MACKINTOSH, ELIZABETH [pseuds. JOSEPHINE TEY, GORDON DAVIOT] (1896-1952), novelist and playwright, was born in Inverness on 25th July 1896. She had two younger sisters, Jane and Mary. The three girls were the daughters of Colin MacKintosh (born 1862/63, Applecross, Ross & Cromarty -died 25/9/1950 Inverness), a fruiterer, and his wife, Josephine Horne Mackintosh, a former teacher (born 29th January, 1871-died 1923/24 Inverness, Scotland). Josephine Tey (known as 'Beth' to her immediate family) was the pseudonym under which Miss Mackintosh published mystery novels. Miss Mackintosh used a second pseudonym, Gordon Daviot, for plays and also in her personal life, which she guarded jealously. For simplicity's sake Miss Mackintosh will be referred to by her pseudonym of 'Josephine Tey' on this website.
Tey avoided the press, shunned photographers, and never granted interviews. For this reason, and the fact that she kept a small circle of friends, Tey is a difficult subject for biographers.
Due to the lack of information from other sources, Tey's novels are often examined for insights into her character and experiences. While her books cannot fairly be called autobiographical, glimpses of Tey can be found in them. Hunting for these is a pleasant pastime, and mystery readers familiar with the few known facts of her life can join in the fun. By all accounts,Tey was an active and happy young person who was not particularly studious but who took great pleasure in gymnastics. Known as Bessie Mack to her school friends, she would "scamper off to the cloakroom, where upon an old set of parallel bars - housed there for no apparent reason - she delighted herself and others by turning somersaults, and performing various other acrobatics in a highly expert manner."
She was educated at Inverness Royal Academy, and, from 1914 to 1917, at the Anstey Physical Training College in Erdington, Birmingham. (Her 1946 thriller, Miss Pym Disposes, was set in such a college.) During the war years she taught fitness classes for factory workers, and during her school holidays in Inverness she worked as a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse in a local convalescent home, possibly at Leys Castle Auxiliary Hospital in Inverness. She taught briefly in schools in Liverpool and in Oban where she was injured in a gymnasium accident which she later used as a murder method in her novel Miss Pym Disposes. She also taught at Eastbourne, and for a longer period in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. In 1926 she returned to Inverness to keep house for her father, Colin, her mother Josephine having died in about 1923/24. Colin Mackintosh died on 25th September, 1950 at the age of 86 years.
Tey started writing almost as soon as she could walk, according to a note from her literary agent, which also states that "writing was always her greatest amusement." She published short stories and poems during the late 1920s in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review. Her first novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929. It was reportedly written in two weeks for a competition sponsored by the publisher Methuen.
Tey's first detective novel, The Man in the Queue - dedicated 'To Brisena, who actually wrote it' - Brisena was a nickname she gave to her typewriter - was a highly accomplished piece of work for a beginner. Winning the Dutton Mystery Prize, it was published in 1929 under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot—the name by which she preferred to be known, in both public and private. Daviot was the name of a district just outside Inverness where her family had frequently spent their holidays. For her seven other works in this genre she took the name Josephine Tey. Josephine Tey, which combines her mother's name with the surname of her English grandmother was first used in 1937 for Tey's second mystery, A Shilling for Candles. All of her subsequent mystery novels were written as Tey. Sir John Gielgud stated that she always preferred her plays, referring wryly to her novels as her ‘yearly knitting’ (Gielgud, 1.x); however, Gielgud may have taken her remarks too seriously for in October, 1950 in a letter to her publisher, Nico (Nicholas) Davies of the firm Peter Davies Ltd, she stated that she "got more of a kick out of seeing my Josephine Tey novels in the middle of the Times Book Club window than in seeing my name in front of the New Theatre" [where her play 'Richard of Bordeaux', starring Gielgud, had had its great success].
Her detective novels are classics of their kind, deftly constructed with strong characterisation and a meticulous prose style. Six of them feature as their main character the slightly built, dapper Inspector Alan Grant, a gentleman police officer ‘not coarse like a bobby’ (The Man in the Queue, 118) and with independent means ‘to smooth and embroider life’ (ibid., 35). A later novel, A Shilling for Candles (1936), became Alfred Hitchcock's favourite of his English films, as Young and Innocent (1937). It is Grant who, in Tey's most original story, The Daughter of Time (1951), while immobilized in hospital, satisfies himself by reading and reason that the infamous Richard III of Shakespeare, school history books, and folk memory, is a Tudor fabrication. Her case for the defence is notably restrained, unlike her treatment of the same subject in Dickon, a play published posthumously in 1953. The Franchise Affair (1948), a story of two women wrongly accused of kidnapping, and based on an eighteenth-century cause célèbre, was another popular work, later to be made into a film.
Many of the theatre personalities who appear in Tey's mysteries are unfavorably portrayed. Among these is Edward Adrian, who appears in Miss Pym Disposes. Adrian, an ageing stage actor popularly esteemed as a "national treasure," is described as a "weary-looking creature who looks like a moulting eagle" and who likes to study himself in mirrors. His advances are spurned by Miss Lux, a medical lecturer at Lees Physical Training College who describes the theatre as an "out-moded convention" and who calls Shakespeare's Richard III a "criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play" - a thesis that Tey argued at length in her most famous mystery, The Daughter of Time.
Tey's plays, while well crafted and with shrewdly observed characters, lack the pace and tension of her thrillers. Her first, Richard of Bordeaux, was the most successful. It shows Richard II as an idealist, charming but wilful and immature. His speeches about the futility of war, and the pro-war arguments of his associates, reflect her own bitterness about the First World War. John Gielgud, who became a lifelong friend, took the title role and persuaded her to revise it considerably before its production in London's West End in 1932. It was enthusiastically received and ran for a year. Her later plays, however, fell below this promise. The Laughing Woman (1934), about the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, was a failure. It was followed in the same year by Queen of Scots, with Laurence Olivier as Bothwell. This was more successful, though Gielgud, who had helped her rework it, felt that she made too much of the romantic Mary Stuart and failed to show her as intriguer and harlot also. The Stars Bow Down, with its biblical theme of Joseph and his brothers, was published in 1939, though it was another ten years before it was performed, at the Malvern festival. Another biblical play, The Little Dry Thorn, based on the story of Abraham and Sarah (published posthumously in Plays in 1953), received its first public performance in Glasgow in 1946.
In both her biblical plays and her historical ones Tey made a point of making her characters speak in colloquial, even slangy, modern idiom. ‘They have some of the romantic glamour of the old historical melodramas, without the pseudo-period dialogue and fustian sentiment’, said John Gielgud in his preface to the 1953 edition of her plays. She was, he said, an elusive character who shunned photographers and publicity of all kinds and who gave no interviews to the press, was deeply reserved, and was ‘proud without being arrogant, and obstinate, though not conceited’ (Gielgud, 1.ix–xii). In the preface to his memoirs Gielgud gives some insight into the sort of person Josephine Tey was. "In spite of her innate shyness, and her dislike of staying in London for more than a few days at a time," he wrote, "Gordon is the most delightful author I have ever worked with in the theatre. She seems to have complete trust in everyone who is concerned in her plays, and does not interfere at all. She seldom comes near rehearsals until just before the first night, and her patience and consideration are limitless."
Tey attended the premiere performance at the New Theatre of Richard of Bordeaux and after the final curtain she hurried to Gielgud's dressing room to offer her congratulations. But she slipped away before other well- wishers and the press arrived. Reporters, Gielgud remembered, were anxious to interview the author and pursued her for several days. "But Gordon is a most sucessful person at disappearing," Gielgud wrote of her. "There is no hint of false modesty in her attitude. She is kindly and thoughtful ... but the idea of having to talk about herself to a stranger terrifies her."
No information about any romance that Tey may have had has come to light, although Sir John Gielgud suggests that she might have suffered a bereavement in World War I. However, Tey's novels feature a series of independent women who actively avoid marriage. In the words of Virginia Morris, their attitude, and that of Inspector Alan Grant, who appears in six of Tey's mysteries, implies that: "successful people do not seek fulfillment through others - including through marriage - but through themselves." The author seems to have held similar views.
Tey enjoyed fishing, horse racing, the country, and the cinema, which she preferred to the theatre. References to fishing and horse racing frequently occur in her novels. Tey loved England above all, despite her Scottish heritage. Her 1950 mystery novel Brat Farrar celebrates English country life. She drew upon her knowledge of horses and racing while writing this novel, which features a false claimant to an estate.
During the last year of her life, when she knew that she was mortally ill, she resolutely avoided all her friends. Her second last work, The Privateer (1952), was a romantic novel based on the life of the buccaneer Henry Morgan. Among her other works are a number of short plays written for broadcasting, and a biography, Claverhouse (1937). Her last work, The Singing Sands was found among her papers after her death and was published posthumously. She died of cancer of the liver at her sister Mary's [Mrs. Donald L. Stokes) home, 235 Covington Way, Streatham, London, on 13 February 1952. The Times recorded her death on14th February, 1952, two days before the state funeral of King George VI, whose life, death and majesty had filled the newspapers that week. Most of her friends were unaware that she was ill and Sir John Gielgud was shocked to read news of it in The Times during a matinee performance. Many of her theatre friends attended the funeral service at Streaham Vale Crematorium on Monday, 18th February, 1952 at 11:00 a.m. including Dame Edith Evans and Sir John Gielgud.
Josephine Tey left her entire estate, valued at £26,718, along with the proceeds from her writings (which has amounted to about half a million pounds) to the National Trust for England. Interestingly, the victim in A Shilling for Candles, a famous actress, left her fortune to the National Trust also.