Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"I am retribution": Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar

I've recently developed a pronounced interest in horses but I haven't ridden one since I was a kid. I'm approaching my curiosity the way I always do - through books. I asked a friend - an avid reader fascinated by horse racing - to recommend fiction with equine subject matter. She helpfully suggested many titles, but singled out two of her favourites: Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (2000), and the book I just completed, Josephine Tey's marvelous Brat Farrar (1949).

Josephine Tey was a novelist and playwright whose work enjoyed enormous popularity during the '30s, '40s, and '50s. She was scrupulous about her privacy, so disliked photographs or interviews. Consequently, little is known of her background or writing in terms of her ambition or process. In fact, the name Josephine Tey is a pseudonym, one of two she attached to her published work (the other being Gordon Daviot). These details might explain why Tey doesn't have greater renown despite her gifts for narrative and prose, her comprehensively drawn characters, and her great insight into human behaviour.

The author's real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh and she was born in the very late 19th century in Inverness, Scotland. As a young woman she trained and eventually worked as a Physical Education Instructor in England but returned to Scotland in 1923 to care for her dying mother and, subsequently, her widowed father. At this point she began writing in earnest, though it was an activity she'd enjoyed as a child. Tey, as Daviot, began publishing stories and poems in various newspapers and journals in the late 1920s. Her first novel, called The Man in the Queue, was initiated as a bid for a writing prize. She finished it in only two weeks. It was a mystery story, as are the majority of her eleven novels. Five of them feature the recurring character Richard Grant, an inspector for Scotland Yard. Tey didn't approach mystery as a formulaic genre exercise. Her writing evidences qualities genre practitioners often lack - style and originality. Mysteries engender interest by relying on the reader's need for answers to the story's questions, to sort out the logic at work in the book's own, separate universe. This is the source of Tey's pronounced talent for pacing too. But instead of merely approaching crime as a riddle in which characters are moved like pawns, Tey crafts fully-formed people in complex situations who struggle to define moral rectitude. Their thoughts and actions have relevance beyond the story's parameters. You crave knowledge of the book's outcome because you identify with its cast.

Brat Farrar incorporates three things Tey is known to have valued: concealed identities, horseback riding, and the English countryside. Titular character Brat Farrar was raised in an English foundling home and spent his youth working in stables in the American Southwest. His name is a misspelled version of a made-up designation - Farrell evolved to Farrar, and Bartholomew became Brat. His identity is as pliable as the fates allow. Upon returning to England, he's stopped mid-stride on a London street by Alec Loding, an actor who spent a pastoral childhood alongside the Ashby family. He's astonished by Brat's likeness to the Ashby clan. He deviously suggests that Brat pose as Patrick Ashby who, as a 13-year-old, was thought to have died by suicide. The child's body was never found. Simon, his remaining, younger twin, is poised to take ownership of the family's country estate Latchetts on his upcoming, twenty-first birthday. But if Patrick were to return, the estate would fall to him. Loding teaches Brat the family's history, as well as the layout of both the house and the surrounding villages. In exchange, he requests a regular stipend should Brat succeed. Family and home are attractive conquests for Brat, even if they're won through deception. Once his tutoring is completed, he contacts the Ashbys' lawyer.

Tey introduces us to the Ashbys and other local connections through Brat's attempt to insinuate himself into the family. In addition to Simon, there are three more siblings, Jane, Ruth and Eleanor. All are overseen by their Aunt Bee, who assumed guardianship of the children when their parents died shortly before Patrick's disappearance. Latchetts is a modest estate, as these things go. Maintaining the home in the absence of parents and in the lean years following the first World War is a challenge, but the Ashbys manage to generate income from the quality of their stables. The father was a talented horseman and this knowledge was inherited by his kids. In fact, it's Brat's affinity with horses that goes a long way to making his ruse operable. What we learn of the characters is transmitted through their respective reactions to Brat's arrival. Simon is the most reluctant. Among the book's greatest assets is Tey's use of Brat as a foil for the reader. He's in a foreign situation with a lot at stake, so he obligates himself to be quiet and watchful. He notices details, isolates curious facts, and perceives idiosyncrasies, particularly due to Simon's stubbornness. Many of Brat's observations relate to characters' attitudes towards horses. For example, Tey draws parallels between Simon and his arrogant, destructive racehorse. Brat wonders what kind of man would favour that kind of horse.

Since Brat is the individual perpetuating the deception, it's initially hard to discern where the book's mystery lies. We already know he's a culprit. But Brat Farrar doesn't perform like a typical "whodunit." Tey is more concerned with the complexities of human behaviour, like how unstated feelings come to light and what finally pushes characters to act boldly. Brat and Simon are paralleled for supposedly being twins, and it's through this pairing that Tey raises certain of the book's themes. Both men inhabit circumstances that allow fluidity in their identities. Since Brat is an impostor he can adopt and abandon behaviours at whim. Simon, on the other hand, has such a fixed role that friends and neighbours make assumptions about him. Aberrations in his conduct can therefore go unnoticed. Since Brat and Simon are free to craft their personalities, Tey uses them to consider traits like goodness and malignancy and which attribute will predominate in men unbound by ethics. A shared likeness and an adversarial position also mean that Simon and Brat serve as mirrors, each reflecting the other's actions and values back at him.

The fact that Brat Farrar is an impostor story made me think of Patricia Highsmith in general, and her Tom Ripley books, specifically. Highsmith, like Tey, is attracted to the idea that criminal impulses always issue from complex, interesting people. Her Ripley, a self-serving, duplicitous, shape-shifting character, raises juicy existential questions about what we owe society and whether or not that obligation should inhibit our appetites. Using Brat and Simon, Tey demonstrates that people can act well and poorly simultaneously, that some lies are more spurious than others, and that we can contain mixed, sometimes incompatible drives within us at once, all ideas that abound in Highsmith's work too. In short, good and bad are not mutually exclusive. But the essential topic in each author's fiction is the conundrum of interiority, the way the separating effect of individuality can lead a person away from empathy. In effect, Brat Farrar is an exploration of the concept of decency, if it's innate, enforced, or chosen like a name.