Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (13/Jul/2011) - Elizabeth Mackintosh: woman of mystery who deserves to be rediscovered


  • article: Elizabeth Mackintosh: woman of mystery who deserves to be rediscovered
  • author(s): Robert McCrum
  • newspaper: The Guardian (13/Jul/2011)
  • keywords: John Gielgud, Josephine Tey



Elizabeth Mackintosh: woman of mystery who deserves to be rediscovered

Writing as Josephine Tey or Gordon Daviot, this all but forgotten novelist has influenced writers from Stephen King to Sarah Waters and was a friend of John Gielgud

Last week, I went to Kevin Spacey's Richard III at the Old Vic and came away marvelling, yet again, at the polemical and psychological brilliance of Shakespeare's remorseless Tudor propaganda. The "bottled spider" is not just a deformed monster, an object of fear, but a strangely lovable monster, who excites our pity, too.

Afterwards, the conversation turned to the princes in the Tower. Did Richard really murder his nephews? The Daughter of Time was one of my adolescent favourites and so I referred, en passant, to Josephine Tey. Blank looks: no one had heard of this once-celebrated mystery writer from the 1940s and 50s.

That might be how Elizabeth Mackintosh, born in 1896 at Inverness, might have wished it. As well as "Josephine Tey", she also wrote as "Gordon Daviot", and seems to have been obsessively private. Even in death, she slipped away, unobserved, and in disguise. The Times records the death of Gordon Daviot on 13 February 1952, two days before the state funeral of George VI, whose life, death and majesty had filled the newspapers that week.

Miss Mackintosh's cremation in Streatham Vale was attended by only a handful of mourners, but they included Dame Edith Evans and John Gielgud, both friends.

So, whoever "Gordon Daviot" represented, it was someone rather unusual, a creative artist whom people cared about. Gielgud later wrote: "Her sudden death was a great surprise and shock to all her friends in London. I learned afterwards that she had known herself to be mortally ill for nearly a year, and had resolutely avoided seeing anyone she knew."

Apart from By The Banks of the Ness by Mairi A MacDonald, there's almost nothing biographical in print about "Bessie" Mackintosh. She grew up in Scotland, one of three sisters, trained as a PE teacher and suffered, as many young women did, a mysterious and inconsolable bereavement during the Great War. When her mother died in 1926, she was called home to nurse her invalid father. Her writing, which began as an escape from domestic routine, first appeared in The English Review in the late 1920s.

Shy Miss Mackintosh had a fascination with disguises, pseudonyms and hidden identities. Her first novel, Kif, possibly inspired by her involuntary experience of the Great War, appeared under the name of Gordon Daviot, and this was also the name attached to her first play, Richard of Bordeaux.

Starring John Gielgud, the play was a surprise hit. Gielgud came to know her well. "A strange character," he wrote, "proud without being arrogant, and obstinate though not conceited. She was distressed by her inability to write original plots."

That's surprising. As Josephine Tey, she became the mystery writer non-mystery readers most loved, and her "Alan Grant" novels– A Shilling For Candles, Brat Farrar and The Singing Sands – constitute an oeuvre whose highly literate and witty prose soon attracted a devoted following. Subsequently, Josephine Tey has influenced writers from Stephen King to Sarah Waters, whose A Little Stranger owes something to Tey's The Franchise Affair.

The Daughter of Time is possibly her masterpiece. Alan Grant, trapped in hospital with a broken leg, clamours for distraction. His actress friend Marta Hallard, knowing that he fancies himself an expert on faces, gives him some portraits to study. In the face of Richard III, Grant finds power and suffering, the expression of a man of conscience and integrity. Is this "a judge, a soldier, a prince"? he asks. "Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. A worrier, perhaps a perfectionist…"

When Grant discovers that this is the face of one of English history's greatest villains, he is aghast at his misjudgment and sets to uncover the "historical truth" about Richard of Gloucester. He concludes, persuasively, that Richard was wholly innocent of the deaths of the princes in the Tower.

That is where the mind of Josephine Tey merges with the life of Elizabeth Mackintosh, who was an English patriot of a a kind almost unknown today. On her death, she bequeathed her considerable fortune to the National Trust. She also lives on as a main character in a series of novels by Nicola Upson, "The Josephine Tey Mysteries". Surely, someone should soon investigate the hidden life of Elizabeth Mackintosh?