Josephine Tey reading notes: Brat Farrar

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about Brat Farrar which is one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

brat farrar Brat Farrar does not begin with Brat at all. It begins with a small estate in England, with the family who lives on that estate gathered around for breakfast. Tey is always good at writing settings and characters, but the Ashbys and Latchetts are probably my favorite.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. My favorite is Aunt Bee. I love her. I love more more than anyone else in this book, including Brat. (And I definitely love Brat.) I am not at all objective on the subject of Bee, who I think is a darling and I would like to give her a hug because the rest of this book is going to be wonderful and horrible for her and I love her.

At any rate, throughout Brat Farrar, Tey writes the texture of this small, known, family place, with its quiet and rich history, really well. I find myself having equal and opposite reactions to it: being totally charmed, and at the same time, feeling wary of the essential conservatism inherent in it. After all the thing that drives this book is the idea that there must always be Ashbys at Latchetts. This does get complicated by the end, and yet–and yet.

Into this benign family picture, a small bomb is dropped in the person of Brat Farrar himself. Brat is an orphan who grew up in a Children’s Home and who bears a striking resemblance to Simon Ashby–the Ashbys, it is established, having a strong family resemblance in general. Brat just happens to meet a former neighbor of the Ashbys and is argued into taking the place of Patrick Ashby, the oldest child of the family, who committed suicide after the death of his parents.

We maybe really shouldn’t like Brat, but I really do. Perhaps because Tey takes pains to compare Brat to Patrick–both are quiet, kind, essentially gentle and lovely human beings. Brat himself becomes partisan on Patrick’s behalf. As he takes Pat’s place, he also genuinely comes to care for the other Ashbys, especially Bee, Eleanor, and Jane.

(I will say here and now that I do not believe that ending with Eleanor at all. I just fundamentally don’t believe it. I would quite willingly read Brat as asexual; he cares a great deal about people but I just don’t see him being romantically interested. It feels like a tacked-on sop to convention and I dislike it a lot.)

What’s missing from this book for a good portion of it is a mystery. Patrick Ashby died and Brat has taken his place. There’s perhaps a minor kind of mystery within the story as Aunt Bee and Mr. Sandal (the family solicitor) try to determine if Brat is actually Patrick or not. But for quite a while, we’re simply given this lovely family story, perhaps with some semi-ominous undertones.

And then Brat has some worries about Patrick, and what did actually happen, and then we’re told a good 100 pages from the ending exactly whodunnit, if not exactly how. It’s a peculiar setup, and yet it’s oddly effective. Because a large part of this book is about the lengths people will go to to avoid the truth. The fact that Simon Ashby has been cruel and self-absorbed for most of his life is explained away again and again by those closest to him. It takes Brat, a stranger who also has a connection to the family, to see the truth and act on it.

In a way, this is a story about a certain kind of male pride–one of the key clues to Simon’s real character is the fact that he drops a girl he was interested in as soon as she has a good horse and the chance of beating him. As Brat thinks, “What kind of creature was this Simon Ashby, who could not bear to be beaten by the girl he was in love with?” It’s the way that pride operates within the kind of excusing, “boys will be boys,” culture which allows Simon to get away with it for so long.

And yet, I would hardly call this a feminist book. It’s pretty cruel in places to some of the women portrayed. It also suffers from some of Tey’s ongoing flaws: a propensity to insert Tey’s own views into the mouths of characters who would never say such things, and a dogged persistent racism and xenophobia that mar all of her books to one degree or another.

Although these flaws are real and present, I also do find myself helplessly in love with Brat, with Bee, with the Ashbys and Latchetts. I think it’s most of all because of Brat–because despite the situation he has a kind of reluctant and yet steadfast integrity that keeps him from accepting a comfortable, poisoned existence.

The book ends with a kind of bittersweet hope. Brat survives; Simon does not; Latchetts survives; Bee and Brat leave. For all the worry over keeping an unending line of Ashbys at Latchetts, everyone seems to accept that Eleanor and the younger girls will stay there. The hope lies mostly in Bee and Brat making a new life and a new place together, in Brat’s being given his own place in the family, in Patrick’s finally being given justice. It’s a less positive ending than many mysteries of that era, and yet I find it all the more memorable for that.

Book source: personal library
Book information: 1950; adult mystery

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8 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reading notes, reviews

8 responses to “Josephine Tey reading notes: Brat Farrar

  1. Mary Beth

    I read this book years ago, and remembered the plot vaguely (and, more strongly, loving the characters–and the horses!) but forgot author and title and thought I would never find it again. And now here you drop it in my lap! I’m off to find a copy and reread…

    • Maureen Eichner

      Oh, HURRAY! It’s so fun when those serendipitous things happen, and even more fun to be an instrument of them happening! 🙂 Hope you enjoy your reread!

  2. Pingback: July 2016 round up | By Singing Light

  3. So, I just finished rereading — and you’re right, I absolutely love Bee. I want to grow up and BE her, though I hope my nieces and nephews will grow up much more happily than hers did. (I do have hope for Jane.)

    I was reading with an eye toward Brat’s sexuality though, since you mentioned it in your post, and… Well, there are moments of Brat’s interaction with Alec and with the old man in Tampico that can easily be read to indicate that Brat is, if not gay, at least experienced in surviving by using his body. (Alec is almost definitely gay, and also seems to have taken an unhealthy interest in all aspects of his neighbors’ lives; who KNOWS those sorts of details?) Brat also mentions having “had his first girl” at the Wilson ranch, “but it wasn’t half as exciting” as working with the horses. There was a woman who wanted to marry him, and Brat is puzzled that she would want a “kept man,” but he showed no interest in sticking around.

    And for all that Brat is jealous of Roger Clint, and fond of Eleanor, and physically aware of her… He mentions that Smoky and Bee are the only two people he has ever loved. When Eleanor admits that she cares for him, he almost ignores it; he’s solely fixated on proving Simon’s guilt. We never get his POV on Eleanor’s desire to marry him (which she never even expresses to him, and which I doubt Bee would pass on!) On the other hand, he responds with tears of joy to Bee’s offer of taking him away to her new stud in Ulster.

    Which is all a very longwinded way of saying: I agree with you that Brat is likely asexual, though certainly not inexperienced. He’s far more attracted to Bee’s offer of familial love than to any of the three girls who offer themselves to him in a variety of sexual ways. In my headcanon, Bee and Brat settle down to a comfortable partnership in Ulster and live out their spinster years joyfully together. Eleanor finds a nice boy who ISN’T her cousin to run Latchetts with her, since she clearly deserves it more than her brother OR her cousin, but she keeps her maiden name and passes it on to her children, and there are always Ashbys at Latchetts.

    (I am willing to give the odd conservatism a pass if we can eradicate sexism instead!)

    • Maureen Eichner

      Oh, I appreciate how thoroughly you looked at this! And I definitely agree with your conclusions, also Alec is for sure the creepy neighbor your older relatives warned you about.

      “In my headcanon, Bee and Brat settle down to a comfortable partnership in Ulster and live out their spinster years joyfully together. Eleanor finds a nice boy who ISN’T her cousin to run Latchetts with her, since she clearly deserves it more than her brother OR her cousin, but she keeps her maiden name and passes it on to her children, and there are always Ashbys at Latchetts”

      This is an excellent headcanon & I’m going to adopt it immediately.

  4. Pingback: August 2016 round up | By Singing Light

  5. Emera

    I’d never heard of Tet before (midcentury mysteries I haven’t gotten into much), but this sounds really intriguing – sort of tense and quiet. I like this sort of family drama, so I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for the lovely review.

  6. Pingback: 2016: favorite adult books + reading notes posts | By Singing Light

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