When real-life superstar writers become characters in others’ novels, as Josephine Tey does in Nicola Upson’s detective fiction, the result can outdo biography
f you are a certain kind of reader, this year you would have read a piece every week about the Mysteries of Elena. Elena Ferrante, that is. Over the last decade, as more of her grand novels of female friendship have been translated from Italian, her fame and mystery have both grown in geometric proportions in the anglophone world. Observe her media policy: one country, one interview. Yes, that’s right. One country, one interview.
Ferrante is a lovely Banksy-sized mystery for the literary fiction world, which is still disproportionately proud of its white men with black-framed glasses. And no one who has actually read her can continue to speculate that she is a dude. Please stop. Every possible thing that has been said about Ferrante’s identity has already been said about women authors, and not just reclusive women authors. Take a look at the cover of the 1983 book by Joanna Russ, ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’. The mass of text on the cover lists all the things people say about women writers. “She didn’t write it. She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. She wrote it and she had help. She wrote it, but she is an anomaly.” And so on. These are also all the things that have been said about Ferrante.
This year, while enjoying the Ferrante fever, I have also had the pleasure of rediscovering another mysterious, reclusive, and highly successful woman author: Josephine Tey. She is a bit of a code in the way that Ferrante was once perhaps a bit of a code. Do you like Tey, you could ask shyly at the height of a madly-in-friendship moment at a restaurant that you still refuse to share with randoms. And if the answer is, “Oh my god, I love Tey”, you could be thrown into an orgy of “which one do you like best?” Or you could look down at your coffee and enjoy the tingle of two becoming one, because the woman just wrote eight mystery novels and that was going to be a short orgy. Sure, she wrote non-mystery novels and plays, but really, do you care?