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 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