I’ve been waiting for a biography of Josephine Tey for years, and was so pleased when I saw that Sandstone Press were to publish this one. Henderson’s book gives a vast amount of new information (new to the casual but devoted Tey re-reader, but possibly not new to a proper detective fiction scholar), and depicts Elizabeth MacKintosh’s life admirably. Henderson should be praised for her assiduous research which must have taken years. I have a sense from the style of some of the chapters that, during her research, Henderson may have been giving talks to local Inverness audiences about her project. The biography’s narrative voice, so to speak, explains a lot about otherwise well-known English places and people, as if expecting her readers not to know who or what these were. Henderson also explains Highland geography, Gaelic culture, and Inverness history and traditions, possibly in more detail than the non-Inverness reader might expect, but it’s all excellent background material. Overall, I did like this biography, and am grateful that it’s been written. But I was annoyed, throughout the book, by Henderson’s preoccupation with her subject’s sexuality.
Henderson has done some speculative detective work which ‘reveals’, she suggests, that Elizabeth MacKintosh had had a brief romance with an officer who died in the First World War: so brief that there is absolutely no evidence for it. I found it annoying that Henderson kept returning to this speculation, turning it later into an assertion, and then into assumed fact. She does the same with the episode of apparent friendship and non-love affair between MacKintosh and a local poet. Rudimentary connections between them (they published their poetry and stories at the same time, they wrote some letters to each other) are embroidered into a fantasy of mutual emotional dependence and literary influence on no evidence, just ‘what if’ guesses as to the possible existence of evidence. It is so exasperating that Henderson spends so much of the biography dwelling on these two ‘relationships’ which had no discernible effect on MacKintosh’s life or writing.
However, once we reach the letter written by ‘Mack’ to her actress friend Marda Vanne, explaining that Vanne’s advances to her had been a complete surprise and that MacKintosh, unlike Vanne, was not in fact lesbian, I did wonder if this was the reason for Henderson’s insistence on ‘proving’ that MacKintosh had been in love with men earlier in her life. Fishing through the footnotes and scattered references in the biography (it is well footnoted) I see that a series of modern detective novels starring a fictionalised MacKintosh depicts her as gay, and that this has exasperated and/or annoyed some of the Tey readership. I’ve never heard of these novels so have no opinion on them, but I enjoyed speculating on Henderson’s motivations for her own speculations. Honestly, does it matter if MacKintosh was or was not gay? There are many reasons for choosing not to marry. Henderson goes on to discuss a female Tey character (sorry, spoiler) who dresses as a man in order to pursue a masculine career, as if cross-dressing is a guarantee of lesbianism. The character displays no homosexual tendencies in the novel at all, and is in fact a rather unmasculine girl in trousers and short hair (fashionable for the period). Again, relying on evidence rather than on fallacies about sexual orientation, would have been preferable.
As you’ll see above, it is hard to keep to one name for Elizabeth MacKintosh. Henderson made a maddening stylistic decision to use the name most suitable for the context of MacKintosh’s life at that point. So she is rarely ‘Elizabeth’, but is called her childhood family name, her school name, her college name, and the names of her literary pseudonyms Daviot and Tey, with several different names being used on the same page, depending on the context. I can see the logic behind this decision, but it interrupts the narrative no end, and feels like a theory applied to the project, rather than a practice that emerged naturally as Henderson’s writing developed. This hopping about between names and personae is exacerbated by Henderson’s continual reportage of MacKintosh’s feelings, motivations, and other internal thoughts that she could not know herself. She is speculating, again.
Yet it is a good biography, and contains a really magnificent research finding from MacKintosh’s literary career that I will not divulge here, but which made me excuse all the biography’s stylistic irritations. Henderson has done Elizabeth MacKintosh proud, even if she takes far too many liberties to make a good story in the face of factual evidence.