Tey, Josephine (1896–1952)

views updated

Tey, Josephine (1896–1952)

English writer best known for the eight mystery novels she wrote between 1929 and 1951, the first as Gordon Daviot and the rest as Josephine Tey, but who first achieved fame writing plays, all of them under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. Name variations: Elizabeth Mackintosh; (pseudonym) Gordon Daviot. Born Elizabeth Mackintosh at Inverness in the Scottish highlands in 1896 (some sources cite 1897); died of cancer in London on February 13, 1952; daughter of Colin Mackintosh (a greengrocer) and Josephine Horne Mackintosh (a schoolteacher); educated at the Royal Academy in Inverness, 1903–15, and at the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, England, 1915–18; never married; no children.

Began as a physical-training instructor at schools near Liverpool and at Tunbridge Wells in England; after mother's death (1926), abandoned teaching to care for her invalid father in Inverness; published first mystery novel The Man in the Queue (under pseudonym Gordon Daviot) in London and New York (1929), followed that same year by the publication of the first of her four non-mystery novels, Kif: An Unvarnished History, also under name Gordon Daviot;turned attention to playwriting and achieved instant fame with Richard of Bordeaux, which, with John Gielgud as actor and producer, ran for hundreds of performances in London (1932–33); had less success with play Queen of Scots, which ran for about 100 performances (1934); returned to mystery writing, and (1936) published her first crime novel as Josephine Tey, A Shilling for Candles; wrote little during World War II, but then completed a number of plays, six mystery novels and one historical novel (1946–52).


(as Gordon Daviot) The Man in the Queue (London: Methuen, 1929, re-released under Josephine Tey, London: Davies, 1953, republished as Killer in the Crowd, NY: Mercury, 1954); (as Daviot) Kif: An Unvarnished History (London: Benn, 1929); (as Daviot) The Expensive Halo (London: Benn, 1931); (as Daviot) Richard of Bordeaux (London: Gollancz, 1933); (as Daviot) The Laughing Woman (London: Gollancz, 1934): (as Daviot) Queen of Scots (London: Gollancz, 1934); (as Tey) A Shilling for Candles (London: Methuen, 1936); (as Daviot) Claverhouse (London: Collins, 1937); (as Daviot) The Stars Bow Down (London: Duckworth, 1939); (as Daviot) Leith Sands and Other Short Plays (London: Duckworth, 1946); (as Tey) Miss Pym Disposes (London: Davies, 1946); (as Tey) The Franchise Affair (London: Davies, 1948); (as Tey) Brat Farrar (London: Davies, 1949, republished as Come and Kill Me, NY: Pocket, 1951); (as Tey) To Love and Be Wise (London: Davies, 1950); (as Tey) The Daughter of Time (London: Davies, 1951); (as Daviot) The Privateer (London: Davies, 1952); (as Tey) The Singing Sands (London: Davies, 1952); Plays, by Gordon Daviot (3 vols., London: Davies, 1953–54).

Play productions:

(as Daviot) Richard of Bordeaux (London, Arts Theater Club, June 1932, revised version, London, New Theater, February 2, 1933); (as Daviot) The Laughing Woman (London, New Theater, April 7, 1934); (as Daviot) Queen of Scots (London, New Theater, June 8, 1934); (as Daviot) The Little Dry Thorn (Hammersmith, London, Lyric Theater, November 11, 1947); (as Daviot) Valerius (London, Saville Theater, October 3, 1948); (as Daviot) The Stars Bow Down (Malvern, Malvern Festival Theater, August 10, 1949); (as Daviot) Dickon (Salisbury, Salisbury Arts Theater, May 9, 1955).

It would grieve Josephine Tey to know that almost 50 years after her death she is remembered primarily for her mysteries and not for any of her plays. Yet it was one of her plays, Richard of Bordeaux, which brought her sudden fame. As well, after her death a number of her plays were presented at drama festivals and on radio and television.

One might well ask why Tey wrote murder mysteries at all, given her pronounced preference for playwriting. The answer may simply be that between World War I and World War II and afterwards murder mysteries were extremely popular in both Great Britain and the United States, and while plays brought Tey fame, her mysteries brought her a moderate fortune.

She was born Elizabeth Mackintosh in 1896. From an early age she liked to write, and while studying at the Royal Academy in her hometown Inverness she wrote poems and short fiction. However, Tey gave up all thought of a writing career, as her parents Colin and Josephine Mackintosh could not support her indefinitely. Physical training, a relatively new discipline, guaranteed her a job, and during World War I she attended the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, England. Between 1918 and 1926, Tey taught physical training at two girls' schools, one near Liverpool and the other at Tunbridge Wells. However, in 1926 her mother died and Tey gave up her teaching career and returned to Inverness to care for her invalid father. Except for short visits to London, she was to remain at Inverness until shortly before her death in 1952.

In 1929, her first mystery, The Man in the Queue, was published in London by Methuen and in New York by Dutton. That same year, her first non-mystery novel, Kif: An Unvarnished History, was published in London by Benn and in New York by Appleton. Both books appeared under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, the pen name Tey was to use in the more than 25 plays she wrote between 1930 and 1952. The books were moderately successful, but from 1930 to 1936 Tey set aside novel writing and dedicated herself to playwriting. She had the great good fortune to attract the interest of John Gielgud, already a well-known name on the stage. In 1932, he appeared as Richard II in Tey's Richard of Bordeaux, which ran successfully for the remainder of that year. Gielgud then convinced Tey, whom he always called Gordon Daviot, to extensively revise the play, and the new version was a smashing success in 1933. In his autobiography Early Stages (1939), Gielgud noted that "people came thirty or forty times to see the play." He also wrote of "Daviot" that "in spite of her innate shyness, her dislike of staying in London for more than a few days at a time, Gordon is the most delightful author I have ever worked with in the theater." Gielgud was to remain her lifelong friend, writing that "it was to the brilliant inspiration and sympathy of Gordon Daviot that I owed the biggest personal success of my career."

Although John Gielgud was to remain a friend, in his foreword to a three-volume edition of Plays by Gordon Daviot, published after Tey's death from 1953 to 1955, he confessed: "I cannot claim ever to have known her very intimately." He added, "She never spoke to me of her youth or her ambitions. It was hard to draw her out…. She shunned photographers and publicity of all kinds, and gave no interviews to the Press."

Just about everyone who has written about Tey has noted that she was very reserved and reclusive, whether in Inverness or in London. Mairi MacDonald , in her By the Banks of the Ness: Tales of Inverness and District (1982), recalled that "strange as it may seem, few of us had ever known the real person. We had rubbed shoulders with her in our busy streets, admired her pretty home [Crown Cottage] and picturesque garden … yet no one enjoyed her companionship." No wonder MacDonald entitled chapter 18 of her work "The Enigma of Gordon Daviot." Virginia B. Morris noted that Tey's "private life is cloaked in mystery," while Robert Barnard, in his introduction to the "Scribner Paperback" series of the eight mysteries, wrote that Tey was "a writer who lives by her works alone…. Nobody seems to know anything much about her life." Sandra Roy notes that Tey "was remote and distant, having few if any friends and no one close to her."

Playwrights must lead blighted lives. Fifty to one, on an actuary's reckoning, against their play running more than three weeks; and then no one notices their name in the programme.

—Josephine Tey

Instead, scholars must turn to Tey's mystery novels for clues about her character, her interests, and her likes and dislikes. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, the detective who appears in five of her eight mysteries, is clearly her alter ego. He is Scottish, and is a bachelor who, like his creator, viewed marriage as a loss of freedom. Roy notes that in Alan Grant, Tey presents "traits of honesty, sincerity, loneliness, sensitivity and occasional foolishness—traits which Tey must have seen somewhere in herself."

Tey seems to have been ambivalent about her own sex. In five of her eight mysteries, a woman is the criminal or would-be criminal. This was not unusual during the Golden Age of mystery writing (1920–50), as indicated by the title of Jessica Mann 's 1981 study Deadlier Than the Male: Why Are Respectable English Women So Good at Murder? In Tey's crime novels, the "bad woman," as well as the "bad man," is terribly vain and selfish. However, the "good woman" appears much more frequently than the bad. Among examples of good women in Tey's fiction are the kindly and sensible aunt or mother figure, the young ingenue who is sensitive and insightful, and the independent woman who is outspoken, talented, and content with her single state. The independent woman is often androgynous, and Tey herself appears to have recognized her own androgyny when she adopted the pen names of Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey. No one who has written about Tey, however, has identified her as androgynous. For example, Morris argues that she adapted the Tey pseudonym only to "establish separate identities as playwright and as a mystery novelist."

Tey loved horseback riding, horse racing and fishing, and movies. Like the character of kindly Aunt Lin in The Franchise Affair (1948), she attended the movies twice a week in Inverness. She also had a deep love for the English countryside, as revealed in Brat Farrar (1949), and for the Scottish highlands and the Outer Hebrides, as is clear in her last mystery, The Singing Sands (1952). In her first mystery as Josephine Tey, A Shilling for Candles (1936), she has the murder victim, an English stage and film actress named Christine Clay, leave her "considerable fortune for the preservation of the beauty of England." This is exactly what Tey did 16 years later. In her will, she left the proceeds from her writings to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It is calculated that the National Trust had received half a million dollars from Tey's estate by 1981.

Like most English writers of the Golden Age of mystery fiction, Tey was decidedly pro-English and in her writings she revealed her dislike of people from the Middle East, France, Spain, and Italy, as well as those Irish who were for the IRA and those Scots who were nationalists or Presbyterians. Contrary to one writer's assertion that Tey was anti-Semitic, no evidence is found in any of her mystery novels. Tey was, however, possibly homophobic. In Miss Pym Disposes (1941), same-sex relationships are viewed as abnormal, while in To Love and Be Wise (1950) the relationship of a male dancer and a male playwright is viewed as insane. It is impossible, as Shakespeare noted in Troilus and Cressida (Act II, Scene III) "to love and be wise." Homosexuality seems to have both attracted and repelled Tey. It is not surprising that she treated the subject, as she worked with a number of homosexuals in the theater, including her friend John Gielgud. In both Gielgud's memoir Early Stages and in his foreword to the 1953–54 edition of Tey's plays, he made particular mention of her devotion to the actress Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies , who was the leading actress in several of her plays. Other than that, we have no clues about Tey's sexual orientation or whether sex played any part in her life.

In To Love and Be Wise, Tey also deals with the theme of transvestism. The would-be murderer is a woman who leads a double life. As Leslie Searle, she masquerades as a male who travels widely and pursues a successful career as a photographer. As Lee Searle, a female, she is a promising artist with a studio in London. Both homosexuality and transvestism were rarely treated in crime novels of Tey's time.

Tey had a passion for history, as demonstrated by a number of her plays, one of her historical novels (The Privateer), a biography (Claverhouse), and her masterpiece (The Daughter of Time, 1951). In this mystery, published only months before her death, Inspector Grant, while recovering from a bad fall, investigates from his hospital bed the murder in the Tower of London of Edward IV's two sons in the 1480s. Grant complains to a sympathetic friend, "honestly I think historians are all mad." Near the end of The Daughter of Time, Grant asserts, "I'll never again believe anything I read in a history book." The hospitalized Grant, with the assistance of a young American researcher, Brent Carradine, comes to the conclusion that many historians over the centuries, beginning with Sir Thomas More, were dead wrong in concluding that Richard III (r. 1483–1485) was a monstrous and physically deformed man who ordered the murder of his two nephews during his brief reign. Inspector Grant concludes that Richard's usurper, Henry Tudor (Henry VII) had every reason in the world to order the murder of the young princes while Richard had no motive to do so.

Tey had first come to the defense of Richard III five years earlier. In her 1946 mystery, Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in an English physical training college for women, one of the teachers opines that Shakespeare's play Richard the III was "a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play." As Gordon Daviot, Tey wrote a play, Dickon, published posthumously in 1953, which also presents Richard III as a saintly leader. This seems to be the only instance in

which Tey wrote both a mystery and a play about the same subject.

Many historians who were incensed at Tey's attacks on the saintly Sir Thomas More and the immortal William Shakespeare dismissed her defense of Richard III as nonsense. However, in 1956 Paul Murray Kendall published a definitive study of the last Plantagenet monarch, Richard the Third, which made clear that while Richard was no saint, Tey was basically correct in her conclusions about him. Subsequent studies, such as Jeremy Potter's Good King Richard? An Account of Richard III and his Reputation, 1483–1983 (1983), have also supported Tey's conclusions. Potter credits Tey's The Daughter of Time as being the largest single factor in the significant growth after 1952 of the English Richard III Society, originally founded in 1924. In addition, Potter notes that The Daughter of Time was reprinted 20 times between 1956 and 1980.

So little is known about Tey that we have no idea what she did during World War II, aside from caring for her father, who died in 1950. The only thing we know is that she seems to have published nothing between 1940 and 1945, so that perhaps she was busy aiding the war effort. Gielgud saw her in Edinburgh in 1942 and found her deeply depressed, but a visit with Gielgud and Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies cheered her up considerably.

After the war, Tey's creative powers reached their peak, and between 1946 and her death early in 1952 she wrote six mysteries, one historical novel, and a number of plays. Not long after her father's demise in 1950, she learned that she had cancer. In a race against death, Tey finished To Love and Be Wise and The Daughter of Time, which were published in 1950 and 1951, respectively. After she died on February 13, 1952, her last mystery, The Singing Sands, set in her beloved Scottish highlands and the Outer Hebrides, was discovered among her papers. It appeared in England before the end of 1952, and in New York the following year.

Tey was reclusive to the end. She told no one that she was dying of cancer. Although she had lived in Inverness most of her life, she chose to die in London. A host of actors who had worked with her, including Gielgud, Ffrangçon-Davies and Edith Evans , attended her funeral. Gielgud concludes his foreword with "the theater is poorer for an unique talent, and I for a dearly valued friend."

In an essay, "The Guilty Vicarage," published in 1962, the late, great poet W.H. Auden confessed that he was addicted to detective stories, and that once he began one he could not work or sleep until he finished it. This is certainly true of Tey's mysteries, as they are masterpieces of suspense. However, Auden went on to note that he forgot the mystery as soon as he had finished it, and had no wish to read it again. Well, this writer first read Tey's classic, The Daughter of Time, 45 years ago and never forgot it. What distinguishes Josephine Tey among a host of mystery writers is that she was also a playwright. Because she was a dramatist, she makes excellent use of dialogue to delineate her interesting and memorable characters and to develop her always fascinating plots. Although she was herself a reserved person, she clearly cared about her readers and easily won their affection. Every one of her eight mysteries is in print. She would have preferred being remembered for her plays rather than for her crime novels, which she once referred to as her "yearly knitting." In The Daughter of Time, however, Grant's friend, the actress Marta Hallard, says, "There is nothing so soothing, I understand, as knitting. Isn't that so, nurse?"


Gielgud, John. Early Stages. NY: Macmillan, 1939.

MacDonald, Mairi. By the Banks of the Ness: Tales of Inverness and District. Edinburgh: Paul Harris, 1982.

Mann, Jessica. Deadlier Than the Male: Why Are Respectable English Women So Good at Murder? NY: Macmillan, 1981.

Morris, Virginia B. "Josephine Tey," in British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939: Vol. 77, Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Roy, Sandra. Josephine Tey. Twayne's "English Authors" Series, 277. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.

Talburt, Nancy Ellen. "Josephine Tey," in Earl F. Bargainnier, ed., Ten Women of Mystery. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981.

suggested reading:

Mackintosh, Elizabeth. Plays by Gordon Daviot. 3 vols. London: Davies, 1953–1955.

Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio