The National features Josephine Tey
A KEY figure in Scottish literature has been found to have led a life as secretive as a character in one of her own crime novels.
The double life of Inverness-born Elizabeth MacKintosh is unveiled this month in the first ever biography of a woman who became one of the UK’s most successful but mysterious writers.
Under one of her pseudonyms, Josephine Tey, she was hailed as a whodunnit genius with her work used by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock but the new biography reveals she also wrote for Hollywood in the pre-war golden age of cinema as well as being involved in Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. At one point, she had work playing simultaneously in the West End in London and on Broadway, and was also writing for Hollywood – all from her home in the north of Scotland.
Also from Inverness, biographer Jennifer Morag Henderson was able to solve some of the mysteries of MacKintosh’s life after her family allowed access to private papers, letters, photographs and even unpublished manuscripts.
“As I got to know more about the real Beth MacKintosh I found her even more fascinating and very admirable; she managed to combine her family responsibilities with what she really wanted to do, which was write,” said Henderson. “She achieved everything through pure talent. She didn’t come from a literary or theatrical background, she became successful through hard work.”
While MacKintosh’s crime novels have been an inspiration for best-selling modern authors such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, who has written an introduction for the new book, it was her plays that made the most impact during her lifetime.
Written under the pen name of Gordon Daviot, one of them, Richard of Bordeaux, pictured right, made a star out of its young lead, John Gielgud, who also directed.
“It was an overnight sensation – a real hit,” explained Henderson. “This was just at the time when cinema was taking over from the theatre as the most popular medium, and reviewers even said that Richard of Bordeaux was the play that would stop audiences leaving for the cinema.” The play was so popular that, incredibly, some people went back to see it up to 40 times.
“It ran for over a year in London’s West End before touring regionally, and a production was also on Broadway.
“Not long after, Hollywood came calling: Hollywood studios were scouting for talent, looking for writers for the still-new sound films, and wanted the best London playwrights.”
Signed to Universal pictures in the mid-1930s as a contract writer, MacKintosh ended up writing for much-loved actor James Stewart with the romantic 1936 Next Time We Love, becoming a hit at the box office. “This was all from Inverness which was a lot more remote then than it is now,” said Henderson. “She wrote at home, and went to London for occasional meetings, mixing with stars such as Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.
“Her family are convinced that, if Beth had lived (she died young from cancer) she would have continued to write for film, as she loved the cinema.”
MacKintosh’s theatre and film writing career was brought to a halt by the Second World War but after the war ended she became involved with the Citizens Theatre where two of her plays were performed.
Despite her success, MacKintosh shunned the limelight and led a double life caring for her parents in Inverness.
Born in 1896, she loved books and writing from an early age but chose to train as a gym teacher, studying at a PE college in Birmingham.
Physiotherapy was part of her course and during the First World War she became a voluntary nurse, helping with the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.
She taught PE in England for a while when the war ended but returned to Inverness after her mother became ill, staying on to look after her father when her mother died.
Living a quiet life at home she had time to hone her craft and published her first books Kif and the Man in the Queue in 1929 under the pen name of Gordon Daviot, possibly because using a male name made it easier to find a publisher.
She then started using the name Josephine Tey for her crime novels which have never been out of print. The Daughter of Time, an investigation into the life of Richard III, has been hailed as one of the best detective stories of all time and was rediscovered by many readers after the King’s body was recently found buried beneath an English car park.
Henderson, whose interest in Tey/MacKintosh was first sparked by the crime novels, felt drawn to the author even more after finding out that she too was from Inverness.
“One of the interesting things about Tey is that she often provides an alternative view to many of her contemporary Scottish writers,” said Henderson
“She lived almost all her life in the Highlands, her father’s family came from near Applecross, and she was the granddaughter of Gaelic-speaking crofters, so she always wrote from a standpoint of knowledge – and, although Tey is sometimes critical of over-romanticising Highland or Scottish life, some of her very best descriptive passages are about the Highlands – for example, she often described the train journey south from Inverness, and particularly the area round the Cairngorms and Aviemore, very movingly.
Henderson said the writer was also “remarkably prescient” in seeing just how important Scottish nationalism was going to be.
“She addressed her feelings about it particularly in her last mystery novel, The Singing Sands (published posthumously in 1952) – though she wasn’t always complimentary.
She was a real lover of England, and in her will left her fortune from her writing and the copyright to her books, to the National Trust in England.”
Henderson believes MacKintosh was never given full credit for all her achievements partly because she led such a secretive life but also because of the pen names and the diversity of her writing.
“She wrote such wildly different work – not just plays and crime novels, but also straight biography, poems and literary fiction – and also was a genuinely modest person.
“She’s often celebrated as one of the premier crime writers, but she is really in terms of sales and influence, a major Scottish writer, who deserves full recognition for all her achievements,” said Henderson.
MacKintosh died in 1952, a few months after the death of her father.
Josephine Tey: A Life will be published by Sandstone Press on November 19.
The National, 17th of November, Nan Sporwart