Another Look at Josephine Tey

Anne Morton is one of the most discerning readers I know. Now she’s giving a class at Creative Retirement Manitoba on Josephine Tey, the British crime novelist best known for The Daughter of Time. Though Tey’s books are long out of print, Anne thinks they still have much to offer 21st century readers. See why below.

Anne Morton worked for 25 years in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. With degrees in Classics, English and Theology, she has given courses in English history at the University of Winnipeg’s 55+ program.

The class is on Nov. 9 from 10am to 12 noon. Course information can be found here:


CM: Tell me a little bit about Josephine Tey and her crime novels.

AM: Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. She was born in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands in 1896 and spent most of her life there. She was educated in Scotland and England, becoming a qualified physical education instructor. In 1923 she returned to Inverness to look after her dying mother and then stayed on with her widowed father. Life at home gave her the freedom to pursue her true avocation—writing. Her father died in September 1950 and she herself died of liver cancer in February 1952, at the age of 55.
She published her eight crime novels under the name Josephine Tey. She was also a successful playwright, using the name Gordon Daviot.

As it happens, a biography by Jennifer Morag Henderson, Josephine Tey: A Life, is to be published in November by the Scottish firm Sandstone Press. Here’s the link.

CM: What are the qualities in Tey’s books that most appeal to you and deserve a second look from readers?

AM: I first read Tey, along with other Golden Age crime writers, as an adolescent during summers at the cottage. Even then I found her worth re-reading. “Who did it?” is not much of an issue so knowing what happens does not spoil the books for re-reading. To use a theatre term, her ability to create the mise en scène is remarkable. You get a strong sense of the circumstances in which the characters live—the surrounding countryside, the household, or, as in Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a college, the institution. These circumstances are often restrictive—The Daughter of Time begins with Inspector Grant confined to a hospital bed, for example—and over the course of the novel you see the main character or characters achieve some kind of liberation. This liberation, by the way, is almost never found in marriage. Like her younger contemporary, Barbara Pym, Tey is very interesting on the value of ‘aloneness’ as opposed to ‘togetherness’. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both Pym and Tey wrote novels that are not quite like anybody else’s.

CM: The Daughter of Time, Tey’s most famous novel, was published just before her death in 1951.  What do you suppose drew Tey to write a book about the alleged murder of the young princes by Richard III and why does this incident continue to fascinate people six centuries after the event?

AM: Tey was a Ricardian, that is to say, she believed that Richard could not have been responsible for the deaths of his nephews because he was too fine a man to have done such a dreadful thing. Even in her first novel, The Man in the Queue, we find the theme of an innocent man assumed to be guilty because ‘the evidence’ is against him, and this theme occurs in other novels. In Richard she had what she believed to be a real-life example of this unfairness. As Gordon Daviot she also wrote a play about Richard, titled Dickon.

There’s more than one reason for this continued interest, I think. Shakespeare’s Richard III is obviously one. It’s a great part for a great actor. You can’t take your eyes off Olivier in his 1955 film—he is utterly compelling. The play keeps before our mind the question “Was the real man actually like this fascinating monster?”

Another factor is the pathos of it all – Edward V was 12 and his brother Richard only 9 when they were ‘disappeared’. The two children were a popular theme for 19th century painters such as Millais and Delaroche. Finally, the Richard III Society, which has been around for almost a century, has done an excellent job of keeping the Ricardian flame alive. Their web site pays tribute to Tey for the help her novel has given to their cause. The recent discovery of Richard’s grave and the re-interment of his remains have also kept him in the public eye.

It seems to me that it’s significant that a play and a novel should have so much influence on popular views of Richard. In 2012 the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibit called “Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination.” It included a set of disconcertingly grotesque paintings of Henry VIII and his wives. My first reaction was “But these people actually existed! They weren’t characters in fairy tales.” But then I reflected that in our culture the Tudors have somehow acquired an alternate and ahistorical life. And the same thing seems to have happened to Richard, though his is a dual identity, wicked to some and an injured innocent to others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for having kings and queens; those of us who live centuries later can get an enjoyment out of them probably not available in their own times to their actual subjects.

CM: What can people who sign up for your class expect to get out of it?

AM: I hope they will come away wanting to read Tey, whether again or for the first time.   While the novels don’t seem to have been re-printed since the late 1990s, they are available in the Winnipeg library system. Second-hand or remaindered copies are not hard to find. I have all the novels and will bring them for people to see.

The Daughter of Time gets the star billing. It’s an interesting mixture of historical fiction and a crime novel. I want to put it into context with Tey’s other novels, so that the class might ask themselves if it perhaps tells us more about Tey than it does about Richard. I will also discuss how Tey used, abused and even made up her sources. While I believe, that Tey, like Shakespeare, was free to write as she pleased about Richard, it concerns me that people often refer to her book as if it were a reliable source of information. I enjoy historical fiction (as did my father, who was a professional historian) and appreciate the insight into the past it can offer us. But we shouldn’t ask of it what it doesn’t have to give.

CM: Tey is praised for the quality of her writing. Can you give me a sentence or two that you particularly like?

From the opening chapter of The Franchise Affair, here’s a description of a local High Street, in the late 1940s, apparently little changed by the passage of centuries:

“True, the scarlet and gold of an American bazaar flaunted its bright promise down at the south end, and daily offended Miss Truelove who ran the Elizabethan relic opposite as a teashop with the aid of her sister’s baking and Ann [sic] Boleyn’s reputation.”

The issue of women’s reputations is central to this novel; notice how cleverly it is introduced.