The mystery of our favourite writers

When real-life superstar writers become characters in others’ novels, as Josephine Tey does in Nicola Upson’s detective fiction, the result can outdo biography

Updated - March 24, 2016 10:56 am IST

Published - December 20, 2015 12:28 am IST

f you are a certain kind of reader, this year you would have read a piece every week about the Mysteries of Elena. Elena Ferrante, that is. Over the last decade, as more of her grand novels of female friendship have been translated from Italian, her fame and mystery have both grown in geometric proportions in the anglophone world. Observe her media policy: one country, one interview. Yes, that’s right. One country, one interview.

Ferrante is a lovely Banksy-sized mystery for the literary fiction world, which is still disproportionately proud of its white men with black-framed glasses. And no one who has actually read her can continue to speculate that she is a dude. Please stop. Every possible thing that has been said about Ferrante’s identity has already been said about women authors, and not just reclusive women authors. Take a look at the cover of the 1983 book by Joanna Russ, ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’. The mass of text on the cover lists all the things people say about women writers. “She didn’t write it. She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. She wrote it and she had help. She wrote it, but she is an anomaly.” And so on. These are also all the things that have been said about Ferrante.

Another recluse This year, while enjoying the Ferrante fever, I have also had the pleasure of rediscovering another mysterious, reclusive, and highly successful woman author: Josephine Tey. She is a bit of a code in the way that Ferrante was once perhaps a bit of a code. Do you like Tey, you could ask shyly at the height of a madly-in-friendship moment at a restaurant that you still refuse to share with randoms. And if the answer is, “Oh my god, I love Tey”, you could be thrown into an orgy of “which one do you like best?” Or you could look down at your coffee and enjoy the tingle of two becoming one, because the woman just wrote eight mystery novels and that was going to be a short orgy. Sure, she wrote non-mystery novels and plays, but really, do you care?

It has been 63 years since Tey died. Her better-known British mystery writing peers have aged rather badly, except in continuously entertaining television adaptations. Tey, however, can be still be read without wincing. This is perhaps because Tey refused to be imprisoned by the formulae of murder mysteries even at their peak. Her best-known, most lauded novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ (voted greatest mystery novel of all time in 1990 by the Crime Writers’ Association of the U.K.) has (recurring detective) Inspector Grant lying in a hospital bed for the length of the whole book and the mystery that is solved is this: was King Richard III really guilty of all the crimes history says he is? Sounds dry as dust but it’s a ridiculously lively, memorable book and makes you sceptical about received historical wisdom. (And later makes you sad to hear that that his skeleton was found under a car park in 2012, even if you are a fierce anti-monarchist.) In another Tey novel, no one is murdered, but a teenage girl says she has been kidnapped by two likeable women. You root all the way for this to be disproved.

While writing perfectly worldly books filled with as diverse characters as Physical Education teachers (which Tey once was) and policemen and stars of London theatre, Tey herself managed to keep her real self out of the world. Like Vladimir Nabokov was reputed to do, Tey, whose real name is Elizabeth Mackintosh, told reporters whatever version of the truth she felt like telling right then. And continuously explained that she had to look after an ageing father to retreat to Scotland when the fame of her books and hit plays, or her ‘A Shilling for Candles’ being adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Young and and Innocent’ , became just too much to deal with.

Tey’s biography An ageing father seems plausible for a dutiful single woman. Except as Nicola Upson discovered, that wasn’t strictly true. Upson, while attempting to write Tey’s biography, found that Tey’s father had gone salmon fishing in his 80s. He was hardly the fading, querulous parent turning a talented woman into a drudge (of which literary history has plenty). To make things worse, Tey died of cancer at 55. Much like Nora Ephron’s friends must have felt in 2012, Tey’s friends were shocked since they had not even known she was ill. Tey’s behaviour while dying was consistent with her living — unlike Nora Ephron, she did not believe ‘everything was copy’. She had always wriggled against the restrictions of becoming good copy.

Upson, unlike other presumably frustrated Tey biographers, found a fruitful path. Biographers are often accused of writing like their subjects. Upson took this tendency to the best extreme. In 2008, she began writing murder mysteries — with Tey as the protagonist. Sure, Upson gives the fictional Tey a bright, genteel policeman pal. In the fictional Tey world, Archie Penrose is the model for Tey’s own Alan Grant. But he doesn’t assume the mythic qualities that Grant’s descendants like P.D. James’s poetic Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, or even more recently, Elizabeth George’s too-perfect Inspector Thomas Lynley, do.

On identity In Upson’s imaginary world, Tey uses her long-dead fiancé (perhaps not altogether consciously) to keep at bay a potential romance with her inspector friend. In the very first Upson novel, ‘An Expert in Murder’, readers are more likely to be agog, like I was, at the unselfconsciousness of the lesbian characters in the 1930s. Even when we know better, we think of things such as public gay identities as new and as a sign of progress. The entire ‘Mad Men’ series is predicated on the supposed sense of relief for women that they didn’t live back then when things were so bad. (Because things are, of course, awesome now for working women.) It took me a little digging to realise that, yes, in the 1930s, the British public was not yet treating women living together with suspicion. (And that, as Upson’s research made her conclude firmly, Tey was a lesbian.)

With great skill Upson continues this perfectly matter-of-fact fabulousness of literary lesbians and theatrical lesbians and reclusive lesbians into the next six novels. Hermione Lee, fearless biographer of Virginia Woolf and Penelope Fitzgerald, said in an interview, “When you read the biography of a writer you love, you also do lose something, there’s no doubt.” But she also says, “You learn how an author works in all senses of the word ‘works’.” Even by the second novel in Upson’s series it’s completely unsurprising that Tey is in love with a charismatic literary woman rather than the quiet policeman. And that she keeps ducking into trains to Scotland rather than take decisions in overheated London.

Back in the café where you and fellow Tey-lover are exchanging glances of delayed gratification, no detail of the author’s life had anything to do with your romance. Not even in the way that the lack of detail of the author’s life is now part of the Ferrante romance.

While there is nothing as annoying as those biographers who eventually end up writing in the voice of their subject, matching snarl for snarl, angst for angst, I am newly converted to the Upson method of biography. In a couple of decades, I will be ready to read a novel about a superstar Italian writer’s rich friendships and grateful loneliness.

(Nisha Susan is a writer and a co-founder of the online feminist magazine ‘The Ladies Finger’.)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.