Josephine Tey’s Eternal Present

Josephine Tey is known now, if she is known at all, as a defender of Richard III in The Daughter of Time. She was also an intensely political novelist, peppering her books with reactionary comments against the welfare state and the working class. This was the unsubtle expression of her politics, but she also used chronology to make the entire plot of her novels serve a political project comparable to that of authors like JRR Tolkien.

Tey published eight mystery novels, beginning in 1929 with The Man in the Queue. She published her second novel, A Shilling for Candles in 1936, but the bulk of her work came out after the Second World War: Miss Pym Disposes (1946), The Franchise Affair (1948), Brat Farrar (1949), To Love and Be Wise (1950), The Daughter of Time (1951) and The Singing Sands, published posthumously in 1953. None of these novels are set explicitly in another time; one assumes that the novel’s ‘now’ is around the time of publication. On close reading, however, the dating becomes more problematic, and the question of setting more difficult to ignore.

The problem isn’t quite that there is no mention of recent historical events, as most of the post-war books have some dating hints in them. The Daughter of Time has some of the fewest, since its present-day narrative centres around the detective, Alan Grant, recovering in hospital from a broken leg, but even here, we’re told in passing that Mrs Tink, Grant’s housekeeper, wore her best hat, ‘me blue’, to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding (in 1947) (p.17).

Miss Pym Disposes and The Singing Sands are the only two of the post-war novels which manage not to mention the war at all. In the case of The Singing Sands, it isn’t clear precisely when it was written. It was found ‘among her papers’ after Tey’s death in 1952, and could have been either a work in progress or a rejected earlier novel. Miss Pym Disposes also does not appear to be set in 1946: there are no mentions of the war or bombing, and several male characters do not appear to have just been demobbed. One assumes that it is set, and may have been written largely before the war, but the problem with this is that, if ‘now’ in Miss Pym Disposes is assumed to be 1938-9, it undermines the ending rather seriously.

The novel is set among the graduating class at a women’s college of physical education, rather like the one Tey herself attended from 1915-18, and so imagining the futures, rosy of otherwise, of the students is a major part of the ending. Teresa Desterro’s fabulous wedding ‘in London in October’ would be somewhat less fabulous if the groom was in khaki or about to be called up. In the same way, Mary Innes’ renunciation of career, excitement and escape from her home town in atonement for the murder (for which, it turns out on the second to last page, she was not actually responsible) loses some of its force if we know that her ‘world without landmarks’ may last not years but only a matter of months.

The only way to resolve this is to imagine that Miss Pym Disposes is in fact a historical novel, set earlier in the 1930s or in the 1920s. This would leave some minor anachronisms, such as Lucy Pym’s thought that her old gardener had lived ‘in an age when the Three Rs were more important than free milk’, apparently referring to the 1946 Milk Act, but nothing which would destroy the plot. It would explain the absence of the Second World War either in prospect or the recent past. The problems of the settings of the other post war novels are not so easily solved.

To Love and Be Wise is set in a clearly post-Second World War world. In the first chapter, Alan Grant’s actress friend, Marta Hallard, expresses her dislike for the radio personality Walter Whitmore by complaining that ‘when we were all being shot at, Walter took care that he was safe in a nice fuggy office fifty feet underground.’ (p.13) A reference to his friend, the American photographer Cooney Wiggin, seems to date the novel even more clearly. Cooney was, we’re told, ‘killed while photographing one of those Balkan flare-ups a year or two ago.’ (p.12) This is presumably a reference to the Greek civil war, an impression backed up by Marta Hallard’s scornful mention of Walter’s broadcasts from ‘an Aegean hillside with the bullets zipping past his ears’ (p.13). Cooney would presumably have been photographing the civil war in Greece as a result of US involvement from 1947 on, so this puts his death in 1947-49 and the novel’s action in 1948-1950 – precisely when it would have been being written and published. However, the world of the novel does not read like 1949, and this setting close to the end of the Second World War plays havoc with a major point of the plot.

It is true that To Love and Be Wise is set among a wealthy, bohemian set of actors, radio personalities and artists, but the absence of universal concerns like rationing makes it difficult to believe that the ‘now’ of the novel is really meant to be the date of publication. It isn’t simply that rationing is not mentioned, but that it clearly doesn’t exist. Post-war rationing in Britain was as stringent as in the later war years. Petrol rationing was not lifted until 1950, and sweets and sugar rationing continued until 1953. But in To Love and Be Wise, (pp.53-5) when Walter buys ‘a pound box of chocolate dragees’ ‘as an afterthought’ for his fiancée, Liz, only to find that his supposed rival for her affections, Leslie Searle, has bought her ‘a great flat box of candy from the most expensive confectioners in Crome. Four pounds weight at the very least’, he thinks that this is ‘deplorably ostentatious’ and ‘so like an American’ but not that it must have been got on the black market.

The plot twist of the novel is that the supposed murder victim, Leslie Searle, is not in fact dead, but never existed: he’s the female photographer Lee Searle’s male alter ego, used by her in this case to attempt to steal Walter’s fiancée and punish him for his mistreatment of his ex-girlfriend, who turns out to have been Lee’s cousin. Challenged by the detective Alan Grant, Lee explains how she came to have a male professional identity:

‘So I took the car and went West. I wore pants in those days just because they were comfortable and cheap, and because when you are five feet ten you don’t look your best in girlish tings. I hadn’t thought of using them as – as camouflage until one day when I was leaning over the engine of a car a man stopped and said: ‘Got a match, bud?’ and I gave him a light, and he looked at me and nodded and said: ‘Thanks, bud’ and went away without a second glance. That made me think. A girl alone is always having trouble – at least in the States she is – even a girl of five feet ten. And a girl has a more difficult time getting an ‘in’ in a racket. So I tried it out for a little. And it worked. It worked like a dream. I began to make money on the Coast. First photographing people who wanted to be movie actors, and then photographing actors themselves. But every year I came to England for a little. As me.’ (p.198)

Leaving aside the implausibility of female-male impersonation, this is clearly a non-wartime scenario. A woman allowing people to assume she is a man would have been fraught with more than the usual difficulties in the middle of the Second World War, as presumably she would have continually faced the question of why she wasn’t in uniform. The regular pleasure trips across the U boat-infested North Atlantic also sound a little unlikely. However, it’s difficult to resolve this by assuming that Lee went West only after the war. She is, after all, supposed to be an established photographer recalling the now fairly distant beginning of her career, and the tenor of the passage is of a description of a lifestyle which went on for many years – or certainly for more than four.

The effect of this and the absence of obvious late 1940s markers like rationing is to distance the action of the novel from the war and the time in which it was written. The war has happened, but it was a long time ago: the action actually appears to be taking place in the future, in the mid 1950s. The vagueness of the references to ‘one of those Balkan flare-ups’ underlines this. We can assume that Tey was thinking of the Greek civil war, but she doesn’t say anywhere that this is what she was referring to. She seems to be betting that by the mid 1950s there would have been another Balkan conflict in which an American photo journalist could get shot.

This subsumed future setting also seems to apply to two of Tey’s best known novels, The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar. The Franchise Affair is the most explicitly post-Second World War of Tey’s books. Betty Kane, the schoolgirl who falsely accuses Marion Sharpe and her mother of abducting and imprisoning her, is a war orphan. She was evacuated to Mr and Mrs Wynn’s in Aylesbury, and her parents were killed in London in an air raid. Other characters have also been in the war: Bill and Stanley, the main character Robert Blair’s mechanics, were both in the army in what was very clearly the Second World War. Stanley says ‘When I was in the Signals…I was given a free tour of Italy. Nearly a year it took. And I escaped the malaria and the Ities and the Partisans and the Yank transport and most of the other nuisances. But I got a phobia. I took a great dislike to slogans on walls.’ (p.120). This is in reference to someone having painted ‘Fascists’ on the wall of the Sharpes’ house, again a very clear ‘present-day’ reference.

The problem is again that action is so distanced from the war that it seems to have ended much more than three years ago. Aside from one possible reference to rationing (Christina, Robert Blair’s housekeeper, says she may or may not be able to make butter tarts as she may not have the butter), which is outweighed by the general impression of unchanged lavishness when it comes to food, there is little which pins the action to the late 1940s rather than to some years later. Indeed, a slightly later dating would work better for some of the characters: Bill and Stanley have done very well to have established such a long standing and flourishing business when they may not have been demobbed until two years ago.

There is also the question of Nevil, Robert Blair’s nephew. He clearly hasn’t been in the army, which if the novel were set at the time of publication would make him 21 at the oldest. However, comparison with another young male character in the novel shows he is supposed to be rather older than this. His proposed marriage to Rosemary, the Bishop of Larborough’s daughter is disapproved by his older relations on the grounds of Rosemary’s liberal politics, not his age. Kevin, Robert’s old friend and QC, advises that Robert should see that Nevil settles down and marries ‘some nice stupid English girl’ (p.176), while Robert himself comments that Nevil has ‘got to an age when they normally give up childish things’ (p.175). In contrast, Betty’s brother Leslie is portrayed as ridiculously young to marry at the age of 20; when Robert hears from Leslie’s mother of his marriage plans, he asks ‘He must be very young to be settling down?’ and is told in reply that ‘the whole thing is absurd, of course’ because of his and the bride’s ages (p.69). Nevil would seem to be about 24, which on the grounds of his non-combatance, would place the action of the novel in around 1950.

A slightly later date than 1947-48 also seems to work better for Betty Kane. We’re told several times that she was 15 when she disappeared for a month, 16 when the Sharpes are brought to trial for abducting her. If we assume that she was evacuated in September 1939, this would make her 7 or 8 when she was adopted by the Wynns. We aren’t told exactly how old she was when she was evacuated, but from what we are told, 7 or 8 seems on the old side. Mrs Wynn describes her to Robert Blair as having been ‘just a baby’ when she came to them, and refers to her playing dolls’ tea parties (pp.7-8). She also says that her own son, four years older than Betty, was ‘just the right age to feel protective’, which doesn’t sound particularly likely of an 11 or 12 year old boy. The story of Betty Kane seems more plausible if she was 4 or 5 when she was evacuated, which would accord with the 1950-ish date indicated by Nevil’s age.

Brat Farrar, published in 1949, is unlike Tey’s preceding novel The Franchise Affair, as she does her best to avoiding leaving any specific date markers at all. However, given the nature of the plot, about the disappearance and presumed death of Patrick Ashby and Brat Farrar’s impersonation of him, the novel does have to be specific about the ages of the characters and the relative dates of various events in their lives. So, we are told early on that Patrick went missing eight years ago, when he was thirteen, a few months after his parents were killed in a plane crash on their way back from Paris, and that his and his twin Simon’s twenty first birthday, is approaching.

When Brat presents himself to the Ashby family as Patrick, his explanation is that Patrick did not kill himself, as they had supposed, but run away. He had, he claimed, stowed away on a ship from the local harbour and made it to France, where he had worked for a couple of years at a hotel before working his passage on a tramp steamer to Mexico. Since then, he has worked his way from Mexico to the western United States, before deciding to come home. This story is convincing, we’re told, because except for the early parts it is the story of Brat’s own life. Brought up in an orphanage, he took a day trip to France six years ago, where he got himself a job on the steamer to Mexico, and has since spent his time working with horses in the US.

The problem with this romantic story is that, if the ‘now’ of the novel is supposed to be 1949, it is impossible. Patrick’s disappearance would have been in 1941, a time when it would have been extremely unlikely for a teenager to have been able to stow away on a crossing the Channel, let alone acquire a job in Nazi-occupied France for two years before casually making his way to Mexico. His parents would not have been the only people to have been killed flying from France to Britain in 1941, but they surely would have been the only ones attempting to do so in a civilian plane on their way back from a holiday in Paris. Similarly, Brat would have had difficulty in taking his day trip to Dieppe in 1943.

One way to get round this problem would be to assume that the present day is shortly after the war, in late 1945. This would put Patrick’s supposed stowing away in 1937, and Brat’s trip to Dieppe in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war. This makes the back story work better, but it doesn’t explain how Brat and Simon have managed to avoid any involvement in the war. If it really was late 1945, 21-year-old Simon would presumably have been called up in 1942, and would probably not yet have been demobbed. Brat might have avoided the call up by being in the US, but in that case, it seems rather odd that none of the family and friends he meets have any word of criticism for this apparent draft dodging. Brat is clearly supposed to be an admirable character, but his failure to take part in any fighting would surely have gone down rather badly with the other characters in 1945, and indeed with the reading public in 1949.

The other obvious solution would be to assume that Brat Farrar is in fact set before the war, and there are some chronological indicators for this. Nora, the deceased mother of the Ashby twins, had two brothers killed by the Germans before they were twenty, which if she was about the same age, would allow the twins to have been born around 1915 and put the present day action in around 1936. Patrick was taken to the horse show at Olympia when he was 7, which cannot be made to work with any post-Second World War setting as the last show was in 1938, but which would work with a pre-war present. However, there are insuperable difficulties with setting Brat Farrar in 1936, however tempting it might be as a solution to the chronological problems of the novel.

When referring to historical events in Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey used the same evasiveness which she employed in To Love and Be Wise to avoid identifying any specific historical event. However, there are mentions of what does appear to be the Second World War. When Brat lunches with Bee at the Angel in Westover, the elderly waiter brings him the dessert which the child Patrick always used to eat there. Bee comments when he’s gone that ‘I think it’s almost like seeing his own son coming back. He had three, you know. They all died in one war and his grandsons all died in the following one.’ (pp.152-3). Tey has carefully not said that these wars were the two world wars, but it is difficult to make a convincing case for this being a reference to, say the Boer War and the First World War.

Similarly, it is revealed at the end of the novel that Brat’s mother, Mary, a nurse, was ‘killed during the war, taking patients out of a ward to safety in a shelter.’ (p.236). This could be a reference to Zeppelin bombing in the First World War, but is much more likely to refer to the Second – it would certainly have been the latter which would have been foremost in the minds of the 1949 readership. It is also difficult to make the chronology of Mary’s story work if she is supposed to have died in 1917.

Bee discovers that Mary was working as a cook at a big house in Gloucestershire when she got pregnant with Brat. She left after she had the baby, and wrote to the housekeeper ‘long afterwards’ telling her that she had now qualified as a nurse. Bee shows Brat a picture of her as a nurse ‘in her second year at St Luke’s’ (pp.235-6). The problem is that, if Brat was born in around 1915, Mary would have had to have had her baby, trained as a nurse, qualified, worked for at least two years and got herself heroically killed all between around 1915 and 1917. This can only be made to work if we are to imagine the ‘present day’ of Brat Farrar as the 1920s and this back story as taking place in the Edwardian era, but this would require a much more consciously historical setting than one can argue for the novel.

The Second World War, though disguised, does therefore appear to be present in the background of Brat Farrar, as does the welfare state. Brat, reviewing the list of pensions paid by the Ashbys to old retainers, thinks disdainfully of the current cleaner at the Ashby house, Latchetts: ‘He thought of the brassy blonde in the flowered rayon who had bade him welcome to Latchetts. Who would pension her? The country, he supposed. For long and honourable service?’ (p.159). These references in Brat Farrar seem to place it squarely in the post-Second World War period, but to envisage it as taking place in 1949 clearly makes nonsense of the plot. The only resolution that works is for all the action, including Patrick’s disappearance and Brat’s travels, to have happened after the war, meaning that the ‘present day’ of the novel is set in the mid 1950s – in the future.

Josephine Tey was an unusual futuristic novelist, apparently uninterested in futuristic changes. She makes no predictions about new technology or political developments, except to expect more of the same, and does her best to hide when her books are supposed to be set. The future, according to her, will be precisely like the present. It could be that she simply did not want to address the war and its effects on her characters, and that this was a way to write ‘present day’ novels without having to address the political realities of the present day. However, Tey was a political novelist. Her pronounced political views on the welfare state and post war society are evident to differing degrees in all her novels. She is not a domestic novelist who could simply ignore the ‘the great events of her epoch’, as is said of Jane Austen. If she had wanted to avoid the Second World War, she could have chosen to set her books in the 1930s. Tey’s novels are set in the near future because she made an explicit decision to set them there.

Tey’s celebration of what she saw as the old traditions of England, under threat from modernism, has echoes of the romanticism apparent in writers like JRR Tolkien. This for example, is Alan Grant in The Daughter of Time on fifteenth-century England:

‘He lay and thought about that England. The England over which the Wars of the Roses had been fought. A green green England; with not a chimney-stack from Cumberland to Cornwall. An England still unhedged, with great forests alive with game, and wide marshes thick with wild fowl…The strips of cultivation round the cluster of dwellings and beyond that the greenness. The unbroken greenness…No one pushed in at your door to demand whether you were York or Lancaster and to hale you off to a concentration camp if your answer proved to be the wrong one for the occasion…He was still thinking of that green England when he fell asleep.’ (pp.35-6).

And later:

‘And it seemed to Grant that if you were very hard up and wanted to go to see what your Lizzie’s first-born looked like it must have been reassuring to know that there was shelter and a hand-out at every religious house, instead of wondering how you were going to raise the train fare. That green England he had fallen asleep with last night had a lot to be said for it.’ (pp.51-2).

This is reminiscent of the bucolic peace of the Shire at the opening of the Lord of the Rings, which at the end of The Return of the King is revealed to have been shattered by Saruman-inspired industrialisation:

‘They cut down trees and let ‘em lie, they burn houses and build now more…Then he brought in a lot o’ dirty-looking Men to build a bigger [mill] and fill it full o’wheels and outlandish contraptions…They’re always a-hammering and a-letting out a smoke and a stench and there isn’t no peace even at night in Hobbiton. And they pour out filth a purpose; they’ve fouled the lower Water and it’s getting down into Brandywine. If they want to make the Shire a desert, they’re going the right way about it.’ (George Allen & Unwin Ltd 1966, pp.292-3)

However, while Tolkien and Tey may have had similar views on the evils of modernity, their political projects as shown in their fiction were very different.

The Lord of the Rings is a celebration of heroic, aristocratic values. While it is told through the viewpoint of the hobbits, the heroes are Aragorn, the Elves and the lords of Rohan and Gondor. In contrast, for Tey the laudable caste is not the aristocracy but the gentry. The bulk of her sympathetic characters come from rural gentry or upper middle class families; the Ashbys in Brat Farrar, the Burgoynes in A Shilling for Candles, the Blairs and the Sharpes in The Franchise Affair, the Innes in Miss Pym Disposes. Even when she does have a sympathetic aristocratic character, Richard III, Tey emphasises the English gentry qualities of the York family: ‘Surely, thought Grant…never before can anyone have come to the throne of England with so personal an experience of the ordinary man’s life as Edward IV and his brother Richard III.’ (p.48).

The particular virtues of these gentry families for Tey is their stability. In her second novel A Shilling for Candles, the rather wet Robert Tisdall makes an explicit contrast between his mother’s family, the Tisdalls, and his father’s Stannaways: ‘The Tisdalls were a much better lot than the Stannways, anyhow. Stamina and ballast and all that. If I’d been a Tisdall I wouldn’t be broke now, but I’m nearly all Stannway.’ (p.28). Later on, we learn that the Tisdalls are a ‘grammar school family’ with ‘a yeoman quality of permanence’ (p.59), unlike the more aristocratic-sounding Stannways. Grant thinks, indeed, that ‘there was no yeoman-like quality’ about Robert Tisdall. The same contrast closes the first chapter of Brat Farrar, between the aristocratic Ledinghams, who ‘had been prodigal of their talents and their riches; using Clare as a background, as a purse, as a decoration, as a refuge, but not as a home…Now only their portraits remained’ and the Ashbys: ‘But the Ashbys stayed at Latchetts.’ (p.12). The Franchise Affair lacks the aristocratic foil, but it is clear that the Blairs stand for the same stability as the Ashbys. Tey refers to ‘the English continuity as was provided by Blair, Hayward and Bennett.’ (p.7), the solicitors firm which appears to have existed since the 18th century.

This is not on the face of it markedly different from the treatment Tolkien gives to the hobbits of the Shire. Hobbits are, we are told in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring ‘an unobtrusive but very ancient people’ (p.10) and leading hobbit families like the Baggins, the Tooks and the Brandybucks seem rather similar to the Ashbys et al of Tey’s novels. However, even where Tolkien and Tey seem to be describing similar types of people, the political points they make with them are widely divergent.

Tolkien’s writings were looking back to what he saw as a lost golden age, before the bourgeois revolution and the industrialisation it enabled. The Third Age of Middle-earth is ‘now long past’ (p.11), and the Elves have gone into the West. Although Sam and others will work to restore the Shire after the industrial nightmare of Saruman, the sense at the end of The Return of the King is that they may not wholly succeed, or not permanently. After all, we’re told in the prologue that hobbits, who ‘do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows’ were ‘more numerous formerly than they are today’ and ‘now avoid us with dismay’ (p.10).

For Tey, however, the bourgeois revolution did not destroy her romantic vision of England, but saw the supreme victory of ‘her sort.’ True, they are threatened from all sides by the idiocies of ‘the lieges’, but there is little doubt in any Tey novel that they will be able to overcome them. The conclusion of The Franchise Affair, for example, is a list of triumphs over various representatives of the lower classes, from the girls who have lied about hearing Betty Kane imprisoned in the Franchise, to the readers of the tabloid paper the Ack-Emma and the liberal broadsheet The Watchman. The effortless way in which the Ashbys are able to arrange things so that Simon Ashby’s crimes are decently covered up at the end of Brat Farrar is a similar statement. The working class might come in coaches from Larborough to gawp at them when they’re in the papers, but Tey’s gentry still control the apparatus of the state.

The futuristic setting of the post-war novels turns them into statements of confidence in Tey’s vision of England. Her gentry families have survived the war and now, as Bee Ashby thinks in another context in Brat Farrar, ‘the lean years would be over.’ (p.9). The unchanging nature of the English countryside and the families living in it is not only a description of the past, but a prediction. The upper middle class has inherited the earth, and will carry on enjoying it. Later in Brat Farrar, the Scottish journalist Mr Macallan looks with disgust at ‘the southern English walking about in their southern English sunshine’ and complained that ‘They’re so satisfied with themselves I can’t take my eyes off them.’ (p.147). He is thinking of the general populace of Westover, but really this is a description of Tey’s people, strolling with satisfaction into the future that she herself didn’t live to see.

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