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The Oldie reviews Josephine Tey

THE PREVAILING theme of Josephine Tey’s novels is concealment, the idea that like the real nature of her fictional Brat Farrar, the young man who apparently returns home after being assumed dead, the character and motivations of another person can never fully be known. For Tey the assumption of a different identity is both liberating and dangerous, the great adventure of being someone else. Her most famous novel, The Daughter of Time (1951), is an investigation in the form of a detective novel into the death of the princes in the Tower, examining the evidence against Richard III. The dark stories of our past, with their familiar stock figures, she concludes, often have a stranger truth curled up inside them.

Tey was herself an invention – the bestselling novelist was the alter ego of Elizabeth Mackintosh, a former PE teacher who lived quietly with her father in Inverness. Mackintosh was also Gordon Daviot, the celebrated playwright of the early 1930s, and F Craigie Howe, the author of a popular romantic comedy that ran in the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, during the war. It wasn’t that she minded people knowing (though many didn’t) that the modest and unassuming Beth Mackintosh was behind all these fictions, more that she liked to experiment with different forms and styles; the pseudonyms were a way of removing the author and putting the story at the centre.

This is the first biography of Josephine Tey and Henderson goes through the few facts of Mackintosh’s life with a forensic thoroughness and finds no secrets lurking. Instead we have a portrait of a storyteller working steadily at her craft in a period in the mid-20th century when the detective novel was at its height, and when the West End was heaving with new plays, new designers and a new generation of actors. Gordon Daviot’s first play, Richard of Bordeaux (1932), a historical drama about the early life of Richard II, starred a young John Gielgud and ran for a sell-out year in London before transferring to Broadway. Not bad for a woman who started writing plays while studying at a physical education teacher-training institute, and who had no contacts with London literary life. Gielgud described Daviot (as she always referred to herself in professional circles) as ‘a strange, austere little lady’ – but Beth Mackintosh was also a writer of rare determination and industry.

She was born in 1896, in Inverness. Her father, Colin, was a fruiterer with a shop in the town. Henderson goes into considerable detail about Colin Mackintosh’s background: his parents were illiterate Gaelic-speakers who came to Inverness as manual labourers. Henderson suggests that Beth Mackintosh, some of whose novels show a rather 1930s preoccupation with the arch eccentricities then attributed to English country-house life, was ashamed of this side of her family but she isn’t very convincing on this. She is more interesting on the cultural life of Inverness before the First World War, where the Gaelic Revival was in full swing and there was a certain amount of sourness about Mackintosh’s achievements. One local reviewer sniffily observed that after the success of Richard of Bordeaux it was time she turned to ‘our own historical personages’ for her next play.

Mackintosh never left Inverness, where she lived, not always happily, with her widowed father. But she travelled up and down to London – Tey has a particularly vivid description of the squalors of the Inverness sleeper train in The Singing Sands (1952), picking up her fur coat on arrival from the cold storage department in Debenhams. She had a circle of theatrical women friends gathered round Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and her lover Marda Vanne. Vanne developed an unreciprocated passion for Mackintosh and was later sent up by Tey in To Love and Be Wise (1950). Henderson, despite impressive efforts, can dig out no evidence of any love affairs for Mackintosh.

Gordon Daviot dominated Mackintosh’s working life in the 1930s (she was briefly employed, working from home in Inverness, as a scriptwriter for Universal Studios in Hollywood) and during the war Daviot wrote dozens of one-act plays for Val Gielgud, who ran the BBC drama department. Tey wrote a mystery novel, A Shilling for Candles (1936), that was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, but her greatest successes came after the war in the seven novels, several featuring Inspector Alan Grant and all still in print, which appeared between 1946 and Mackintosh’s death in 1952. In 1990 The Daughter of Time was voted the best mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association. My own favourite is The Franchise Affair (1948), in which two middle-aged women are accused of abducting a young girl. Tey’s brilliance here is not only to unpick at the fabric of the case against them but to show how horribly unprotected the women, quiet, educated, different, are against the chilly indifference of a child. It is a compellingly horrifying tale.

Mackintosh might have been surprised to find herself the subject of a biography, especially one as exhaustively detailed as this one. The work was the thing. But Henderson here pays important tribute to a mind boiling with creativity that came to fruition in the ordered habits of a quiet life.

Lucy Leathbridge, The Oldie, January 2016 issue

Jennifer Morag Henderson

Jennifer Morag Henderson