Friday, October 20, 2017

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Ahahahahaha! You didn't think we were going to slog all the way through Shakespeare's history plays right up to Richard III, and not follow it up with The Daughter of Time, did you?

Because we totally are.

Twelve years ago, I'd never heard of this book in my life - nor, for that matter, of its author. Then a lady at church produced this book. I gulped it down in one sitting that very afternoon. By the time I ran out of book, I had not run out of afternoon, and I was filled with a burning sense of historical injustice. I wanted to take some long-misunderstood historical figure and vindicate them so thoroughly that nobody would ever forget it.

Why exactly I picked Queen Guinevere, I'll never know. It's not like she was actually historical. But did it stop Teen Me? Nah! Six days later, I had the first draft of what would later become Pendragon's Heir written. It's still the fastest I've ever written anything in my life, and it came out of me in a white-hot streak purely as a result of Josephine Tey and The Daughter of Time.

As I picked the book up a second time last week, I wondered if the old magic would have dissipated - or whether I'd be waking from a creative daze a week from now to discover that I had inadvertently written another book.

The Daughter of Time is a detective story. Inspector Alan Grant is recovering in hospital from a broken leg sustained in the course of chasing a criminal around London, and is slowly going crazy from boredom. Just in time, his actress friend Marta Shearing turns up to suggest he use the time to reopen a cold case...a very cold case, some historical mystery that has never been fully explained. Grant turns up his nose at Mary Stuart's Casket Letters and also at the Man in the Iron Mask, but then Marta sends him a sheaf of pictures of historical personages. Grant finds himself captivated by one particular portrait, a Renaissance gentleman with the wise and weary face of a judge.

When he turns the picture over, he's shocked to discover that the man is Richard III, English history's most notorious murderer until Jack the Ripper. Fascinated despite himself, Grant is sucked deeper and deeper into an investigation of the facts concerning Richard's short but able life. Did Richard really usurp the throne? Did he murder his nephews in the Tower of London? What does the circumstantial evidence indicate?

This book was every bit as good the second time around, and almost as irresistibly inspiring (thank goodness that there are a few juicy unsolved mysteries in Crusader history, and I don't have to go looking for more). By now, almost seventy years after it was written, The Daughter of Time is recognised as one of the great detective stories of all time, and must have created thousands of passionate Ricardians (or so Richard III's current-day apologists are called). And yet, it somehow does this while defying a whole heap of tested story conventions. The stakes, for instance, are low to nonexistent. There are no villains lurking in the corners of Inspector Grant's hospital room, and he'll suffer no more than a slight injury to his pride if he fails to vindicate Richard. The case is cold, and I don't believe the scene ever shifts out of Grant's hospital room, where he lies in bed looking at books and his ceiling and having conversations with occasional visitors. It's not what you'd expect to form the raw material of a gripping detective yarn. And if Josephine Tey was such an avid Ricardian, you'd expect her to write a weighty non-fiction tome instead of trying to shoehorn all the evidence and scholarly debate into a light detective novel.

And yet she does it.

Partly it's her sophisticated and witty authorial voice. Within the first couple of chapters, Tey lampoons a whole stack of genre and literary fiction in terms that will have you giggling out loud. Partly it's her deft understanding of plot. She doesn't just give her hero a mystery to solve, she constructs the mystery out of the historical facts, complete with twists and turns. Christopher Nolan defines story as "a controlled release of information", and that's what Tey does here. With consummate skill, she has distilled her historical argument into a series of nicely-weighed and controlled factual revelations. She takes the skeptical reader on a journey of discovery along with her hero, and it's wonderfully compelling.

Most of all, too, it's Tey's evident passion for this subject. I've read a couple of her other novels, and none of them seemed to measure up to this one (though Brat Farrar is fun). History is clearly something she was very serious about, and in this story she's avidly debating a subject she loves. The Daughter of Time is full of crusading fervour, and this is a big part of what makes it so irresistible.

It was interesting re-reading this book after becoming much more serious about history, myself. While the main focus of the book is on vindicating Richard III as a good man and a good king, Tey has a bigger point to make in this book: that history can be, and often is, completely fabricated from half-truth, exaggeration, and sometimes downright lies. While I wouldn't agree with all her perspectives on history (I think it's quite possible that the Covenanters were both political rebels and martyrs to their faith at one and the same moment, for example), this is clearly the truth. If you think "revisionist history" is innately a dirty concept, then you should definitely read this book for an excellent example of what revisionism should really be about.

Does Tey successfully vindicate Richard? Well, the debate continues to rage. Nobody denies that Richard III was a supremely competent and brave man (not even Shakespeare), and there are a couple of strong counterarguments that Tey fails to address in her novel, including some that have come to light with more recent research. But Tey does provide good reasons to preserve an open mind.

In The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey has done an excellent job of marshalling and presenting a historical argument within the medium of fiction. No textbook or peer-reviewed scholarly article would have done so much to rehabilitate Richard III, travelled so far, or produced such passion in so many people. There's definitely a place for historical non-fiction, but The Daughter of Time is a wonderfully inspiring example of the power of fiction.

And, it's a wonderful, original, gripping detective story. You can't go wrong reading this book!

Find The Daughter of Time on Amazon or The Book Depository.

6 comments:

Mac n' Janet said...

One of my all time favorite books, but then I've been a Ricardian since reading Thomas B. Costain's Plantagenet series.

Mac n' Janet said...

One of my all time favorite books, but then I've been a Ricardian since reading Thomas B. Costain's Plantagenet series.

Melanie said...

Guinevera casta vera :)

Marty said...

I first read The daughter of Time as a school set book, many years ago.I was the only one in the class who had enjoyed it !

Joy said...

I have had this book on my shelf, unread for ages. Time to get it cracking I say!

Suzannah said...

Mac/Janet, thanks for the recommendation! After spending so much time reading about these people via Shakespeare and Tey I'm on the lookout for a few more books set in this time period :)

Melanie, indeed!

Marty, I can't believe you were the only one that enjoyed this book! I loved it both times.

Joy, I think you'll love it! It's very far from being the last word on Richard III from a historian's point of view, but it's a wonderful story!

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