s Anstey College of Physical Education wasn’t just a place for
Miss Pym Disposes
dim, strapping girls to muck about on parallel bars. It provided the young Elizabeth Mackintosh (Tey’s real name) with a rigorous all-round education in everything from anatomy and dancing to something called “Commanding”. Already keen on writing, she later said that she had “wanted a life of many facets,” and had therefore chosen a career “as far removed from writing as possible.” The 27-year old Tey didn’t scuttle back to Inverness to hide herself away when her mother died unexpectedly: she felt it was her duty to keep house for her widowed fruiterer father (doing one’s duty was a thing back then, apparently). She visited London often and was close friends with a number of glamorous theatre folk, including Gielgud, Gwen Ffrancon-Davies and Dodie Smith. Tey enjoyed parties and foreign holidays with her smart chums. She evidently had a talent for making and keeping friends. Her interests were legion: horse-racing, music, poetry, history, films (watching Danny Kaye while munching Barbellion chocolates was "bliss"), fashion (she dressed conservatively but expensively), and art (she would have gone on to study art had she won top prize at school, but she came second).

Flm poster for The Franchise Affair
So why, until the recent surge of interest in Golden Age crime fiction, was Josephine Tey - who many consider to be the genre’s finest ever exponent - suffering from neglect? Partly, it’s her own fault. She was an extremely private person who shunned personal publicity and rarely gave interviews. Even when she was dying in London and too ill to return home, she insisted that nobody but her sister be allowed into the house in Inverness until all personal items had been removed. Did she have something to hide? A current crime writer has produced novels featuring Tey as a lesbian amateur sleuth (Tey’s biographer signals her displeasure by not mentioning the series). The studio photograph of Tey on the cover of her biography shows a rather severe-looking woman with shortish hair, dressed in a man’s shirt and tie and wearing a tweed jacket. A number of Tey’s closest friends in London (where everyone called her “Gordon”) were openly lesbian - but when one of them suggested a physical relationship, Tey explained that it was “something so foreign to my understanding that the chatter of Martians would be limpid by comparison.” Henderson speculates that there had been a young English officer in Tey’s past, who died in the First World War, and that, later, when she returned to Inverness for good, a potential romance with a local poet, Hugh McIntosh, may have fallen victim to the consumption which killed him at the age of 33.

The problem with Tey as a suitable candidate for lionisation is that she refuses to fit neatly into any pigeon-hole. In her writing, as in her life, she also had “many facets”: she wrote poetry, short stories, stage plays, radio plays (until she grew exasperated with the BBC’s parsimony), straight novels, detective novels, an historical novel and an historical biography. All, apart from the crime fiction, have been forgotten. Although one of her two pre-war crime novels was loosely adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for the filmYoung and Innocent, the four or five books on which her reputation rests were all written between the end of the war and her death in 1952. In them, she broke most of the publishing rules for becoming a Queen of Crime. While other writers’ sleuths display so many verbal and physical tics and quirks you begin to suspect they’re suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, Tey’s police detective hero Alan Grant is devoid of them - worse, he isn’t an aristocrat or a genius, regularly gets things wrong, is unheroic and human enough to suffer a nervous breakdown, and only features briefly or not at all in some of her crime books. Again, this is typical of Tey: although she described the crime novel as “a medium as disciplined as any sonnet”, her stories are utterly unformulaic. For instance, in Miss Pym Disposes, set against the background of what is evidently Anstey College, the solitary crime happens towards the end of the book and (like so much else in Tey’s work) isn’t what it appears to be - in fact, it’s hardly a crime novel at all.

Tey was one of the finest Scottish writers of the 20th century, so you would imagine they’d make a tremendous fuss of her - statues and National Tey Days and the like. Not a bit of it. That’s possibly because, while she loved the Highlands and England (she left her money to the National Trust of England), she doesn’t appear to haver been particularly enamoured of the bit in between. She wrote plays for the resurgent post-war Scottish theatre, but she despised Scottish nationalism:  a nationalist character in one of her plays is known simply as WASTREL, and her posthumously-published final crime novel, The Singing Sands, is partially a satire on Glaswegians who wrap themselves in tartan and spout romantic nonsense about their Highland heritage and the importance of Gaelic and how the English oppressor has cruelly held them back. Tey is also unlikely to be celebrated by London’s left-liberal literary establishment because, like most Golden Age crime writers, she was a small “c” conservative who loathed socialism.

Probably the main reason for her relative lack of fame today, though, is that she died at the wrong time. The quality of The Daughter of Time and The Singing Sands suggests that she was, at the age of 56, at the height of her powers. Her father had died recently, and, as her writing had made her wealthy, she could have lived wherever she chose, and done whatever she wanted. But she had made no plans, and was still accustoming herself to “the idea that I am free” when she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

This is not a great biography: there’s too much irrelevant background information, too many bewildering details about Tey’s many relatives, and a baffling paucity of quotes from Tey’s private correspondence. But it is a meticulously-researched, timely and welcome book, and Ms. Henderson is good on what makes Tey’s writing so compelling and memorable: “[She] didn’t write primarily to entertain, she wrote to understand the world.” Ms. Henderson deserves our thanks for setting the record straight. Let’s hope it increases the readership of the greatest crime writer - and one of the best British novelists - of her generation.


  1. Thank you so much for this review. Years ago I read "Daughter of Time" with fascination, and then "The Franchise Affair"; then, sorry to say, forgot about her. I shall certainly hunt out her other books, and hope that writing brought her the sense of completion that it is possible real life did not offer her.

  2. This is clearly an author that I'm going to have find out more about. The Franchise Affair was made into a cracking old British film, one of my favourites. I seem to remember you mentioning, in a previous post, that you were looking for a copy.Let me be the bringer of good news. It's now on sale at Amazon. Please don't make the mistake that I did and buy a dodgy version from ebay. It was identical to the one I had taped from Channel 4 a decade or so earlier. Wobbled in the same places ; even had the bloody adverts!

  3. I have never heard of this writer [she looks like Radclyffe Hall]. I am definitely going to try "Richard of Bordeaux".

    Have read very few female novelists from the 20thC. I tried to think of any that have won the Nobel Prize for Literature and could not name one. When I did look it up there turned out to be 13 - possibly, most of them only known to Frederic Raphael. I recognised Doris Lessing and somebody who looked like Oprah's granny.

    Many years ago a friend recommended both Carson McCullers and Patricia Highsmith and they turned out to be tremendous. I complained to her that there were no great contemporary British female writers and she recommended Olivia Manning. Blimey! What a revelation that was. She also mentioned the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Hill, but I have never got round to reading them. The one female author I very much regret missing out on is Edith Wharton and it is too late now. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1927, 1928 and 1930, but was mysteriously given the bum's rush.

    I am currently reading "Cars, Crashes and Crystal Meths" by Jack Hamilton, Micky Rorke's driver and "helper". Guy's stuff although Jack appears to be as bent as a corkscrew.

    Please continue soon with your excellent reviews when you health improves.