Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery that a skeleton buried under what is now a parking lot near Leicester England is the skeleton of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch of England was very exciting news for those of us who love history and archaeology.   It also made me think of Josephine Tey's novel, The Daughter of Time, which I read many years ago.  So I dug it out and read it again, in honor of the finding of Richard.

I'm not a British historian and I have no dog in the fight about the true nature of Richard - monster or good man?  Murderer of his own nephews or scapegoat for Henry VII?  I leave the arguments to those who spend their time reading about that period.

But what I do know is that history is written by the winners and even if winners don't intend to skew history in their favor, they inevitably do if only because they have more access to their own "facts" than to the other side's "facts".  I also know that history in textbooks is never as interesting as history that you "discover" for yourself.  That is why I am enjoying delving into North American French colonial history, which is not taught to us in school except at the most basic level.

In the years since I last read this novel, I had forgotten most of the arguments Tey made for why Richard was not a monster.  I had also forgotten what a good writer Tey was.   And how witty.  In this novel, her regularly appearing Scotland Yard detective, Adam Grant, is laid up in hospital after falling through a trap door.  I'm assuming he is in some kind of traction, but in any event he is required to be flat on his back for a very long time.  He is bored. Very bored.  But he cannot bring himself to read any of the books that well meaning friends have brought him. 

Tey spends a couple of pages describing these novels and I was struck by both her wit and by how much life has not changed in over sixty years of publishing:

Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it.  The public talked about "a new Silas Weekley" or "a new Lavinia Fitch" exactly as they talked about "a new brick" or "a new hairbrush."  They never said "a new book by" whoever it might be.  Their interest was not in the book but in its newness.  They knew quite well what the book would be like.
Tey published this novel in 1951, at the beginning of the Cold War.  Although the subject that begins the discussion of truth-in-history is Richard III, Tey spends some time pointing out that even in modern times stories are circulated that the public accepts as true even though there are many people alive who know for a fact that the stories aren't true.  The American researcher assisting Grant talks about the true story of the Boston "Massacre" and Grant tells him about an incident that allegedly took place in Tonypandy Wales that never really happened.  The term "Tonypandy" becomes their code for accepted history that turns out to be myth.

If I was a professor trying to make students understand the importance of research into "minutia" I would have them read Tey's novel.   As a lawyer I've understood for year's that eyewitness accounts are inherently unreliable.  What most people think of as "circumstantial" evidence can be much more reliable.  Tey understands that too.

Give me research.  After all, the truth of anything at all doesn't lie in anyone's account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper. The sale of a house.  The price of a ring.

Tey's Detective Grant grows disgusted with historians who report only on what someone said happened without wondering about the likelihood of something happening or not happening.  Grant asks where human nature comes into things.  He wonders if the Queen Dowager, the mother of the two boys who are allegedly murdered by Richard, could actually bring herself to be in the court of the man who murdered her sons, accepting a pension from him and having her daughters attend court functions?

But the thing is ... maybe she could.  Maybe she was that kind of woman.  Tey does a good job making the case for Richard but, as a lawyer, I know that with the ambiguity in the story I could argue either side with a straight face.   But I do like that Tey puts the argument out there and shows the average reader that history is messy, the interest lies in the gray areas and sometimes it just isn't going to be possible to know for certain exactly what happened. 

As I finished the novel, I recalled that Richard made an appearance in Dorothy Dunnett's final novel in the House of Niccolo series, Gemini.   King Edward is still on the throne of England and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is in the north on the Scottish border, part of an invasion force.  Since the point of view of the novel is Scottish, not much time is spent on the English characters.  I don't think it was technically necessary for the story to have Nicolas specifically meet Richard, but it must have been too tempting for Dunnett.  Here she has this complicated historical figure, Richard, right there on the Scottish border, how could she not have him at least meet her very complicated creation, Nicolas.

Gemini is the only Dunnett novel that I've only read once and I couldn't remember exactly how Dunnett came down on Richard's character.  I did recall that he wasn't a major character, he simply appears in the story at a key point.  So, I dug out my copy of Gemini to see how Dunnett made Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the future king, come to life. 

[Nicolas] had never met Gloucester, but was prepared for the black hair, the jagged profile, the uneven shoulders.  His voice was charming and so were his clothes:  a soft brocade robe over a fine shirt, doublet and hose.  There was a brooch in his hat. 
Dunnett refers to Richard as "Dickon Gloucester" and I wonder if there is historical precedence for that or if she just realizes that most people probably didn't call him by his full name any more than people today named Richard are called that by their friends.

Dunnett gives Nicolas two audiences with Gloucester and both are in relatively formal settings.  In the second, Gloucester gives Nicolas some unexpected and, to Nicolas, shocking, information.  "His voice was solicitous, but his eyes hinted at a wicked amusement ... He smiled.  Nicolas could not bring himself to smile back."

And that's pretty much all we get from Dunnett about Richard.  There is no meeting of the minds between Nicolas and Richard but they do speak as intellectual equals which generally means that Dunnett had some respect for the historical personage.  In the entire encounter she seems to have decided to treat Richard as pragmatic and intelligent, which by all accounts he was. It is also made clear that Nicolas expects him to be ruthless but is not shocked by that understanding.  There is nothing in these encounters to give us a clue as to whether or not Dunnett believed he would eventually murder his nephews, but she creates him as a character who was the kind of man who could have done it.

Since this comports pretty much with how I view Richard, I was satisfied with my re-reading.