Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson

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Reviewed by Harriet

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I heard there was finally going to be a proper biography of the great crime writer Josephine Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh and who wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot. Indeed, she seems to have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, because my mother and aunt, both theatre designers, owed the start of their very successful career to their work on her first play Richard of Bordeaux. My mother used to talk about this production a lot, and about its quiet Scottish author, always impeccably dressed in smart tweeds. And, as a great lover of detective fiction, she also introduced me to the Tey novels — possibly first of all to what is often seen as her masterpiece, Daughter of Time, though I also remember reading The Franchise Affair in my teens. I’ve read, and re-read, them all since then, of course, and admire them tremendously. And then in recent years, we’ve had the great pleasure of Nicola Upson’s series of novels in which Josephine Tey appears as a character, and solves crimes (here and here). I’ve loved every minute of these, intensified by the fact that I recognise numerous characters in them as versions of people in my own family history.

But in a sense this has been one of the problems I’ve had in reading Henderson’s extremely detailed new biography. I suppose you’d have to say that in this case fiction is stranger, or rather, more interesting, than truth. To give the most obvious example, Upson takes the close friendship between Tey and a well-known lesbian actress, Marda Vanne, and builds an intense love affair between the two fictionalised women on an actual existing love letter from Vanne to Tey. Henderson is having none of this, and perhaps she’s right, but it is a fact that all Tey’s London friends were part of a strong lesbian circle in London’s theatre land in the 1930s-1950s and, looking at the splendidly handsome picture of Tey on the cover of the new book, it’s easy to see why Marda might have fallen for her and jumped to what was apparently the wrong conclusion.

Anyway, Tey (or Beth as she was known in Inverness) is known to have had a man in her life when she was young, and Henderson thinks she’s identified him — or rather two possible versions of him — though the evidence is slim to say the least. Certainly if there was any, Henderson would probably have found it, as she has been very assiduous in researching Tey’s life. Her family history is given in great detail, and we follow her back and forth to London, to Suffolk where many of her friends lived, and on her many walking holidays to the West of Scotland. She was obviously quite a private person, as her two pseudonyms demonstrate, and the inhabitants of Inverness knew her mainly as the respectable, quiet daughter of a successful greengrocer, who she looked after for many years as he became increasingly frail in his old age. But Henderson argues that this desire for privacy has been over emphasised:

Her desire for privacy didn’t translate into a silence or lack of knowledge about her, it translated over the years into a false picture that bore little relation to the reality of her life.

Despite her success both in dramatic writing and, increasingly, with her crime novels, the overall impression is of a not terribly fulfilling life, at least on a personal level. She didn’t identify very strongly with her Scottishness, and was undoubtedly happier in England but unfortunately trapped in Scotland a good deal of the time by her family obligations. I suspect she’d have been happier if she could have had a house in London or in Suffolk (Upson actually gives her one of these). But she certainly had much well-deserved success, both with the plays and the novels, and even in cinema, with Hitchcock adapting one of her novels, with rather mixed results.

Henderson is at her best when analysing the novels, and any reader or student of Tey’s work will learn something from these sections. But glad though I was to have had a chance to read this book, I did feel it could have done with some serious editing. There’s a quite unforgivable amount of repetition which surely should have been picked up, and Henderson has a most confusing habit of sometimes calling her subject Beth, sometimes Josephine, sometimes Tey, sometimes Gordon, and sometimes Daviot. And essentially I found the book too long and detailed: the same information could have been condensed into a shorter work. And it would have been nice to have more of Tey’s own words quoted. Never mind — at least it made me want to re-read those brilliant novels (yet again!).

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jennifer Morag Henderson, Josephine Tey: A Life (Sandstone Press, 2015). 9781910124703, 420pp., hardback.

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