Always an intensely private person, very little is known about the personal life of Josephine Tey (the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) – she never gave interviews and avoided photographs – however we do know that Elizabeth Mackintosh was one of three sisters, was born in Inverness on 25 July 1896, the daughter of Scottish grocer Colin Mackintosh and English Josephine Horne. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later Anstey Physical Training College in Erdington, Birmingham where she trained as a physical education teacher.
Tey would never marry and it is not known whether she had many relationships, however biographers agree that, like many of her generation, she was engaged to a man who died in the First World War, leaving her alone and bereft. After finishing college she worked as a physical education teacher at a number of schools in England, experience she would later recount in her novel Miss Pym Disposes (1946). Friends later said that she was an accomplished gymnast, often delighting her pupils with almost professional feats of acrobatics. In 1926 her mother died and Tey returned to Inverness to care for her ailing father, she would remain there for most of her life.
It was after returning to Scotland that Tey took to writing professionally. She had always written for pleasure but never before thought of publishing any work. Now living at home with her father she turned to writing as an escape from ordinary life and by the late 1920s she had published a number of stories and poems in newspapers and literary magazines. She created the pseudonym Gordon Daviot (Daviot being the name of a picturesque village near Inverness) and in 1929 she published her first novel The Man in the Queue, reportedly written in two weeks in response to a completion by the publisher Methuen. This work included the first appearance of Inspector Alan Grant, who would later appear in four further novels. In 1929 she also published Kif: An Unvarnished History ,the poignant story of a boy who goes to war and on return drifts into a life of crime was possibly influenced by her own experience in the First World War.
Turning away from prose Tey then took to writing for the theatre, still using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. In 1932 she sent a play titled Richard of Bordeaux to John Gielgud, whom Tey had previously seen play Richard II at the Old Vic theatre in London. The play, about the relationship between Richard II and his wife, was performed at the New Theatre in the West End, directed by and starring Gielgud. The two would become good friends during the production and the play was an enormous success, running for over a year and catapulting Gielgud to even greater stardom. Gielgud later suggested that Tey preferred writing for theatre, saying she referred to her detective novels as “her yearly knitting”. However her publisher disputed this, saying that Tey felt more pride at seeing her books in the window of the Times Book Club than her name on the front of the New Theatre.
Tey produced a number of plays throughout her life time – however only four were ever produced, including The Laughing Woman (1934), another success. Unlike her detective fiction her plays featured more emotionally complex characters with less focus on pace and tension.
In 1936 she published her second Alan Grant detective story, A Shilling for Candles (later the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1937 film Young and Innocent), using for the first time the pseudonym Josephine Tey. A tribute to her mother Josephine and English grandmother, whose last name was ‘Tey’, it was the pen name she would use for all future novels, keeping Gordon Daviot for her writing in the theatre. The book established her as a successful writer of fiction, the three further Alan Grant novels were all bestsellers (To Love and Be Wise (1950), The Daughter of Time (1951) and The Singing Sands (1952)) with The Daughter of Time being voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writer’s Association in 1990.
In the 1940s she published her most successful novels – The Francise Affair (1946) and Brat Farrar (1949). Adapted for stage, screen and radio, these stand-alone novels have become classics for their suspense filled atmosphere and literate, witty prose. It is often said that it were these books that established Tey as the ‘the mystery writer non-mystery readers most loved’.
In 1950 Tey’s father died and she left Scotland to live in Streatham, South London. Her writing output increased considerably and she began publishing one novel a year. It seemed that she was on a trajectory to becoming one of the great authors of detective fiction, often mentioned in the same breath as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, however she died suddenly in February 1952 at the age of 55. Friends and relations were shocked at her sudden death, she had known that she was mortally ill for a year but had kept it secret, avoiding unnecessary contact with anyone – intensely private to the last.
Whilst Tey spent most of her life in Scotland and had a Scottish father, she considered herself to be English, celebrating the English countryside often in her work. It is this love of the countryside which led her to bequeath her (considerable) estate to the National Trust, a conservation organisation operating largely in England.