May 31, 2010

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Robert Blair is a country solicitor who lives and works in the quiet Midlands town of Milford. His usual daily activities include nothing more exciting than updating the will of a client who believes to be dying for the nth time. But his life changes one day when he receives a phone call from Marion Sharpe, one of the ladies who live at The Franchise. The Franchise is a large and isolated country house that most people regard with some suspicion, and Marion lives there alone with her mother. The reason why she needs legal counsel (and, as it turns out, the services of an amateur sleuth) is because two inspectors from Scotland Yard are over – bringing with them a fifteen-year-old girl, Betty Kane.

Betty is a war-orphan, a good student, and a girl with no record of lying or misbehaving – and she says she was kidnapped, beaten, starved, and kept in the attic of a country house for a month. She identifies the house as The Franchise, and her kidnappers and abusers as Mrs and Miss Sharpe. And she can back up her statements with a detailed description of what the attic looks like from the inside. However, Marion Sharpe and her mother guarantee that they have never seen the girl before in their life.

The peculiar premise of The Franchise Affair grabbed me immediately: it seemed to me very odd that two seemingly harmless ladies would randomly kidnap and abuse a teenager, but it seemed at least equally odd that a teenager would make up a story as bizarre as this for no good reason at all. I thought that the question of who was telling the truth would be the mystery at the heart of The Franchise Affair, but in fact this is solved fairly early on. Or rather: the novel makes it clear from fairly early on where the reader’s sympathies are supposed to lie, and it doesn’t leave much room at all for alternative interpretations.

This brings me to the point I want to discuss at length: I won’t include any actual spoilers, but I’m going to have to discuss the plot in greater detail than you might want to know before going in. So if you’d rather stop reading here, know that I found The Franchise Affair absolutely gripping, and as startling and horrifying as it was fascinating. The story I read here was not the story Josephine Tey meant to tell, I don’t think – but that’s part of what made my experience with this book so interesting.

Some months ago, I wrote a post asking you whether or not you found that the existence of a big disconnect between a novel’s ethical world and your own set of values got in the way of your enjoyment of it. If I recall correctly, the majority of you said no, while I admitted that in my case it often did. By this I don’t mean that I’ll immediately reject or refuse to engage with any book that exposes views different from mine, of course. I just mean that it can be very difficult to connect with a story that implicitly assumes you to be believe things (e.g. that a woman’s place is the home and that if she dares leave it she deserves whatever she gets, that gay people should be punished or “cured”, that the poor are only poor because they don’t work hard enough, etc. etc.) that are very different from what you actually believe, and which doesn’t leave any room open for alternative voices. The stories that alienate me are normally ones whose narrative structure only works if I (temporarily at least) buy into some of those unspoken assumptions that I find so horrifying. I’m not at all convinced by the school of thought that maintains that to be a sophisticated reader is to never allow this to happen, but that’s perhaps a topic for another time.

I mention this because The Franchise Affair is actually an example of a book whose ideology (which is classist and fiercely conservative) completely clashes with my own – but this didn’t make me dislike the book. On the contrary: I thought it was a fascinating historical document, a riveting chronicle of a worldview that’s completely alien to me, and a novel peopled with characters I actually cared about, even if their thoughts and beliefs very often horrified me.

In many ways, The Franchise Affair is a harsh and unsympathetic novel. It’s hard for contemporary readers not to notice the fact that its allegiances are clearly class-based, for example. When the Franchise affair becomes public, the populace begins to terrorise the Sharpes with a fierceness and resentment that seem to have more to do with them being gentry than with the case at hand. And the fact that the story relies so heavily on the “obviousness” of the Sharpes’ innocence is difficult to dissociate from their own station in life. Likewise, Betty Kane’s working class origins are presented as a smudge on her character. This is a very neat and certain book; a book whose ethical scale is merely composed of black and white, leaving no room at all for greys. But what was interesting to me was the fact that there was a touch of desperation in its certitude: intentionally or not, it comes across as a frantic cry of protest against inevitable post-WW2 changes in class barriers, in gender roles, in how female sexuality was perceived, and so on.

The Franchise Affair is also a book that relies on the reader’s acceptance a conception of crime and of the nature of criminals that I personally find impossible to buy into. Betty Kane is greedy and “oversexed” and therefore evil; furthermore, she’s evil because her mother before her was evil – she was a loose woman who’d go out and dance with officers during the war. And that, my friends, quite simply settles that. Everything is neat and crystal-clear, and those who expose the view that crime might be a result of environmental factors are mercilessly mocked. There’s no room for ambiguity in the world of The Franchise Affair, and very little room for doubts of any kind.

This is yet another reason why I suspect (or hope) that a good share of contemporary readers will find the story as it’s told hard to swallow. There’s a silence at its core that speaks volumes; a gap that’s impossible to ignore. In this silence lies what Sarah Waters refers to as its “under-story,” which is another matter altogether. The wideness of this gap and the loudness of this silence are a testament of how much the world has changed1—and yet not. Anyone who believes that evil is innate and criminal penalties should be harsher, or who laments the loss of a golden past in which women were modest and chaste and people knew their place and didn’t presume to act above their station, will likely feel right at home in Tey’s ideological world. Those who, like me, very much don’t, will probably be alarmed. But as I said above, the book’s alarming nature is part of what makes it so interesting.

The reason why I picked The Franchise Affair for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction Classics Tour was because I remembered reading that it had influenced Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I didn’t know how exactly, but I kept musing on this as I read on, and by the end I was convinced that the only way in which Tey could have influenced Waters was by making her want to answer all the questions she so pointedly ignores. And then I found this wonderful article, which I remember not reading at the time because I suspect it, correctly, of having spoilers. I’m going to share a quote that expressed my feelings on Tey’s novel better than I ever could, but it is completely spoilerific, so read it at your own peril:
It is this almost apocalyptic mixture of loss, rage and peril that underpins the conservative agenda of The Franchise Affair. For Tey, Betty Kane represents everything that’s wrong with postwar life: no wonder the passions she provokes in the novel are so vastly out of proportion to her actual narrative presence. And no wonder, perhaps, she continued to linger on in my mind, long after I had first put Tey’s book aside. I found myself returning to her yet again, in fact, when I had finished writing The Night Watch. Having looked at the war’s impact on sexuality and gender for that novel, I wanted to begin another 40s story exploring the decade’s transformation of class relations, and it seemed to me that Betty Kane might somehow provide me with a starting point. Her story, when looked at objectively, is a rather pitiful one. There’s the unloving mother, the orphaned childhood, the “extraordinarily good-looking” adopted brother, Leslie, whose engagement so dismays her; above all, there’s the disturbing precocity with which, at 15, she “picks up” a married man and passes herself off as his wife. Tey’s bilious, bigoted vision fails to recognise the poignancy of all this, but I’ve always wondered how Betty would speak to us if she were allowed a voice of her own, and for a while I thought seriously of trying to write a novel that would dovetail with The Franchise Affair, to give us its back- or under-story. Then I considered rewriting the book altogether. It was itself, after all, a rewriting, and one that had done a fair amount of narrative violence to its 18th-century model.
Dear Sarah Waters: could you possibly be more brilliant? I think not. I can’t help but wish she had written that retelling. But although I’ve seen some very mixed reviews of The Little Stranger, I’m now more excited than ever to read it.

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction: A Classics Circuit Tour

Other opinions: A Work in Progress, Fleur Fish Reads

(Yours?)

1 I sound like I’m saying these attitudes belong to the past and are over and done with now, but I certainly don’t mean that. I just mean that in the early twentieth-century, an author like Tey could assume that the majority of her middle-class readers would see eye-to-eye with her and share most of her biases and suspicious, whereas today that wouldn’t quite work.

31 comments:

  1. Thank you for the review, this sounds fascinating!! I took your advice and didn't read the whole review just in case, but I really want to read this :)

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  2. I love reading your reviews because you always provide interesting critical analysis. It does sound like a very classist book, with all the characters neatly packed into little boxes due to a few key stereotypical attributes.

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  3. I love Tey's novels, but I find that compared with her peers, her work is darker and more disturbing. I agree with your comments that her attitude was probably pretty normal during that period after WWII.

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  4. Wow. From what you say and reading the Sarah Waters article, this book sounds quite appalling. As a book - I can see how it would be enthralling as a document. I hope Tey's other books aren't this way! I have Brat Farrar lying around my apartment waiting to be read.

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  5. I took the plunge and read your entire post. I was interested because I also read Tey for the Circuit. I really enjoyed your analysis (the hidden part) and now I'm more interested in reading Waters' book as well (which I even have on my shelves)! Thanks for a great review.

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  6. I haven't read this, but I want to, partly because of the Little Stranger connection.

    FWIW, and in response to Jenny, not all of Tey's other novels express an openly classist view. At least I didn't pick up on that in The Daughter of Time, which I loved. And it has fascinating things to say about power structures and how we view history. (I haven't read any of her other books, so I couldn't say anything about those.)

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  7. I've never read Tey but I feel the way you do on the class issues. In Moonstone by Wilkie Collins there was that issue involving the gentry and how it was assumed they were innocent because of it. It was aggravating.

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  8. Wow. Utterly fascinating review, Ana! And I admire your ability to view this as look at history...to enjoy it and learn from it while still being appalled by it. (I realize I didn't say that very well, but I think you probably know what I'm trying to say.) I hate admitting it, but I think I sometimes let my emotions get in my way too much...and I can't help but think that I would have let my distaste get in my way of appreciating this as a fascinating look at life and attitudes during this time.

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  9. So many great points here. Tey is a favorite of mine but The Franchise Affair does weigh in heavily on class issues that are not as present in her other works I think. The norm at the time but awkward to read now. Also agree with other point made above about Tey and her dark side. Which is one of the reasons I enjoy her books. :)

    Also still trying to get to The Little Stranger. Perfect summer reading I hope.

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  10. Great review, Nymeth. You made me curious about this book! Thanks!

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  11. I remember reading the Sarah Waters article and being intrigued. Despite reading the spoilers, I am still curious enough to read it.

    A very thought-provoking review.

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  12. What a wonderful review. I loved The Little Stranger, but I had no idea about all of this connection to Tey's book and her ideas. I must read that one and then re-read The Little Stranger.

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  13. Another great review, as always. You're definitely the one person who wreaks the most havoc on my TBR list.

    Anyway, I've given you an award...you can find it here, if you'd like :)

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  14. I have to admit I stopped reading at the spoiler alert portion. But I'm off to get both books and then will re-read the post. I'm so spoiler conscious that it's a bit ridiculous. Thanks for the recommendation though. I love it when I can read two books together.

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  15. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey is one of my favourite mysteries, so I've been curious about The Franchise Affair for a while, I may even own it, but still can't decide about reading it yet! Great review though.

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  16. This does sound interesting.
    I dont think that if a books ethics differed from my own values it would stop me from enjoying it.
    Excellent review as always.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  17. I'm so glad I read your review before getting to The Little Stranger on my TBR pile. I think I'll try to slip in Franchise Affair before I get to it. Funny, I've read two or three of Tey's other books and never sensed her classist opinions. Your review reminds me of my first experience reading Flannery O'Connor's stories; I think my jaw literally dropped open after reading the first story, I was so shocked at her world view.

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  18. Nice review! I liked very much the way you have analysed the book and brought out the unsaid assumptions - Josephine Tey would be scared if she reads it :) The storyline sounds interesting though, and I would like to explore Josephine Tey's books sometime. Thanks for writing this beautiful review!

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  19. I've seen mixed reviews of The Little Stranger as well, but for what it's worth I thought it was BRILLIANT. Like, in a whole different category from her other books (which I also really like). The class & gender stuff is amazingly creepy & well done.

    I didn't know about the Tey connection, but now I'm more intrigued to read her at some point.

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  20. This is a great review! It's always fascinating when you run across a book where what the story represents, rather than the story itself, is the most satisfying part of the book. I probably won't read this book, but I appreciate and thank you for so clearly discussing what this book is in the context of both past and modern society.

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  21. Sounds intriguing so I'm skipping the plot discussion. You've raised some great questions though.

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  22. I'm torn now on if I want to read this or not :p Your review absolutely infuriated me but at the same time left me intrigued. I should make myself clear there...YOU didn't infuriate me, but that closed minded, circular thinking you described did. The other funny thing is, I was thinking "Sarah Waters would have fun with this" before you even brought her up!! It's like this was written for her to play with!

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  23. Whoa, this sounds very, very interesting. And I don't say that lightly. I need to pick this up ASAP! Thanks for an insightful review.

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  24. I did stop after gripping, horrifying...because I want to read it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  25. I'm intrigued ... and I think we should start a letter-writing campaign to beg Sarah Waters to write her version of this story!

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  26. Oh, dear. This was sitting on the shelf (had to check), which means it had been read--and forgotten! In light of your review, that seems impossible. Will have to return to this, and then to Ms. Waters. Perhaps this book is as much a victim as a product of its time? And yet there is a lot of the old class system in Agatha Christie (Miss Marple skewers it; Poirot fawns on it) & Dorothy Sayers, though we love Peter Wimsey for flouting the conventions. It surfaces in P.D. James' novels, too, but as a part of the distant past that Dalgliesh finds distasteful.--Sorry to go on for so long, but this is the first time I've read of any book giving you such a disconnect, Nymeth, and that makes it doubly interesting. This is an especially insightful review. What is the 18th century model that Sarah Waters mentions, do you know?

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  27. Well, this actually makes me want to read The little Strangers more than any other review of the actual book:P
    But I probably wouldn't read The Franchise Affair, I'm far less tolerant than you, even with people of a different time, and I'd probably be prone to throw the book at the wall more than once...

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  28. Wonderful review! I think that although there are some things about this book that would definitely make me uncomfortable, it would probably be a really engrossing read for me. I always find much to marvel at in old novels where the characters are such products of their times, especially when those times are so far removed and alien to our own. Now I really want to read this book and see what I make of it!!

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  29. Elise, I look forward to comparing notes with you!

    Dominique, thank you so much! Yes, it was that, but on the other hand Tey manages to make the character with whom she sympathises fully human, so it wasn't as limited as it could have been. She *is* a talented novelist, but her worldview does limit her.

    Sakura, darker and more disturbing is a great way to describe it.

    Jenny: I've read The Daughter of Time and agree with Teresa - I didn't get the same vibe from it at all, fortunately!

    Laura: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy The Little Stranger.

    Teresa: I agree with you on The Daughter of Time. Definitely another kind of book altogether.

    Chris: That's definitely true, but one of the things I love about Collins, and Victorian sensation in general, is that the stories are out to counter those assumptions. The characters are assumed to be innocent because they're respectable gentry, and yet they turn out as horrible as Count Fosco. Whereas in Tey's case, the opposite is true. The gentry is innocent, "of course", and the lower orders are scheming criminals, period.

    Debi: I don't think there's anything wrong with that kind of emotional reaction - in fact, it's only human to have it!

    Frances: The darkness did make me enjoy the book more, even if in a different way than I was expecting. So much left unsaid! No wonder Sarah Waters was tempted to write a retelling.

    Andreea, you're most welcome!

    Tea Lady: I hope you find it as interesting as I did :)

    Priscilla: I now kind of want to read The Little Stranger soon, as I imagine that reading them in close succession must be an interesting experience!

    Bibliolatrist: Aww, thank you so much!

    Trisha: I'm the same about spoilers, so I understand :P

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  30. I think I would have agreed with you completely when I first read The Franchise Affair. However, I reread it recently and now know more about Tey herself and I now think that it is more about how people behave towards strangers in society. It was known that Marion and her mother were not well off but they were seen as suspect because they were new to the town. I think that this book was partly a reaction to Tey moving from Scotland to England, which I know is a very alienating experience,I could only stand two years of it. The only locals who supported Marion and her mother also happened to be the ones who had got to know them, the car mechanics. Class has never been a big deal in Scotland. Anyway, thanks for the incredibly detailed review. I'm sure it will encourage lots of people to read the books.

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  31. Carolyn, thank you! I loved The Daugther of Time too.

    Naida: That in itself is definitely not a problem for me either. I just tend to be wary when the story only makes sense *if* I buy into that set of values, you know? Though I think that the exercise can be incredibly useful.

    Verbatim: I didn't notice it in The Daughter of Time, which was the only one I'd read before this, so hopefully it doesn't show quite as much in her others?

    Vishy: Good thing she's no longer around ;)

    Emily: I'm very happy to hear that! I so hope I'll fall in the it's-brilliant camp.

    Other Emily: It was fascinating - a reading experience unlike anything else I can remember!

    Framed, I look forward to hearing what you think if you pick it up :)

    Chris: That's so funny that you thought of her before I mention her! It's the exact kind of thing she writes against, isn't it?

    Emidy, you're welcome! Thank you for the kind words :)

    Staci: I hope you do - would love to see your response to it!

    Jenners: I love the way you think ;)

    ds: The model she means is an actual 18h century court case, in which a young maid called Elizabeth Canning made some of the same claims Betty Kane does in the novel. The reason why I didn't mentioned it is that I worried that anyone who googled it and read about the real case would have the novel spoiled! Anyway, I do think the book is clearly a product of its time, but it's more virulent that most of the first half of the 20th century fiction I've read. While in most books there are occasional thoughtless classist/racist/sexist/etc remarks, in this case the very premise relies on such assumptions. Which I thought was interesting, but it did make this a conflicting reading experience!

    Valentina: lol :P I have got to read The Little Stranger Myself!

    Zibilee: It was completely engrossing for me too. I couldn't put it down - it was kind of like watching a train wreck ;)

    Katrina: Thank you for offering a different - and very interesting - perspective! I'd like to read it again at some point with what you said in mind. The fascinating thing about literature is that there's always room for so many different readings.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.