31 March, 2011

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. Book review

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.


Sarah Shaber said...

This is my favorite mystery.
It's often referred to as the greatest mystery ever written. I agree that Grant's solution isn't proven, but it is reasonable. Historians disagree on who killed the princes in the Tower, but some suggest Henry VII after he invaded England. This scenario assumes that the princes had been lodged in the Tower by King Richard III to protect them.

Annis said...

Great review, Carla - makes me want to hunt it out again myself. It's many years since I first read "Daughter of Time" - I think I found a copy on my grandparents' bookshelf, and I was very taken with it.

The image of the detective in hospital is also bringing back memories of the wonderful TV series "The Singing Detective" :)

I recently came across another older mystery featuring the "Princes in the Tower", which I enjoyed (though unfortunately I worked out the answer a bit too quickly). "Trail of Blood" was written by Jeremy Potter, for many years chairman and then president of the Richard III Society. I particularly liked his wry comment:

"Ever since their supposed murder the princes in the Tower have haunted English history. The question of Richard III's guilt has been debated for five hundred years. All I claim for my version of events is that it is as plausible as the one circulated by three earlier practitioners of the art of crime fiction: H.Tudor, T. More and W. Shakespeare."

Carla said...

Hello Sarah and welcome. I can see why this would be a favourite mystery! I thought it was excellent. Yes, Grant's solution is possible, although it raises the question of why there seem to be no records of the Princes having been seen between the summer of 1483 and Henry's invasion. Most Richard III solutions answer some questions and raise others! - which is why it remains such an enduringly fascinating mystery.

Annis - thank you! It's the sort of book that stands a re-read, because it has the quality of being just as absorbing even when you know the eventual solution. One of my tests for a good book :-) Many thanks for the mention of Trail of Blood; I haven't come across that, and will look out for it. I agree with the author's comment!

Rick said...

I think this is the only time I've seen The Daughter of Time actually discussed as a work of detective fiction, rather than purely in the context of whether Richard III did in the princes.

I haven't read it, but your review helps to explain its impact - a well written novel was enormously more effective than any treatise would have been.

(That said, I think Richard probably did it, or at any rate acquiesced in it, simply because in his position there were precious few options, and the princes did drop out of sight early in his reign.)

Carla said...

Rick - Really? That surprises me a bit. I found it a first-class read in its own right, independent of Inspector Grant's view of the solution. All the Richard III/Princes theories seem to me to solve part of the puzzle but not all of it (which I think is why it remains a Mystery with no definitive answer).

Rick said...

I imagine it's a matter of selection bias. The places I've seen it discussed were history forums, in the context of the Richard III debate. In a mystery fiction discussion the focus would have been more on the book itself.

(This is a 'history forum,' but you reviewed it as a novel, not just a segue to R III.)

Carla said...

That makes sense; a whodunit historical discussion would naturally gravitate to the Richard III aspect of the novel, and I guess would focus on the pros and cons of Grant's theory, yes?

I think of this as a history-and-books forum, with some posts on history and some posts on books (most of which have a history component, so as usual the two aspects aren't mutually exclusive).

Rick said...

The recipes, though, have no obvious connection with the other topics. :-)

Carla said...

Indeed so, and the same is true of the occasional photo posts. Those come under the "anything else that interests me" clause :-)

QueenMaryFan said...

It is years since I read this book -- but I remember it was suggested to me because I had the view of R3 as a villain.

I loved, loved this book and while I had stopped by English History (or started rather) at Henry VIII, I have developed a love for the Wars of the Roses - and of R3 in particular. So Tey started me on a whole new era of history...passion that continues to this day (just read a great trilogy on R3 by Anne Easter Smith).

Great, great book - I think Henry VII did it, myself.

Carla said...

Hello QueenMaryFan, and welcome. I thought this was a terrific book; I can see why it's a classic. No wonder it started you on a whole period of history! Have you read Sharon Penman's Sunne in Splendour and Reay Tannahill's The Seventh Son? Both of those have yet other solutions to the mystery :-)