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Josephine Tey: Fact and fiction

Josephine Tey

'To write fiction about historic fact is very nearly impermissible’ wrote Gordon Daviot in her 1952 novel, The Privateer – so I can only imagine what Daviot, whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh but who is now best-known as the crime writer Josephine Tey, would have thought to a series of books which recreate her as a fictional character in the genre that we still love her for. Fiction, though, is a wonderful medium through which to explore a woman who was fascinated by identity and who played so successfully with her own; who lived a life of intriguing contrasts, split between the self-contained community of Inverness, where she was born and lived most of her life, and the ambitious backdrop of London’s West End, where she numbered among her friends some of the biggest stage and screen stars of the day; and who has infuriated aspiring biographers – which is how I began – by obscuring all but the bare bones of her life. And as Tey herself proved in her most famous novel, The Daughter of Time, fiction is also a powerful way of reinterpreting the past, of vindicating someone who has been wronged by history – and Tey has, in a sense, been dealt an injustice: her work, though loved by those who know it, is still woefully underrated in comparison with her contemporaries; and interpretations of her life, which so often portray her as a victim of circumstance, called home after her mother’s death to look after her father and forced to find refuge in her writing, tell only half a story.

An Expert in Murder is a blend of fact and fiction, set in London in 1934 – just as the first major success of MacKintosh's professional life was drawing to a close. Richard of Bordeaux, the play which – as Daviot – she wrote for John Gielgud after seeing him at the Old Vic, was the toast of the West End for over a year. It ran for 463 performances at the New Theatre – now the Noel Coward Theatre – in St Martin’s Lane, took more than £100,000 at the box office, and acquired the popularity of a blockbuster movie: people went 30 or 40 times to see it; commemorative portrait dolls were produced; and it transformed Gielgud from a brilliant young actor into a commercial star overnight. Bordeaux provided a unique moment of theatrical history which gave its author artistic and financial freedom, as well as some of the most important and enduring friendships of her life, but the overall experience was not entirely positive: fame was unwelcome, particularly in Inverness, and, according to Gielgud, she was subject to unfair accusations of plagiarism which hurt her deeply. Those personal dilemmas, together with a social backdrop which mixes the glamour of the stage with the aftermath of the Great War, are an irresistible setting for a fictional murder.

Gordon DaviotAs Daviot, MacKintosh wrote many other plays and four novels, all of which enjoyed a certain amount of success in their day, but it is the work she created as Josephine Tey which ultimately proved more popular, a fact acknowledged by the author with a certain amount of reluctance: ‘I have the oddest feeling of disloyalty to Daviot,’ she wrote to a friend in 1950. ‘Like turning down a faithful lover.’ The name, which she took from her Suffolk great-great-grandmother, first appeared in 1936 with the publication of A Shilling for Candles (filmed by Hitchcock as Young and Innocent) but it came into its own in the years immediately following the second world war, with six books which included The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar as well as The Daughter of Time. In that brief period, between 1946 and her death in 1952, Tey expanded and enriched the nature of crime fiction – not through ingenious puzzles and reassuring endings, and sadly not through a vast output of work, but by creating – in Inspector Grant – a credible detective whose compassion, intelligence and professionalism paved the way for Adam Dalgliesh and the next generation; by the originality of her settings and a strong sense of place; and, most importantly, by concentrating – in a very modern way – on the aftermath of criminal activity. More than any of her contemporaries, Tey has made it possible for us to write books which can treat crime as an entertainment without forgetting its painful reality.

With a bereavement in the first world war and the early death of her mother, Tey had her fair share of unhappiness, but no woman of her generation – forced to live through two devastating world conflicts – could have remained immune to tragedy. Having to return home before she was thirty, and abandoning a career as a physical training instructress may, at first, have felt like a sacrifice, but the success of her writing and a number of shrewd investments soon guaranteed that her independence would never be an issue, and she enjoyed a rare and enviable freedom. She was a frequent visitor to London, where she stayed at her Club and was sought-after company, and travelled often in Europe; even her Inverness life, so often portrayed as one long round of duty and domesticity, was lived on her own terms: ‘I found that the “going out to tea” business would leave me no life of my own at all if I didn’t do something drastic,’ she admitted frankly in a letter. ‘So I decided to go nowhere… This was held to be slightly queer – in those days no one knew that I “wrote” and so I had no right to be queer – but it has worked out very well in practice.”

Elizabeth MacKintosh died of cancer at the age of just 55. In typically evasive style, she managed to slip away in February, while the rest of the world was mourning George VI; hidden among a nation’s grief for its king and the pomp of a royal funeral, the notice of her death and the modest obituary which followed are easy to miss. Her loss was a shock to her friends, most of whom had no idea she was even ill; it filtered through to them gradually, via Gielgud, who read about it in the evening paper during a matinee of The Winters Tale, but she left no personal messages and contacted no one. She died at her sister’s house in Surrey, and her funeral was the first and only time that her two lives came together.

Bringing such a complex and likeable woman to life through fiction is both a challenge and a joy. An Expert in Murder, Angel With Two Faces and the books that follow will, I hope, create a truthful account of Tey’s life as she grows older, drawing on interviews with her friends and colleagues, including Gielgud, and reflecting the woman that emerges so strongly from her books and her letters: warm, funny, difficult, fallible, infuriatingly independent, and yet – as one tribute so beautifully put it – a grand friend to have. While she was obliging enough to live through years that any novelist would happily embrace as a backdrop, these are not just period novels; had she lived, Elizabeth MacKintosh would, no doubt, have loved the sixties, relished the opportunities offered by developments in film and television, and continued to surprise with her books; even though her career was cut short, she remains a very modern voice – a daughter not just of her own time, but of ours. And as for the idea of starring in her own novel – she might have liked it or she might not but, to paraphrase the dedication of her very first novel, Kif, she would have been pleased – pleased, at least, that her work continues to interest and inspire. And, in my own defence, she did say nearly impermissible.


Click here to view a selection of Josephine Tey's book covers.


Listen to Nicola talking about Josephine Tey and The Death of Lucy Kyte with Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour. click here


Photograph of Josephine Tey courtesy of David Higham Associates


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