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Making the past sing a relevant song

It has been a real delight to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time again, as part of Kaggsy’s bookish rambling’s ‘1951 club’ I came across this first in my teens and it was one of those books which stayed with me, as one of my favourite books in the genre ‘Crime Fiction’ Probably because it wasn’t about fictional crime at all (but more, later) – I had a kind of squeam about loving descriptions of bludgeonings and hackings – but was about a historical mystery – so it might be, (it is!) educational as well as entertaining

Tey, a jolly good writer of mysteries and detection, fascinated by psychology, and not dwelling overmuch in bloody gore, uses the crime fiction genre to deconstruct a historical villain – or, at least, one who has come down to us as villain – Richard III. The one who had the innocent lamb sons of his brother, Edward IV, brutally done to death in the Tower. The vile and hunchbacked monster so memorably portrayed by Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s play of the same name:

Now is the win-ter of our dis-con-tent
Made glorious sum-mer by this son of York

There continues a soliloquy full of great self-loathing, bitterness and grimness, giving the psychology in a nutshell which will let the audience know the man is a monster and will be prepared for the most heinous of misdeeds

Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determin-ed to prove a villain.

Earliest surviving portrait, circa 1520, copy of a previous

Shakespeare, of course, our wonderful Shakespeare, was living in Tudor times, Specifically, Elizabethan. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, bluff King Hal, wife murderer, son of Henry VIIth, first Tudor, the one who had killed the vile Richard in 1485 ‘ ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse……..’ at the battle of Bosworth. Henry VII, saviour we are told, ended the ruination of The Wars of The Roses, uniting the Yorkists (of whose number Richard was) and the Lancastrians (of whom Henry was a distant claimant to be king) by marrying the lambkin princes’ sister Elizabeth. Hurrah, rescuing us all from the wicked Uncle Richard, who had murdered his nephews.

Except – Shakespeare takes his history from Holinshed, who takes his history from the sainted Sir Thomas More. Who lived through these times…….except, he was 5 when Richard came to the throne, and 8 when he died. Thomas More was a Tudor made man. And history, as we know, is written by the victors.

Interestingly the Shakespeare ‘I am a nasty piece of work’ opening soliloquy suggests prematurity

                                               sent before my time Into this breathing world

yet the equal and opposite ‘man was a monster’ myth was that his mother, Cecily Neville has been pregnant with him for 2 years and he was born with a full head of black hair and a mouth full of teeth!

Re-reading this marvellously entertainingly presented history lesson this time, forcefully struck me by its topicality. Tey does not just look at the creation of ‘false news’ in Richard’s time – or, to be more honest, in Henry’s time, but scattered through these pages is evidence of a lot more ‘false news’ some of it twentieth century, and always produced for political/power capital

She uses a great device here – her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is laid up in bed, flat on his back – for weeks – in hospital, following a severely broken leg, falling through a trap-door, chasing a villain.

This inevitably made me laugh a little wryly. This book was published in 1951. The NHS would have been very young. And perhaps Inspector Grant was quite unusual and maybe of some means. Laid up for weeks in hospital? In a private room? How times have probably changed. I doubt most Inspectors or most anyone would either find private insurance schemes keeping them in bed in a single room for some weeks. Okay, medicine has also moved on and perhaps a badly broken leg is otherwise more speedily mended

Alan Grant does, however, move amongst the cultured great and good, as a good friend is a celebrity West End actress, much admired, who visits him in hospital. Seeking to relieve his grumpy boredom, and knowing his interest in faces, she picks up a job lot of historical portrait photos from another good chum who works fairly high-up at the V + A. One of the portraits is of Richard, and Grant becomes fascinated by the mismatch between the historical monster and his face (mind you, the best known portrait was also painted around 100 years after his death!)

Tey slides in the historical information as Grant investigates (with a tame American researcher who looks like a woolly lamb) in a very easy to assimilate fashion, by the introduction of memorable well drawn secondary characters, including the hospital staff, with whom Grant can be ‘undry’

And the reader (well this one) becomes as eager to unravel a historical mystery as Grant.

Of course, it turns out that the theory Tey is proposing is not (and was not) a new one, at the time of her writing, but she probably did a lot to begin to rescue Richard’s reputation, because she was a popular crime fiction writer.

There have been, since, other historical writers – Alison Weir for one, – who challenge the conclusions Tey makes, many of which came from a 1906 book by Clements Markham.

I wonder how many people became fascinated by history, due to an early exposure to Tey’s book.

The writer herself was born Elizabeth Mackintosh and died in 1952 She had two pen names, Josephine Tey, as here, and as the playwright Gordon Daviot

This book has achieved enduring popularity, voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association, in 1990, and, in a 1995 American Poll of The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America it held the 4th position

The recent discovery of the skeleton buried under a Leicester car park, identified as Richard’s from mitochondrial DNA analysis comparison with a sample analysed from that of a known descendant ,  shows that Richard was not a hunchback (probable Tudor paint-the-monster invention). He did have scoliosis, a fairly common twisting of the spine away from a perfect perpendicular, but this would not (given the degree of it) been visible from observation of the clothed person

I can see how this book would particularly appeal to late teens and twenties readers, who often have a strong sense of the wrongs of injustice, as the whole search for ‘the truth’ by Grant, and his woolly lamb American researcher Brent Carradine, is ‘un-dry’ precisely because of the passionate intensity to right a wrong.

The Daughter of Time Amazon UK
The Daughter of Time Amazon USA