The Many Faces of Josephine Tey

In her latest outing, ‘London Rain’, my fictional version of Josephine Tey goes for a portrait sitting with a well-known society photographer - not out of vanity, but to get to the truth of a decade-old scandal involving the death of an infamous nightclub hostess. Like many things in the series so far, the scene is inspired by a factual event from Tey’s life, in this case a trip to Patersons to get publicity photographs for the American edition of her first novel, ‘Kif’. She recounted the incident - with typical wry amusement - to her close friend, Marjorie Davidson:

‘I had thought, of course, that it would be an affair of a few perfunctory poses and relief for both of us. But it soon became evident that the man was enjoying himself. Presently he said, ‘I could go on posing you all day’! I put this down as the photographer’s usual desire to say something that he thinks you will like, and thought it a pity that he hadn’t tried it on someone with a prettier face and less scepticism. Then he said, quite without warning, ‘You know, there is something of the Sitwells about you.’ ‘Not Edith!’ I said hastily. ‘I don’t mind being Sasha, or even Osbert at a pinch, but I draw the line at Edith!’ Now only last October I had been told within 24 hours that I was (a) like Gwen Farrar, (b) like Greta Garbo…So I sat in Patersons and wondered if I had to be like one or the other whether I should prefer Gwen or Edith. I had just settled definitely on Gwen, when the man - who had been considering me in a sort of rapture - burst forth in a restrained ecstasy with ‘Epstein would love to do you!’.

That was the last straw. I kept rolling into the gutter all the way home because the pavement wasn’t wide enough for my giggles. But the strange thing is that when the photographs came they were one Edith Sitwell, one Gwen Farrar, and one Greta Garbo. So all my critics are vindicated and I think I must be a chameleon.’

That word ‘chameleon’ is arguably the truest she ever wrote. We are all different things to different people, but Tey was a genius at compartmentalising her different personas: Josephine Tey, Gordon Daviot, Elizabeth MacKintosh. She was fascinated by identity, and she played successfully with her own, living a life of contrasts and contradictions: the reserved, self-fashioned enigma who lived quietly in Inverness; the warm, engaging friend whom Sir John Gielgud described to me, who travelled frequently to London, booked into her prestigious private club on Cavendish Square, and got her furs out of storage at Debenhams.

‘Kif’, the book she was photographed for, was a novel about the aftermath of the Great War, published in 1929 amid an outpouring of more famous war writing like ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘The Patriot’s Progress’ - an extraordinary achievement for a woman, even one who looked like Garbo or Sitwell. But that war also had ‘unwritten’ consequences for Tey. She was eighteen when the conflict broke out, such a formative age to experience the social change which those years were to bring. For better or for worse, women were robbed of the path they had trodden for years, the path of marriage and children, and Tey made the most of the choices that freedom gave her. In many ways, the war made her the woman - the ‘women’ - she was.

These days, we live in a world where identity carries less currency. People are keen to tell you about themselves as soon as you meet, and many of us happily bore complete strangers to death on social media with pictures of ourselves, our families, and what we had for dinner last Friday. In Tey’s time, who you were and how you were perceived meant more and mattered more. Discretion was the better part of candour, and she played the game as skilfully as anyone, inspiring different opinions on everything from her sexuality to her personality. We hear these different voices in her work - the romanticised, occasionally didactic tone of Daviot, the warm, witty companion that we love so much in Tey - and the personalities are replicated in her private letters. Occasionally, she felt the contradictions herself: ‘I have the oddest feeling of disloyalty to Daviot,’ she wrote to a publishing friend in 1950, as the enormous popularity of the Tey novels began to eclipse her other work. ‘Like turning down a faithful lover.’

How well we can ever really know someone isn’t just a question for writers - we ask it every day of those we love and strangers we meet - but it’s a joy and a challenge when your subject is as gloriously multi-faceted as Josephine Tey. Those interwar years teemed with fascinating pioneers in all sorts of fields, and I love to people my fiction with them. ‘London Rain’ celebrates figures as diverse as Val Gielgud, whose achievements in radio drama were as lasting and important as his brother’s stage triumphs; C.R.W. Nevinson, whose iconic Coronation cover for the Radio Times was every bit as atmospheric as his more celebrated war art; and Kate Meyrick, the notorious club hostess whose death silenced all the dance bands in London. My novel is set, in part, at Broadcasting House, where the BBC’s Coronation coverage was about to make history by transmitting that momentous moment to millions of people all around the world. And the original scandal that Josephine sets out to investigate was inspired by the conspiracy-fuelled death of Rolling Stone’s founder Brian Jones at Cotchford Farm in 1969 - not an obvious reference for period crime fiction, perhaps, but one age is often a window to another, and it’s surprising how easily the 1960s mirror the 1920s: clubs and music, freedom and excess, scandal and cover-up.

But Tey is still at the heart of everything, and the more I write about her, the more I love her. Novelist. Playwright. Chameleon.

Quotations from Josephine Tey’s letters by kind permission of The National Trust.

‘London Rain’ by Nicola Upson is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)


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