Sorry for the Dead by Nicola Upson

Reviewed by Harriet, 27 November 2019

Here at Shiny we are great admirers of Nicola Upson’s books – her most recent novel, Stanley and Elsie, was reviewed here, and we’ve also covered two of her Josephine Tey crime novels here and here.  These were numbers six and seven in this on-going series, and now we have number eight. And an interesting, informative, and thought-provoking novel it is.

In case you don’t know, Upson’s series character Josephine Tey is closely based on the celebrated novelist of that name, who published eight mystery novels between 1929 and her death in 1952. The name was in fact a pseudonym, one of two adopted by Elizabeth MacKintosh (the second was Gordon Daviot, under which she wrote successful plays). A highly private woman, MacKintosh kept her personal life very much to herself – she never married, though she is said to have had an attachment to a young man who died in WW1. So Upson has been able to create a fuller life for her fictional counterpart than the real woman has ever been granted to biographers.

Most importantly, and highly relevant to the current book, Upson’s Josephine has had a long-standing love affair with an actress and screen writer named Marta Fox, who, like many of the secondary characters in the novels, is based on a merging of several real-life individuals. Up to now in the novels there has been no indication of how or when Josephine became aware of her sexuality, but that changes in Sorry for the Dead. Although as always there is a suspected murder at the heart of the narrative, attitudes to same-sex relationships are central to the development of the plot.

Sorry for the Dead is spread between two time periods. The novel starts in 1938, when Josephine is in Cambridge, where her play The Laughing Woman is about to open at the Arts Theatre. Reading a review of a new London production of Lillian Hellman’s notorious play The Children’s Hour, Josephine finds herself mentally transported back to 1915, when she was a young teacher employed for the summer at a horticultural school for young women. Hellman’s play is about the drama that ensues when a young pupil makes scandalous accusations against two of her teachers, and Josephine is reminded that the same thing happened at the college, an accusation which eventually destroyed the lives and careers of the school’s two female leaders, George and Harry (Georgina Hartford-Wroe and Harriet Baker). This episode had a powerful effect on Josephine’s psyche as she herself had only just consummated an intense relationship with another young teacher, Jeanette Selwood. Although Upson does not spell this out, it seems to be implied that Josephine had avoided same-sex relationships for decades as a result of this traumatic episode, and has never even shared this early experience with Marta.

But what of the murder, I hear you ask? This took place one stormy night in 1915. A young student, Dorothy Norwood, was found dead in the large greenhouse, having apparently fallen while trying to close a large high-up window. It seems unlikely that this was an accidental death, but failing any evidence to the contrary, the coroner delivered a verdict of death by misadventure. However, since Dorothy was suspected of spreading the rumours about the nature of George and Harry’s relationship, the two women were widely believed to have been responsible for her death. In the intervening years up to 1938 Josephine has tried to put these events out of her mind, but the whole scandal and its repercussions are brought back to the surface by a newspaper article by a reporter named Faith Hope, who turns out to be one of the pupils from those early days and who has a disconcerting knowledge about Josephine’s affair with Jeanette. As a result Josephine finds herself seeking out long ago friends and acquaintances and seeking to find the truth of what happened in 1915.

As always, Upson’s research here is impeccable. She weaves fact and fiction in a seamless way and anyone who knows a bit about Tey’s, or rather MacKintosh’s own history will recognise features reproduced in the novel. She really did write a play called The Laughing Woman, though it may not have been staged in Cambridge, and the celebrated designers known as Motley designed productions at the Arts Theatre, just as happens in the book. As for the training college, she did actually train as a teacher in her youth, a period she harks back to in her novel Miss Pym Disposes, though her work was in physical training rather than horticulture. Upson sets the scene for the fictional horticultural college at the famous Sussex farmhouse Charleston, which enables Josephine to visit in 1938, when it was occupied by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and her partner Duncan Grant. Although the college itself is an invention, Upson was inspired by several similar establishments of the period, run by strong, competent women.

Upson’s novels are always interesting and readable, but this one arguably has an extra edge of social history owing to the often painful attitudes to same sex partnerships which are displayed at both the historical periods in the narrative.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is a huge admirer of Josephine Tey’s novels.

Nicola Upson, Sorry for the Dead (Faber & Faber, 2019). 978-0571337361, 350pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *