First published 1951. Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2002, ISBN 0-09-943096-7. 220 pages.
The Daughter of Time is a historical mystery set in 1950s England. All the main characters are fictional but the mystery they are attempting to solve is a real one, the disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ during the reign of Richard III in 1483.
Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard is laid up in hospital with a broken leg. Bored by the predictable reading material proffered by well-meaning friends, he becomes interested in studying historical portraits. One in particular captures his imagination; he thinks the face should belong to a judge or a statesman, and is astonished to find that it is a portrait of Richard III, whom he vaguely remembers from history and Shakespeare as the archetypal wicked villain. Puzzled that the face in the portrait looks so different from his expectations, Grant enlists the aid of his friends and the hospital staff to investigate Richard’s career and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his young nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Did Richard III really have them murdered as Grant’s history lessons said, or can the evidence bear some other interpretation – and point to some other culprit?
This is an unusual and ingenious historical mystery, and I found it a delight from beginning to end. It would earn a place in my heart just for Grant’s splendidly dyspeptic opinion of production-line romances, thrillers and gloomy literary fiction:
“The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. […] The rain dripped from the thatch and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas 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, he would have used it.”This passage appears on the second page and sold me straight away. The rest of the writing lives up to the initial promise, crisp, elegant and compact with not a word wasted. The contemporary characters are sketched in with a few bold brush-strokes that bring them vividly to life as individuals with their own quirks and foibles: the soppy nurse; the brisk nurse; flamboyant Marta, for whom the word ‘actressy’ could have been invented; the rather vague student who is suddenly galvanised when Grant’s investigation catches his interest.
Like The House on the Strand (reviewed earlier), although a very different novel, The Daughter of Time captures the thrill of pursuing an intellectual puzzle and the satisfaction that comes from tracking down an elusive fact. Grant becomes so absorbed in each new scrap of evidence that he quite forgets the discomforts of his injury and the frustrations of confinement. Don’t look for action – the entire novel takes place in Grant’s hospital room, with assorted friends bringing him books and snippets of information. This is a chase purely of the mind, but no less gripping for that. I would hazard a guess that anyone who has pursued a tricky question through obscure historical sources will recognise Grant’s quest.
The Daughter of Time uses Grant’s investigation of Richard III to explore the processes by which actual events get turned into simplified and widely accepted narratives of history, which then take on a life of their own and become highly resistant to question. Grant complains that people do not like having their preconceptions challenged, and then promptly proceeds to demonstrate it himself by taking comical personal offence at his discovery that Thomas More was not a contemporary biographer of Richard III as he had previously believed. For me, this is one of the key strengths of the novel. It reminds the reader, in dramatised form, that many of the things we think we know as ‘fact’ are probably nothing of the kind. Critical thinking and assessment of evidence are vital in history – as in many other fields of study – and while interpretation may be necessary to make sense of an incomplete set of evidence, one should always keep in mind the distinction and be prepared to consider alternative interpretations. The Daughter of Time can be read as an enjoyable case study of that principle.
Although Inspector Grant is convinced that he has solved the mystery and exonerated Richard III, I would suggest that readers who are interested in the history of Richard III’s reign exercise caution before swallowing the (fictional) Inspector’s conclusions whole. The reason that the mystery of the princes’ fate still qualifies as a Mystery is because the definitive answer is not known with certainty and the limited evidence can support more than one interpretation, all of which answer some questions and raise new ones. I agree with Grant that the case against Richard III is far from proven; I part company in that I don’t think Grant’s alternative solution is proven either.
Ingenious, stimulating historical mystery with a sharp point to make about the importance of critical thinking, told in lively and economical prose with a varied cast of characters. Deservedly a classic.