Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson. If you love Tey's work, you'll be fascinated with her life.

Sandstone Press, 2015
426 pp

First and foremost, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Keara at Sandstone Press for commenting on my post about Tey's The Franchise Affair, where she gave me a heads-up that this book had been published and even offered me an e-copy.  It is undoubtedly one of the best books I've read this year, and I am so very grateful that she brought it to my attention.  Thank you, Keara. 

Second, I originally posted about this book over at the nonfiction page of this online reading journal, but since is is quite possibly of potential interest to mystery readers, especially Tey fans like myself, I am also posting it here. 

so now, without further ado, Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson.  

Sterling, superb, and all manner of superlatives -- this book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Josephine Tey.  She is one of my all-time favorite mystery novelists, but as the author very clearly illustrates in her book, Tey's career and her life go well beyond just that of a few books. 

As writer Val McDermid notes about Tey in her introduction to this book,

"Biographical information has always been scant, mostly because that's the way this most private of authors wanted it. The brief details on her book jackets reveal that Tey was born Elizabeth MacKintosh and that she also enjoyed success under another pseudonym -- Gordon Daviot, author of the West End hit Richard of Bordeaux, the springboard that launched John Gielgud to stardom.
Sometimes they mention that she was a native of Inverness who lived most of her life there. But until now, Josephine Tey was herself the greatest mystery at the heart of her fiction." (xviii)
Well, that's all changed now with the publication of Jennifer Morag Henderson's  Josephine Tey: A Life.  Henderson has done an invaluable service to Tey fans everywhere through her meticulous research:  as McDermid reveals, Henderson has been through Tey's family papers, as well as material that's never been published before to produce this simply amazing biography that
"gives us the chance to understand what shaped Beth MacKintosh into the writer she became." (xix)
 As the author explains, the book "aims to present the story of Beth's life -- of her many different lives.." and to set her "full body of work" in terms of Tey's life and within "the context of the literary canon."   It seems to me that Ms. Henderson has deftly and most thoroughly accomplished what she set out to do here. Tey was not just an amazing novelist (as most readers of her work like myself consider her), but a well-established, well-respected playwright whose performances featured such actors as John Gielgud, a screenwriter (which I did not know), a devoted daughter who helped take care of the family business and then her father and their home when he became very ill, and through it all, she continuously shunned the limelight, preferring her private life over her public one. The book is structured into three parts:
  1. 1896-1923: Elizabeth MacKintosh
  2. 1924-1945: Gordon Daviot
  3. 1946-1952: Josephine Tey
although as you read it, you come to realize that these divisions are not so cut-and-dried or as rigid  as they look here.  In fact,  there's so much here about this woman's life that frankly, if you're a Tey reader, you will not want to miss a single word. 

I'll leave the serious discussions about specific content, etc., to those far more wiser than myself who are skilled in analysis or to those who know much more about Tey than I ever will. Speaking strictly  from the vantage point of an avid Tey fan,  some time after I'd read this book I reread her A Shilling For Candles, and I wrote the following about the experience: 

"Having just recently finished Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography of the author,  Josephine Tey: A Life ...  I find myself completely in agreement with her -- the more a Tey reader understands about her life, the easier it is to appreciate  and to understand her work.  I wish the biography had come out sooner; now I feel like I ought to go back and reread more of Tey's crime novels for better perspective."
I genuinely mean what I wrote there -- once I'd read this biography, it really opened my eyes as to just how much of MacKintosh, Daviot, and Tey went into her books.  Josephine Tey: A Life should be a must-read, cannot-miss part of any serious Tey reader's library; it's a book Tey fans will come back to over and over again.  It's a flat-out stunner of a biography, and Ms. Henderson deserves all of the praise that I'm sure will be coming her way because of it. 
Just a brief note: although it is available in e-format in the US, the hardcover edition is not. You can buy it through individual sellers on Amazon, or do what I did and buy it at Book Depository.  However you want to read it, it is well worth every penny you might spend.  


  1. Nancy, what a splendid, heart-felt commentary; thank you so much for sharing this biography and your comments.

    1. I LOVE Josephine Tey. Absolutely. The biography made me appreciate her even more.

      thanks, Skye! I miss you!!!

  2. I was not aware of this book. Great review. Thanks.

    1. Just so you know, I read strictly for content so there are a few niggling editorial things -- some repetition, etc., but as far as Tey's life goes, it's really good.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this biography, so well written that now I have a much deeper understanding of Josephine Tey's novels. I adore 'The Singing Sands' but had always thought that Tey did not have time to edit it before her tragic early death. Henderson's insights into Scottish culture and her discussion about Scottish nationalism gave me a much better understanding of what was really going on in this novel. I see that 'Josephine Tey, A Life' is listed on The Observer's best biographies of 2015, most deservedly so. A splendid piece of work. And a wonderful Review, Nancy. Thank you very much for your insights.

    1. Thank you! It was a great read. I haven't read The Singing Sands in ages and I'm hoping to give it a read in 2016' along with Brat Farrar. Henderson did a lovely job.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it