'Josephine Tey, A Life' by Jennifer Morag Henderson (Sandstone Press)
This is an important book. Not because it is unusually well-written or edited, and not because its author emerges as a scholar or critic of exceptional ability. The story it tells of a Scottish writer, however, is a hugely significant one. Why? Because the subject of this book remains, to an extraordinary and quite shameful degree, a neglected, unrecognised and unsung figure. All the more extraordinary and all the more shameful given that there has never been a time when those involved in Scotland’s literary culture have been more eager both to insist on its continuing strengths and proudly celebrate its past achievements.
Let me be the first to hold up my hand. A professor of English literature, but with a strong interest in Scottish literature from the 18th century on, I was vaguely aware that someone called Josephine Tey was the author of crime novels (which I hadn’t read) – but I had no idea she lived and wrote in Inverness. Gordon Daviot was also a name I’d heard of as someone connected with the theatre – but I was totally ignorant of the fact that Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot were the same person. And of course it goes without saying that I had no idea that both these names were pseudonyms of Elizabeth MacKintosh of Inverness.
Beth, as she was known as a child, born in 1896, died in London as long ago as 1952. But a glance at the bibliography at the end of Jennifer Henderson’s lengthy biography confirms just how little attention has been paid to the writer’s literary career by critics and scholars. Her name (Josephine Tey, that is) does crop up in a few studies of crime writers – particularly female ones – but only a single book published in 1980 by an American academic has attempted to cover her writing career. Again, despite the recent and continuing boom in postgraduate research on Scottish literature, only one doctoral dissertation has been written on her work. And this Strathclyde University thesis remains unpublished.
More telling still, however, is her failure to appear in the most authoritative contemporary histories of Scottish literature. In Aberdeen University Press’s 'History of Scottish Literature, Volume Four, Twentieth Century’ (1987), neither Gordon Daviot nor Josephine Tey make an appearance. In the much more recent 'The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Modern Transformations – New Identities (from 1918)’, Vol. 3 (2006), promising the reader 'a major reinterpretation, re-evaluation and repositioning of the scope, nature and importance of Scottish Literature’, nothing has changed. The volume’s scope does not go so far as to include either name – despite the fact that Scottish 'crime noir’ (or 'tartan noir’ as it has now become) is addressed, with Ian Rankin getting full coverage, William McIlvanney mentioned, and Scottish women crime writers Val McDermid and Denise Mina being cited. Josephine Tey once again goes unnoted.
Reading this biography has convinced me that this neglect of Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey is totally unwarranted. The early chapters of Jennifer Henderson’s book cover Elizabeth MacKintosh’s family background and her early life and education in Inverness. However, little emerges that throws light on her future career as a writer. Her father Colin, who owned a fruit shop in Inverness, had grown up in a Gaelic-speaking family and enjoyed reading. Her mother Josephine, a former teacher, was an Inverness native with some English ancestors. Both parents saw a good education as the key to a successful life. Hence Beth attended Inverness Royal Academy where she did well without, as her biographer puts it, 'standing out’.
Leaving school in the middle of the first world war, she opted to become a physical training teacher and left for a well-known PT college in Birmingham. After graduation she taught in various schools in England (and briefly at Oban High School), but this period in her life ended abruptly in 1923 when her mother Josephine died of cancer. Beth had two younger sisters, but it was she who took on the responsibility of returning to Inverness to look after her father’s household and help him in the running of his business. This was to remain her situation for the next 27 years. Her 87-year-old father Colin MacKintosh died in 1950 – only two years before the death, at the early age of 52, of the well-known writer Josephine Tey.
Elizabeth MacKintosh’s writing career, then, began in the mid-1920s. In Inverness she had met an ex-soldier Hugh McIntosh (no relation) who shared her interest in books and writing. They became close friends and soon were sending examples of their own writing to literary magazines and newspapers. (A small collection of Hugh’s poems – 'A Soldier Looks at Beauty' – was published in London in 1928, but by then Hugh was dead from the tuberculosis that had led to his being invalided out of the army.)
Gordon Daviot’s first publications (she had chosen a masculine pen name probably because she recognised that work by a male author was more likely to be accepted) were in such well-respected magazines as the Saturday Review and the Weekly Westminster Gazette, and soon afterwards several short stories appeared in the Glasgow Herald. This promising start did not fail to deliver. Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey’s output as writers was both astonishingly prolific and astonishingly successful. Between 1925 and 1952 only two years passed (1935 and 1943) in which nothing by Daviot/Tey was published, staged, broadcast or filmed. And in nearly all of these years we are talking not of a single book or play but rather of anything between one and six separate items.
Gordon Daviot wrote two 'literary’ novels: 'Kif: an Unvarnished History' (1929), set in the first world war, and 'The Expensive Halo: a Fable without Moral' (1931), a London-set family story. However, in between these, she wrote what proved to be her first mystery novel: 'The Man in the Queue' (also 1929). All three of these books, published in the US as well as the UK, were well-received and reviewed, but, quickly translated and published in French, the mystery novel was much the most popular. Given this fact, one might ask why Gordon Daviot did not merge immediately into Josephine Tey and go on exploiting this success. The answer is simple.
Always a keen theatregoer, Gordon Daviot’s own first play opened in the New Theatre in London’s West End in February 1933. Directed by and starring John Gielgud and the leading actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (the two had previously starred as Romeo and Juliet), 'Richard of Bordeaux' was a huge success. In London it ran for 14 months and over 400 performances; it transferred to Broadway in New York City, and toured regionally across the UK. Praised to the skies by the critics, the play made its author famous and a recognised figure in terms of the British theatre for the rest of her life. Her follow-up play was 'Queen of Scots', once again starring Ffrangcon-Davies (as Mary) and Gielgud, with Laurence Olivier also in the cast. This play too did well – but not on the scale of 'Richard of Bordeaux'. From this point on, playwriting remained central to Daviot’s literary career, and most of her plays were regularly staged, broadcast and published. James Bridie, for example, invited her to write a play for his newly opened Citizens Theatre.
Nonetheless, in the second half of Elizabeth MacKintosh’s literary life, Gordon Daviot came to be overshadowed by the enduring success of Josephine Tey. Having been invited by Hollywood to work on the script of a film based on a popular romantic novel, the Inverness author decided to write for a popular audience herself. The result was 'A Shilling for Candles' (1936), a crime thriller whose success was such that a year later it became an Alfred Hitchcock film entitled 'Young and Innocent'.
In the following years, Tey went on to write six more crime novels, the last of which – 'The Singing Sands' – was published posthumously in 1953. These books have never been out of print. In 1990 the Crime Writers’ Association voted one of them – 'The Daughter of Time' – the best crime novel ever written. Of these books I have read only one: 'The Franchise Affair '(1949) – also made into a Hollywood film. I found it intriguing and entertaining and distinguished by a refreshing authorial acerbity. Josephine Tey comes across as something of a small 'c’ conservative. She admires a traditional 'English’ way of life – while simultaneously gently mocking its limitations. But she has no time at all for the 'modern’ world that is replacing it. Here perhaps is a clue as to why Daviot/Tey has not been allowed a place in the history of 20th-century Scottish literature. She does not tick the right boxes.
This biography makes it clear that she loved London much more than Inverness. A regular on the overnight sleeper to King’s Cross or Euston, she enjoyed the round of meetings with agents, impresarios, actors and directors – and the opportunity to attend performances and exhibitions. She had her own club in London and her closest women friends – all of them involved in the contemporary theatre – lived in the city or in the countryside nearby – a setting and landscape that she also came to admire and love.
More significantly perhaps, she had no sympathy with the political ideologies embraced by contemporary Scottish writers such as MacDiarmid or Neil Gunn (who for a time also lived in Inverness). Writing a biography of the Tory and Episcopalian Claverhouse or 'Bonnie Dundee’, as well as a play about Mary Queen of Scots, she had a serious interest in Scottish history. But she was clearly on the side of those who thought that too much Scottish history had been distorted and romanticised in the telling. Then, despite her family background, she had no interest in any kind of Gaelic revival, and inevitably Scottish nationalism she rejected out of hand.
In her will, she left most of her considerable fortune to the National Trust in England. Given all this, she probably would not mind not being recognised as a 'Scottish’ writer. However, those of us interested in the complex issues raised here – and still very alive today – will, I learn, find them addressed and explored in that final Pym novel 'The Singing Sands'. It is at the top of my reading list.
Jennifer Henderson’s book is sometimes overloaded with detail; tighter editing would have removed a fair amount of repetition; and the author’s commentary on her subject’s writing occasionally becomes somewhat pedestrian. But this is a book which, by foregrounding the life and work of a writer who should never have been neglected, deserves the widest of readership.