Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Source of book: My wife owns this.

“Truth is the daughter of time.” ~ Old proverb

William Shakespeare committed at least one great slander during his illustrious career. The victim was Macbeth, who could hardly be called a villain according to the standards of his time. Far from murdering good king Duncan in his sleep, he defeated and killed him on the field of battle after Duncan invaded his territory. Also, Duncan was quite young, not the old, benevolent man portrayed in the Scottish Play.

In this book, Josephine Tey uses the vehicle of fiction - a murder mystery - to make her claim that Shakespeare also slandered a second victim: Richard III. Whether she succeeds depends on one’s belief about the fate of the princes in the tower, of course. Winston Churchill was not convinced by Tey’s book (he made a dismissive remark about it) nor by Horace Walpole’s more scholarly work. Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, considered it one of the most important books ever written. Your mileage may vary. More about the controversy below.

The Daughter of Time was the last work published during Tey’s lifetime, and was written near the end of her life. It features Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant, who is featured in several of her other books. Grant is recuperating from a broken leg in a rather dismal hospital, and decides to tackle the question of the fate of the princes as a diversion from his boredom. To this end, he enlists the help of a young American researcher, Brent Carradine, who assist him in locating primary sources. 

Richard III

As Grant quickly discovers, the very concept of “objective” history was hardly even considered back in the era of Richard III. History was primarily the propaganda of the victors to ensure their continued grip on power - and life for that matter. After all, as Henry IV would say in his own Shakespeare play, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” That head could easily be removed by a rival, and public opinion could be a fickle support to rely on.

The primary histories of the reign of Richard III were written by the historians of the Tudors, the first of which was none other than Henry VII, who defeated Richard and took his place on the throne. Thus, they naturally portrayed Richard as evil, and the Tudors as good. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote his play - and most of his others - during the reign of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors. Since he wished to keep his head firmly attached to his neck, he had to, shall we say, walk a fine line. This consideration also played into his portrayal of Macbeth and his associates - particularly the character of Banquo, who was an ancestor of James I, the ruler at the time of the Scottish Play’s writing.

Even now, history tends to be written by the victors, and it is only recently that historians have tried to see the other side, written by the victims, the downtrodden, and the powerless.

In Tey’s book, Grant comes to the conclusion that Richard was innocent of the murders of the princes, and posits that another person with weaker rival claims was the guilty party.

A significant portion of the argument centers around motive. Would Richard have significantly benefited from a secret murder? Would someone else have benefited more? This is the strongest part of the argument, particularly when combined with the way that Henry VII - and even more so, his son Henry VIII - ruthlessly eliminated all rivals.

From my point of view, the one thing that Tey does extraordinarily well in this book is point out the way that events are manipulated for political purposes. Alan Grant dwells extensively on the Tonypandy Riots, which were spun to achieve a particular objective, in direct contradiction to the actual facts. He eventually coins the term “Tonypandy” to describe any mythological spinning of an event. It would be highly useful if we could get this term admitted into the general vernacular. Anyone want to join me in this cause?

The other event that gets a good mention is the so-called “Boston Massacre,” a similarly mythologized event in our nation’s history. It was, as any serious student of history knows, absolutely nothing approaching a massacre. Furthermore, it was started by an insult to a soldier, and was substantially escalated by the colonists, already incensed about political grievances.

Let’s just say, to draw a modern political analogy, that had the incident occurred, say, in Ferguson, there would have likely been far more bodies - and it would have been largely agreed that the killings were justified. Seriously, read the account and think how it would go down today.

It was a bit of an aside within the book, but I thought it was a particularly compelling passage, in which Grant notes that a lot of the “martyrs” of the Covenanter movement in Scotland in the 1600s were better described as common criminals - or even as we might define them today, mobsters. No doubt, there have been plenty of genuine martyrs in history. Even today, one could certainly place the victims of ISIS in this category. But there are plenty of others who became “martyrs” more for a political cause than for a genuine moral one. A good way to tell is whether the “victim” would afford freedom to others who believed differently, something the Covenanters - and other religious movements of the time, such as the Puritans - were unwilling to grant to others. The claim that religious “freedom” included the right to slaughter or at least oppress those who believed differently was endemic to the time - and has never really gone away

A few other things that are worth mentioning from this book:

I don’t think Tey much liked hospitals. Not that I do, despite the fact that my wife practices her profession at one. A great line is, “[I]n hospitals symmetry ranked just a short head behind cleanliness and a whole length ahead of Godliness. Anything out of the parallel was hospital profanity.”

Also good was the description of “The Midget,” Grant’s moniker for the small nurse who was one of his attendants. She reminded me a bit of my own favorite nurse, the lovely (and crazy strong) Amanda. “The Midget” was a mere five foot two inches, but “She tossed the mattresses around with the absent minded grace of a plate spinner.” My own wife is barely bigger than that, but she routinely turns 400+ pound patients. (True story: before I asked her out, she helped me move an old refrigerator out of my kitchen to the curb. Don’t mess with her…)

Tey also writes a terrific send-up of genre fiction. With the exception of the murder mystery - my weakness - I have a low tolerance for pulp genre fiction, so I heartily agreed with Grant’s snarky dismissal of these books.

The top one, with the pretty picture of Valetta in unlikely pink, was Lavinia Fitch’s annual account of a blameless heroine’s tribulations. In view of the representation of the Grand Harbour on the cover, the present Valerie or Angela or Cicile or Denise must be a naval wife


The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his night downstairs, eldest son lying to the government in the cow-shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silans never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it.

That makes me laugh every time I read it.

Tey’s ultimate argument may or may not be convincing. There is evidence that she does not bring into the book - and may well have not been aware of when she wrote it - that goes against her thesis. But she does write a good story, and makes a remarkably strong claim.

So, when did the princes in the tower permanently disappear? And who killed them? Was it Richard, the last of the Plantagenets? Or was the whole tale a concoction of the Tudors? Read it and decide for yourself.

Note on Richard III:

If you haven’t read - or better yet, seen live - this play, I highly recommend it. A number of years ago, my wife and I saw this at Bakersfield College, with the title role played by professor Randall Messick. Amanda took a few Shakespeare classes from him while in school, and he is always a pleasure to watch. He was delightfully lugubrious in this role. (I also remember him being memorable as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet.)

My favorite line from the play is this one, spoken by Richard as he plots to destroy his rivals and justify it as moral.

But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Thus have all villains done since the dawn of time.

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