Actually this is a reminiscence about a favourite woman author as well as a review of a biograph about her.
My family devoured crime fiction written by women in the so-called Golden Age of Crime Writing. We had some of Agatha Christie’s novels, all of Ngaio Marsh’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’s (two in hardback) and most of Josephine Tey’s.
We also had a small bookshelf in the loo (definitely the loo, not the toilet, because we were middle-class and also owned most of Nancy Mitford’s novels.) I have an abiding memory of a battered copy of the Great Pan edition of Tey’s The Man in the Queue sitting face up on top of that bookshelf. The image above is the cover. I was only little: it scared me.
Around the age of 13, already passionately interested in history, I read the Daughter of Time, perhaps Tey’s most famous novel. Nobody will ever convince me that Richard III murdered his nephews and I suspect Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, arranged the murders of the Princes in the Tower.
I then read The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar, several times because I loved the horses and assumed from the Englishness of the scene that the author was English.
My mother informed me that Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot were pen names for a Scottish woman called Elizabeth MacKintosh. My mother had a dismissive attitude to Scots, based mainly on her observations of her in-laws. She called them unfeeling, uncommunicative and narrow-minded and shared the view of the English ruling classes that Scots could govern any country except their own.
Among the many pleasures of reading Jennifer Morag Henderson’s biography is that it redeems Josephine Tey’s Scottishness* and at the same time explains why she has not been ranked more highly in the canon of great Scottish writers. Unlike her near contemporary and fellow resident of Inverness Neil Gunn, Tey was not part of the budding Scottish literary renaissance or the nationalist movement.
Henderson is also an Invernessian who draws heavily on local knowledge and connections. She creates a clear picture of the subtleties of the class structure which combined with Beth MacKintosh’s reserve and spikiness to form an awkward relationship between the famous writer and the small town in which she was raised, to which she had to return in her twenties to look after her widowed father and from which she escaped periodically.
The range and depth of Henderson’s research is fascinating. She has identified down the men towards whom Beth MacKintosh had romantic feelings. She has traced a third pen name. She writes with such immediacy that, as she says towards the end of the book, ‘sometimes it is hard to realise that these lively young women and men are all dead and gone.’
As part of Bloody Scotland in Stirling over the weekend of 9th to 11th September, Val McDiamid and Jennifer Morag Henderson will discuss the life and work of Josephine Tey on the Saturday morning. I regret that I can’t be there and won’t have the opportunity to congratulate Ms Henderson in person on her enthusiastic and generous portrayal of a complex character.
*Spell check never ceases to amaze me. It suggests I replace Scottishness with Skittishness. Has it been programmed to think that skittishness is a Scottish characteristic?