Monday, June 6, 2016

Who Josephine Tey Really Was (and Richard III)

The Wall Street Journal published a review by Carl Rollyson of a new biography of Josephine Tey by Jennifer Morag Henderson. "Josephine Tey" was one of two pseudonyms of Elizabeth MacKintosh. She also used the nom-de-plume "Gordon Daviot" when writing for the stage. Her most famous book, The Daughter of Time, about King Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower is featured prominently in the review:

Mention the name Josephine Tey to a reader of detective novels, and you may be told she is in the same class as Agatha Christie—although the novels of Tey (1896–1952) are nothing like her contemporary’s plot-driven whodunits. Mention her name to a historian, though, and you may get a discussion of one particular novel, “The Daughter of Time,” Tey’s exhilarating critique of the historical profession, which too often has relied on the words of the victorious, like those of Henry VII and his Tudor dynasty, which vilified Richard III. Never mind that Tey’s defense of the Yorkist ruler was almost certainly wrong; her brilliant dramatization of historical method led the British Crime Writers Association, in 1990, to select the 1951 book as the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Tey cared less about clues and puzzles than about characters and the parameters of human nature. The core of her achievement consists of six mysteries she wrote about detective Alan Grant—“The Man in the Queue” (1929), “A Shilling for Candles” (1936), “The Franchise Affair” (1948), “To Love and Be Wise” (1950), “The Daughter of Time” and “The Singing Sands" (1952). Grant is nothing like the hardboiled heroes of Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s novels, or like the gentleman sleuths that people theDorothy Sayers school. He is not an intellectual, but he is a profound skeptic. In “The Daughter of Time,” he takes one look at a portrait of Richard III and sees a complex human being who has been traduced by Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare. More, on whom Shakespeare relied, was simply passing on Tudor propaganda, as Grant learns after he employs an aggressive American researcher, Brent Carradine, who discovers a lively set of revisionist biographies rehabilitating the crookback king. What you get in Tey is a moving and profound exploration of human psychology, of what it means to be human, attuned to mankind’s troubles yet making the world a better place at great personal cost.

Rollyson goes on to summarize some of Henderson's achievements in this biography, which many thought couldn't be written because MacKintosh was so reclusive and private: she lived in Scotland, taking care of her father, while writing plays and novels.

In The New Yorker last year, during the Richard III reburial excitement, Sara Polsky interviewed Henderson for her article about how Tey's The Daughter of Time "sparked mass interest in Richard [III]’s redemption." Polsky notes that MacKintosh had researched the history of Richard III after her success with a play about Richard II (Richard of  Bordeaux) starring John Gielgud, and had written a play titled Dickon:

As an attempt to sway the public, though, the play was a failure: it was neither performed nor published during Tey’s lifetime. But even if it had been produced “Dickon” probably would not have drawn audiences to the Ricardian cause—it’s too confusing. Jennifer Morag Henderson, whose biography of Tey will be published this November, says, “If you didn’t know the controversy about the Princes in the Tower, it would be quite difficult to understand.”

But, with “The Daughter of Time,” Tey found an approach to the story that would make more sense to the uninitiated: she gave the mystery of Richard to a detective. The Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant first appeared in her 1929 novel, “The Man in the Queue,” and is the protagonist of five of Tey’s books. When “The Daughter of Time,” the fourth of these, begins, Grant is out of work with a broken leg—the result of “the absolute in humiliation,” a fall through a trap door during a chase. His active mind has exhausted the entertainment value of his hospital room by mapping the cracks on the ceiling and profiling his nurses, whom he dubs the Midget and the Amazon. He has no patience for the formulaic novels that people have sent him. To quiet his “prickles of boredom,” an actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies: Grant, after years in the police force, has a fascination with faces. His eye catches on a portrait of Richard III, who has the reputation of a monster but the face, Grant thinks, of a judge. “Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.”

Alan Grant is pretty hard on Thomas More, even though he "was a martyr and a Great Mind" and rejects his The History of Richard III absolutely. Somehow, Grant and Tey both missed that More did not finish this book, nor publish it in his lifetime.

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