The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, a classic mystery, was published in 1949. Its mystery is not in identifying the criminal, but in uncovering the lies and flaws in young Betty Kane’s story to exonerate the two women she has accused. The task falls to Robert Blair, an established country solicitor.

216 Fr Aff coverThis is the 18th review in the Bookword series about older women in fiction. Thank you to the reader who suggested the character of Mrs Sharpe from The Franchise Affair.

The story

Marion and her mother, Mrs Sharpe, are accused by Betty Kane of abduction and ill treatment. 15-year old Betty claims that they imprisoned her in the attic of their house, The Franchise, which stands outside the small country town of Milford.

Robert Blair is living a very comfortable bachelor life in Milford, cared for by his aunt. The narrative follows his search for the truth, but we do not find much out about his previous life: not married although he had opportunities, his wartime occupation not indicated. His comfortable life is not usually disturbed by criminal cases, but he is attracted to Marion Sharpe and her gypsy-like looks, and motivated to put right the injustice done to her and her mother. The narrative pull of the novel comes from his dogged pursuit of the truth about Betty Kane’s missing month.

Mrs Sharpe

Mrs Sharpe is introduced to the reader though Robert Blair’s eyes.

She [Marion] drove a battered old car, from which she shopped in the mornings while her white-haired old mother sat in the back, upright and delicate and incongruous and somehow silently protesting. In profile old Mrs Sharpe looked like Whistler’s mother; when she turned full-face and you got the impact of her bright, pale, cold, seagull’s eye, she looked like a sibyl. An uncomfortable old person. (6)

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Mrs Sharpe is a gentlewoman, enduring less good times in The Franchise. She knows about good furniture and architecture, and she comes from horse-breeding stock. She inherited The Franchise from a relative, which allowed her to move out of London where she had lived in a boarding house with her daughter. Neither woman has entered the social life of Milford. They enjoy peace and isolation, although it works against them when Betty Kane’s story is published by the mud-raking, strangely-named tabloid – Ack-Emma.

Mrs Sharpe is rather a forbidding woman, and she also has an intelligence which sees to the heart of matters as we find out early on when Mrs Sharpe demands to know if Betty is a virgin. She earns respect from Blair by her refusal to be unsettled by the accusations. He observes to the reader that ‘it was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.’ (29)

She is from the time and class that requires older women to keep their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. We discover that her husband was always speculating and that his suicide left her with a very young child and no money. Even when the Sharpes are arrested and brought to trial Mrs Sharpe remains steady.

The relationship between mother and daughter is easy, based on observing strict boundaries. Marion explains this to Robert late in the novel.

Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. (274)

Her role in the novel is to make it clear that Betty Kane’s story is unfounded from the outset. She represents common sense. Such a strong and intimidating woman would not treat a young girl in the brutal manner of which she is accused. Mrs Sharpe’s steadfast dignity and denial provides the reader – and Robert Blair – with the certainty that Betty Kane is lying. This is older woman as moral authority.

A few other things about The Franchise Affair

An interesting feature of The Franchise Affair is the discussion reading a person’s character in their appearances. Their appearance and especially the eyes are claimed to indicate criminality. Marion tells Blair that Betty Kane’s eye colour indicates that the girl is over-sexed, a post war notion.

‘I have never known anyone – man or woman – with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy – it’s infallible.’(36)

And appearance means Josephine Tey can link criminality to genetic inheritance, another background theme in the novel.

But Josephine Tey’s novel relies on this emphasis to mislead the reader. Much of the power of Betty Kane comes from her innocent appearance. The forbidding appearance, on the other hand, of Mrs Sharpe hides a sharp intelligence, a warm heart and resilience.

216 J TeyThe novel also reflects the dominant social attitudes of the time, not just towards an older woman. Although the Sharpe women are independent they are not capable of resolving their own difficulties and a succession of men have to do this for them. It is the men, the solicitor, the barrister, the garage owner (and former army sergeant), the private detective who must help the women out. And they do. Even the man in the case doesn’t lie.

It is set post-war with some references to the war (air raids, experience in the armed forces for example) and is quintessentially English in a warm beer kind of way, despite Josephine Tey being from Scotland. She used a historical event, the deceptions of Elizabeth Canning from the 18th Century, as a basis for the story.

216 Fr Aff gr coverThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey first published in 1949. The copy used in this post was published by Arrow Books in 2009. 278pp

Related posts and book

The previous posts in the older women in fiction series can be found by clicking on the category or by going to the page called about the older women in fiction series.

Sarah Waters says that The Franchise Affair provided some inspiration for Little Stranger, which is also set in a dilapidated large country house in the post war period.

Josephine Tey has her own website:

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson was published in November 2015 by Sandstone Press. Jenny Morrison writes about her reclusive life in the Daily Record in October 2015.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

8 Responses to The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

  1. Eileen

    Excellent – just wanted to say quickly that I loved this book when I was at school. I think I must have felt trapped in the convent and imagined I was part of a mysterious kidnapping.
    I’ll respond to your post later when I have finished discussions with my two lovely co-authors,

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this. I dont see you as a Betty Kane figure, however trapped you felt! She was a lying, cheating dangerous girl. Hope your meeting went well!

  2. It is fantastic to read this. The Franchise Affair is one of my favourite books and I have often discussed its merits with my mother, who is eighty-nine and has recently re-read it for the umpteenth time. She is also of the generation who diagnose people as over-sexed by the intensity of the colour of their eyes – and also by whether or not they are ‘more bulbous than they should be’!
    I love this novel’s confident narrative style, which mirrors Mrs Sharpe’s staunch composure when confronted with Betty Kane’s story. She is admirable – I love her refusal to buckle under the pressure.
    Many thanks.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Joanna. It does seem to have a timeless attraction, this mystery. Its fame has outlasted the film, I think. I shall have to look at the eyes of the oversexed more closely if the idea is popular.
      I think you have ‘got’ Mrs Sharpe really clearly. Was it you who suggested this book for the series? I can’t now find any trace of who it was and I would like to thank them.

  3. Thank you for reminding me of this novel which has long been a favourite of mine as has the author. I particularly admire the understated way she represents big emotions and how she compares the developing attraction of one couple with the sordid activities of another.

    I hadn’t really seen the importance of Mrs Sharpe before but, of course, you are right. She is the steely backbone of the book – a woman who has faces misfortune and endure and is determined to do so even through the accusations of a young lier. You always feel that she thinks that her character and word should be enough and the fact that they aren’t might break her.

    I think that the most insightful thing about this book is the sudden realisation of the girl’s mother at the end that she can never trust anyone again – heartbreaking and a contrast to Mrs Sharpe who has found real support and people she can trust in during the difficult time.

    There’s a lot in this book (I also love “Brat Farrar” which is another one about misplaced trust)

    • Caroline

      Thank you for this. I like the insight into the different mothers and their relative position to being able to trust people. It’s quite a dark book in this respect. A don’t know Brat Farrar. I might give it a go.
      Thanks for the comment. Please come by again.

  4. Margaret Smith

    Find the concept that criticising Betty Kane is slut shaming and therefore unacceptable. This girl accuses two women one of whom is elderly of serious crimes, for which they might be imprisoned. Their home is destroyed because of her lies.

    She does this for no reason other than her own amusement and sexual gratification.

    Betty Kane is not a deprived orphan. She has a loving adopted home for which she apparently cares nothing.

    • Caroline

      I’m not quite sure what point you are making here. Are you suggesting that Betty Kane is an easy and stereotypical target for blame, a lazy novelist’s device? Or that Betty Kane is simply bad? Or What?

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