The Daughter of Time 
by Josephine Tey.
Penguin, 212 pp., £9.99, September 2022, 978 1 5291 5641 6
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It’s​ an uncanny thing, to revisit a book you liked in your youth. Even when the book is still as good as you thought it was, it isn’t the same book, because you’re not the same reader – you come at every sentence from a different angle, with new information and different tastes. The book doesn’t change, but you change and times change. I have a distinct memory of reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time as a teenager and finding it witty, astringent, persuasive: all those impressions are mixed up in my memory with the strong green of the Penguin Crime paperback. The novel was probably twenty years old when I read it, fifty years or so ago – it was first published in 1951, when Tey was in her mid-fifties. A twenty-year-old book can still feel contemporary, but seventy years old in book-time is ancient history.

The Daughter of Time has never been out of print, and in 1990 the UK Crime Writers Association voted it the ‘greatest crime novel of all time’; Penguin recently republished it, along with two of Tey’s other Inspector Grant novels, in a handsome new edition with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. It’s an odd sort of crime novel, because there isn’t really a crime. Detective Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is laid up in hospital with a broken leg, having fallen through a trapdoor in pursuit of a criminal; his friends bring him contemporary novels to help pass the time but Grant hates them all and is anguished with boredom. Then he comes across a reproduction of a portrait of Richard III and likes what he sees. ‘Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist … He had that incommunicable, that indescribable look that childhood suffering leaves behind it.’ It’s a lot of romance to read into a medieval portrait, but Grant in his hospital bed becomes obsessed with rehabilitating the tarnished reputation of the dead king – sending his pet researcher off to the British Museum, calling for history books (they infuriate him; he prefers the account in historical novels) and eventually satisfying himself that Richard was not only innocent of murdering his nephews but ‘a man of great integrity … noted for his warm-heartedness’, while Henry VII was ‘a shabby creature’, his hair ‘thin and scanty’, a ‘crab’ who ‘never went straight at anything’. And that’s the whole plot of The Daughter of Time.

Richard III has attracted passionate defenders ever since Horace Walpole took up the cause in the 18th century. It appealed to the stubborn contrarian in Tey, and to her scepticism of experts. ‘A man who is interested in what makes people tick doesn’t write history,’ Grant and his researcher agree in The Daughter of Time. Inspector Grant is the embodiment of his author’s preferences; he’s pragmatic, bluntly spoken, anti-intellectual yet socially sophisticated, capable of sniffing out pretension, impervious to the glamour of artists, writers, theatre people, yet still gets invited to their parties. In To Love and Be Wise, it’s made clear that literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea … With a policeman’s ingrained habit of inspection he let his eye run over the crowd … but found nothing of interest.’ When I try to remember what attracted me to The Daughter of Time when I was fifteen, I think it was probably this: Grant’s self-possession, his irony and savoir faire and the hints of romantic sensibility under the bluff surface. He was so rugged, so masculine, so right.

Predictably, all of that is less appealing now, and the inspector seems a more fragile and anxious construction. (It’s interesting that in Tey’s last novel, The Singing Sands published in 1952, Grant is recovering from a breakdown, suffering from stress and claustrophobia.) I was hoping that immersing myself in these old detective novels would feel cosy, like watching Miss Marple on a Sunday evening – with murders that don’t really hurt, and a moral order delivering justice like clockwork. But Tey’s books aren’t cosy, they’re too uneasy and too odd, and the plots seem clunky and half-hearted. The Daughter of Time isn’t the only one without a murder in it – foul play is suspected but sidestepped in To Love and Be Wise (1950), and The Franchise Affair (1948) is about an improbable deception, where a girl accuses two older women of kidnap. There are dead bodies in the second Inspector Grant novel, A Shilling for Candles (1936) – which comes closest to the classic detective story, is the most fun and was made into a film by Hitchcock – and The Singing Sands. In Brat Farrar (1949) a man posing as the long-lost heir to an English fortune uncovers a murder committed years before. Miss Pym Disposes (1946) is oddest of all: there is a murder, but not until the last minute, and there’s no Inspector Grant – in fact, there isn’t a man in sight, because the book is set in a girls’ physical training college. Miss Pym is there to give a lecture on psychology, though she doesn’t think much of her subject. ‘She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly.’

The inspector’s prejudices, like Miss Pym’s and Tey’s, haven’t worn well; nor have those cadences of weary superiority. Reading these books now feels like being shut up in the claustrophobic rooms of a long-ago commonsense Englishness, with its petty snobberies and class anxieties, its put-downs (that ‘calm sureness … wasn’t bred in any charity school’), its antisemitism (‘the pliant philosophy of a race long used to lying low’), its parades of snooty know-how (‘Wigmore Street’s clients do not stay in town for weekends’), its objection to girls with dyed hair. A toff and a good fellow, Champneis, pronounced Chins (it would be), ‘invades’ ‘ill-governed and inaccessible’ foreign countries, though only in order to write books about them. A policeman calls someone ‘sir’ after noticing ‘the quality of [his] handkerchief’. The decent lower orders respect their betters and are the salt of the earth or cantankerous old retainers; the rest are comical rogues. Foreigners are funny.

Books, too, come in for a pasting, not only those silly books on history and psychology, but fiction as well: in The Daughter of Time, Grant is equally exasperated by Lavinia Fitch’s ‘annual account of a blameless heroine’s tribulations’ and by Silas Weekley, in whose stories ‘rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden’. The inspector reflects with distaste that ‘it was from this joyless and distorted mind that the current English “masterpieces” came.’ Respect is reserved for some mawkish poetry written by an old ‘army friend’. ‘Oh Final Beauty, found/In many a drowned place,/We love not less thy face/For lesser beauties drowned.’ I suspect Tey didn’t like fiction all that much. She ‘read hardly any’, she told one inquirer. ‘I write my own stories for fun, the way other people play golf or do tatting.’

Her own story, buried deep behind this ersatz hyper-Englishness, is more suggestive and poignant than anything in her books. It was told in decent plain prose, slightly defensively, in Jennifer Morag Henderson’s 2015 biography; defensive not because Henderson doubts the value of Tey’s writing, but because, like Tey, she’s a Scot who comes from Inverness – and Tey never took any trouble to make herself loved in her home town. She lived most of her life there, yet turned her back on the place fairly determinedly in her fiction. Her real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh, and she was the daughter of Colin MacKintosh, a fruiterer who had pulled himself up into prosperity and respectability from humble beginnings. His parents were ‘illiterate Gaelic-speaking crofters’; his father came to Inverness to work as a labourer, and MacKintosh was apprenticed to a grocer; one of his sisters was a servant and had an illegitimate child, whom he supported. It’s a long way from that fantasy of safety in the opening of The Franchise Affair, where the greatest sensation in a quarter of a century at Blair, Hayward and Bennet solicitors was Miss Tuff’s introduction of a white tray cloth into the ritual of afternoon tea.

It’s not difficult to imagine that in a close-knit community, stratified by class, memories of MacKintosh’s origins would linger, however much his business thrived. The MacKintoshes seem never quite to have been part of the public life of the city; they ‘did not move in the same circles as the Barron family who ran the Inverness Courier’. He married a teacher, whose family stories hinted at past English gentility, and they had three daughters, all of whom moved to England as soon as they were grown up. Elizabeth, the eldest, went to Anstey Physical Training College near Birmingham, then found work as a PE teacher, eventually moving to Tunbridge Wells. ‘Now for me it is like going home,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘Over the hill south of Sevenoaks, and there is “my” country stretching in front of me. Each time I go back and I am surprised anew by the shattering beauty of the Weald.’ She travelled with her sisters and with friends, lived in ‘digs, boarding houses, hotels’ and showed no signs of wanting to be domesticated. ‘I’ve never made a home in my life,’ she wrote. ‘Never wanted to …’ But in 1923, when she was 27, her mother died, and she gave up her job and moved back to Inverness to look after her father. She went, no doubt, because she felt it was her duty, because she loved her father, and because her sister Jean had just started a new job; her youngest sister, Moire, was still at college. ‘Keeping a house in the 1920s,’ Henderson reminds us, ‘meant something different than it does today … washing, cooking, cleaning … food had to be bought or ordered every day … fires had to be laid and maintained … There was some help with cleaning and washing went out to a laundry.’ She stayed there until Colin died in 1950, aged 87. ‘Up to yesterday his normal dictator-complex was in full-swing,’ she wrote to Moire during their father’s last illness, ‘which was a good sign if very hard to bear.’ She died herself, of liver cancer, only eighteen months later, aged 55, at Moire’s house in Streatham.

Tey had great success as a writer during these years, but this seems to have had hardly any impact on her Inverness life. She wasn’t much admired there. It’s an irony that the arts scene in Inverness was taken up at the time with a burgeoning nationalism and the Gaelic revival; Tey was passionately pro-Union, and if she mentioned Gaelic at all it was disparagingly. She wrote in Inverness, but her outward life as a writer was conducted almost entirely in England. She went down on the sleeper twice a year for a couple of weeks, staying at her club or with friends, keeping her fur coat in cold storage in Debenhams in Oxford Street, being taken out to lunch by her agent or her publisher or theatre people. It’s impossible to know whether this divided existence helped produce Tey’s odd character – solitary, guarded, ill at ease, conventional – or was a product of it. The biography gives only a few glimpses into anything like an inner life. As far as romance goes, Henderson tries to make something out of friendships with a couple of soldiers who died young, but if Tey felt at home anywhere it was surely with the gangs of girls at the physical training college (Miss Pym Disposes is overheated with crushes), and later in the lesbian crowd around the actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, whose partner, Marda Vanne, is the only person on record as making a pass at Tey, which disconcerted her terribly. ‘Put it down not to hard-heartedness nor lack of imagination, but to inability to deal with something so foreign to my understanding that the chatter of Martians would be limpid sense by comparison,’ she wrote to Marda.

Miss Pym makes a literary success for herself almost accidentally; an enjoyable pastime turns unexpectedly into a career. ‘Miss Pym had written The Book. That is how Lucy herself thought of it. The Book. She was still a little surprised about The Book herself.’ I can’t help suspecting that something similar happened to Tey. She wrote in Inverness because she was bored and unhappy, and had a couple of novels and short stories published; but fame came to her through a play written under the name Gordon Daviot. Richard of Bordeaux, about Richard II, was a huge West End hit in the early 1930s; it made the name of the young John Gielgud, who also directed; Ffrangcon-Davies was Queen Anne. Tey never managed to follow up its crazy success; Ffrangcon-Davies commissioned a play about Mary Queen of Scots, but it didn’t work because Tey didn’t like Mary – too emotional, too Catholic. After Richard of Bordeaux she seemed to be casting around for dramatic material and failing to find anything that fitted. One play was (improbably) about the Gaudier-Brzeska ménage, there were adaptations of biblical stories, there were poltergeists and Wodehousian aristocrats. She was better suited to the more circumscribed world of crime fiction.

Richard of Bordeaux reads now as wonderfully high camp. Richard (‘a slender, delicately made youth with a finely cut, expressive face … and the red-gold hair that made his mother famous as the Fair Maid of Kent’) complains that ‘next month I shall be enduring the utter boredom of campaigning on the Scots border.’ Mowbray parries: ‘Confess, sir: that is sheer affectation. In your heart you love it.’ ‘It is difficult to understand just why the world has fallen on top of us like this, isn’t it?’ Anne says. ‘We did so little wrong.’ ‘You forget our crimes,’ Richard tells her. ‘We wasted money on beauty instead of on war.’

Although all those theatre people were nice to Tey, and their friendships endured, there’s a sense that they didn’t quite know what to do with her – or she didn’t know what to do with the arty theatrical set she’d fallen into. Of course she enjoyed herself on her trips south (on one occasion, the actors filled her sleeper cabin with flowers, for her return journey). But she was a PE teacher from Inverness who preferred Tunbridge Wells; and after all, she was only in their world for a couple of weeks every few months. She didn’t tell her theatre or book friends that she was dying; afterwards Gielgud wrote in a foreword to her plays that she was a ‘dearly valued friend’ but ‘a strange character, proud without being arrogant, and obstinate, though not conceited’. She left most of her estate of £24,000 to the English National Trust, and only £1000 and some jewellery to her sister Moire, nothing for Jean – they didn’t get on, and Jean hadn’t come to visit her much. She specified that no one was allowed into the house in Inverness until Moire had sorted out her papers and personal belongings, and that none of her clothes – she loved nice clothes – were to be disposed of locally. She didn’t want her neighbours looking through her things. She’d fallen out with them: she said they were noisy; they said she was unfriendly. It’s perhaps no surprise, given that relatively modest legacy, that Moire took her time before making the long journey north; when she arrived there in the spring of 1953, she found that the pipes had frozen the previous winter, burst when the weather got warmer, and flooded the house. No one had taken any action, since no one had keys, and water was pouring down the street. It’s a more extraordinary story than anything Tey wrote. To the Inverness Museum she bequeathed ‘items pertaining to her career’, and the original script of Richard of Bordeaux.

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Vol. 45 No. 1 · 5 January 2023

Though there’s little to disagree with in Tessa Hadley’s assessment of Josephine Tey, I do think there’s more of a case to be made for Tey’s ‘odd’ or ‘uneasy’ novels: for the splashes of surprise and subversion amid the (sometimes egregious) prejudice and snobbery, and particularly for what one might now call the queer sensibility that quietly permeates a considerable part of her work (LRB, 1 December 2022).

What’s unexpected about Miss Pym Disposes, published in 1946, isn’t just that, as Hadley observes, men are entirely absent, but that they are entirely unnecessary. The elite PE training college in which the book is set is a complete ecosystem. The primary aim of its splendidly athletic female students (enviously though apparently innocently admired by Miss Pym) is a good teaching post and financial independence. Marriage is barely mentioned. Moreover, while Miss Pym is hailed – not least by Tey herself – as the no-nonsense sceptic who has put psychology firmly in its place, she is also slyly exposed as having utterly failed to read the college’s sinister undercurrents and rivalries, and when there is a murder, she (along with everyone else) blames the wrong person. In Tey’s most unexpected novel, To Love and Be Wise (1950), like several of her works a crime novel without a crime, almost all the characters are gay or queer, and the sexual politics revealed in the dénouement aren’t just genuinely surprising, but feel surprisingly modern.

For the most part, however, it’s true that the interesting parts of Tey’s narratives are tightly interwoven with what is distasteful. In the now almost grotesquely unreadable The Franchise Affair (1948), the 15-year-old schoolgirl antagonist is a knowing, dishonest, working-class slut/changeling (a war orphan), who ‘picks up’ a married middle-aged man, goes with him on a business trip to Denmark, and is then beaten up by his wife. This, Tey is in no doubt, she entirely deserves, along with the public shaming and excoriation she eventually receives (no opprobrium attaches to the man). But alongside this she also foregrounds the all too plausibly ugly persecution and hounding – egged on by salivating press coverage – of two solitary, isolated, difficult (and, it must be said, genteel) older women.

Miranda Carter
London SW4

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