Josephine Tey



Is there the beginning of a vogue for Josephine Tey, or is it coincidence that Gert came across this article just at a time when she had been thinking about The Daughter of Time and had read Miss Pym Disposes for the first time?

If you don’t know The Daughter of Time, it’s a detective story first published in 1951 in which Detective Inspector Alan Grant, recovering from a broken leg, spends his time mentally investigating one of the most notorious crimes in British history: did King Richard III really kill the princes in the Tower? As always with Tey, there’s great emphasis on the way character is written on the body. Grant, impressed by a picture of Richard III without at first realizing who he is, is driven to his investigation by his shock at discovering that this is a picture of someone who has gone down in history as a monster. He comes to the conclusion that Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority (Sir Francis Bacon). A fascinating book that never fails to get you in, no matter how many times you read it.

Tey herself was an intriguing woman She led a life not quite like any other, as the Vanity Fair article makes clear.  And so it was with her writing. Not for her the sedate patterning of Agatha Christie or the rather pompous gavottes of Dorothy L. Sayers. She was a successful dramatist, under the name of Gordon Daviot, before she turned to fiction, and you can see that in the slightly unreal framing of events in her books, which have the effect of scenes in a play and which rely heavily on tones of voice and facial expressions to convey inner psychological states. Even with this staginess, there’s an immediacy and drive to the narrative and an identification with the narrator’s voice that you don’t find in Christie or Sayers.  Though her moral universe is much simpler, you can see her as the forerunner of P.D.James and Ruth Rendell in her interest in moral responsibility and how we deal with the psychological demands the individual conscience makes on us. Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent was based on one of her books. The Franchise Affair was also made into a film, and Brat Farrar was a BBC miniseries in the 1980’s.

Here’s a snippet from Miss Pym Disposes* explaining how the amateur Lucy Pym, who only ever set out to write her own cranky personal commentary on the psychology books she was reading,  accidentally came to be a best-selling author on psychology when she wrote a note to her neighbour asking him to keep his radio down. The neighbour worked for a publisher and the note was written on the back of her jottings.

Now in normal times a publisher would have rung for brandy at the mere suggestion of publishing a book on psychology. But the previous year the British public had shaken the publishing world by tiring suddenly of fiction, and developing an interest in abstruse subjects, such as the distance of Sirius from the earth, and the inward meaning of primitive dances in Bechuanaland. Publishers were falling over themselves, therefore, in their effort to supply this strange new thirst for knowledge, and Miss Pym found herself welcomed with open arms. That is to say, she was taken to lunch by the senior partner, and given an agreement to sign. This alone was a piece of luck, but Providence so ordained it that not only had the British public tired of fiction, but the intellectuals had tired of Freud and Company. They were longing for Some New Thing. And Lucy proved to be it. So Lucy woke one morning to find herself not only famous, but a best-seller.

 *available as a free download from the Gutenberg Project

Start with The Daughter of Time. If you like that, there are 5 other books with Alan Grant, and another 6 novels.


12 thoughts on “Josephine Tey

  1. I wouldn’t say Josephine Tey has ever really gone out of fashion, though it’s interesting to note a revival of interest in her books. I agree with the comments about individual conscience and narrative momentum. I started ‘The Franchise Affair’ once when I was staying at a B&B in Cornwall with a decent library, and considered stealing it, so loth was I to leave the story mid-way.

  2. Josephine Tey was a discovery to me expecting to get the Agatha style.
    She leaves all those others in her wake.I am quite addicted to her style and the way she develops plot and character.
    She is an individual and in a world we live in which determines what is in or out she is very refreshing.
    Daughter of Time is wonderful. Thank you Gert for bringing her back to life!

  3. Ooh. I’m interested in Josephine Tey! Her name has cropped up across one or two of the blogs I follow. Thank you for this – I’m off to read that Vanity Fair article now.

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