Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

Because if you can use something that’s happened in the news as an excuse for a reread, you should.

Column as it appears in the paper here, or reproduced below.

 

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Perhaps it’s because England is a small-ish country, but it does seem to bury its significant historical figures in awkward places. There have been rumours for years that Queen Boudica is buried between Platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station in London (possibly Platform 9 ¾ then). And yesterday the bones dug out from under a Leicester parking lot were declared to be “beyond reasonable doubt” the remains of King Richard III.

As far as he has registered at all, Richard III has always featured in my head as associated with things he did not do—he probably did not, as Shakespeare would have us believe, cry out “my kingdom for a horse”. Nor did he, as Josephine Tey (among others) vehemently insists, murder his two nephews in order to seize the throne of England.

Tey’s 1951 nove, The Daughter of Time is a detective story, if it is an unusual one. At the beginning of the novel Alan Grant, a police inspector, is in hospital and thoroughly bored. A friend who knows him well brings him a stack of portraits of famous historical figures, all of whom have some sort of mystery attached to them. Grant has a particular interest in human faces and when he sees the portrait of Richard III has trouble reconciling the monster from the history books with this rather nice looking man. Intrigued, he commences an investigation into the past, demanding that his various visitors supply him with as much information as is available about the former king.

It’s a terrible cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but it’s one most of us know to be true. The Daughter of Time is an exploration into the ways in which history is constructed. In Tey’s hands every piece of evidence against Richard III becomes circumstantial or illogical—he becomes a gentle, benevolent, family-minded individual whose reputation has been unfairly savaged by the Tudors and their pet historians. With the help of an underemployed American researcher Grant soon constructs a new theory, according to which the nephews were illegitimate anyway, and no threat to Richard himself. The real villain of the piece, Tey implies, is Henry VI.

How far any of this is the truth is open to debate. There exists a long tradition of scholarship, going back centuries, that denies Richard’s role in the murder of his nephews. Most of us are unlikely to access the original historical sources for ourselves, and even if we did the evidence appears to be inconclusive. But for the duration of The Daughter of Time, it all feels convincing. All this despite the fact that Grant’s methods are somewhat dubious, beginning with his conviction that a man who looked like Richard III simply cannot have committed the crime of which he is accused. Physiognomy (judging people’s characters by their physical features) as a concept was certainly out of date by the time the book was written, and personally I’d feel very uncomfortable with a criminal justice system whose enforcers took it seriously.

Even if it’s all true, the novel cites a number of instances of attractive lies that flourish, even when those involved know them to be false (though it’s hard not to notice that all those Tey cites involve powerful people being unfairly blamed for atrocities against the comparatively powerless). Even if Grant’s enthusiastic scholar friend publishes his book on the subject there’s no reason to think he’ll change the general perception of the incident.

The existence of this proposed book is a nice nod to the fictionality of Tey’s own, since young Carradine plans to write the investigation as the story of Grant’s boredom. Earlier in the book, Tey has Grant refer to a play she herself wrote under another name.

In one instance at least the recent findings have proved Grant wrong—Richard did indeed suffer from scoliosis. For the rest, we’ll probably never know, and most of us won’t really care. Except for the duration of this novel, when it is suddenly of vital importance.

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