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The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

09 May

Edison single-handedly discovered electricity. Paul Revere made a midnight ride to warn village folk that the British were approaching. Of course, Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America. Richard III had his two young nephews killed off in the Tower of London. These are some “the sky is blue, grass is green” basic truths of history.

Well, the sky does, often, appear blue, and grass is, under certain conditions, green. As for the rest … Tonypandy, I say.

No one ever said “Beam me up, Scotty” or “Play it again, Sam” in the original presumed sources for these lines. It’s faulty collective memory – a strange alchemic reaction wherein reality is distorted.

It’s very unsettling to begin to realize how dependent we are on the information handed to us, and what it means when that is not reliable. It’s a bit like when I realized as a teenager how full of shorthand medical dramas are, and how slippery real-life identification of disease can be: in many cases there’s no such thing as a completely certain diagnosis. The layman has learned as a schoolchild that certain things are so, and certain sources – teachers, and the books they use – are unimpeachable, and usually doesn’t have time, inclination, or resources to research beyond what was learned in school. Edison and Paul Revere and Betsy Ross and Richard III – clear-cut, unquestioned and unquestionable. The Bible is another avenue I could, but won’t, explore here, the vast differences between translation and original text which have led to (perhaps appropriately) God knows how much trauma; Thomas Hoving has been instrumental in revealing to me how what you think you know about art may be just plain wrong, and what you think you’re seeing may not be what you are seeing, and authorship is almost always just a little bit in doubt. The facts are less often facts than I find altogether comfortable. Look at the whole “Shakespeare-isn’t” kerfuffle.

No, wait – don’t.

I don’t know much about how The Daughter of Time came to be written; in my imagination at least Tey came across inconsistencies as Gordon Daviot researched Richard of Bordeaux and she couldn’t resist digging further. And then she couldn’t resist presenting her startling findings, not in a scholarly paper for an audience she might have been less interested in but in a gorgeous novel for an audience she knew pretty well.

It takes a shocking amount of skill to be able to write a book about a man lying in bed looking at a portrait and reading books and talking to people who come to see him and make it as absorbing as this. Because the only
setting we the readers ever see is Alan Grant’s hospital room – except, of course, for the times we follow him into the fifteenth century to explore Richard’s milieu. The characterizations combined with near-perfect writing carry the day. Marta Hallard, returning from the brief, not altogether flattering appearance she made in The Man in the Queue, is magnificently self-absorbed, with a sort of self-reflective fondness for Alan which is more than an appreciation for how he looks on her arm – but not so very much more. Williams the ever-faithful makes his staunch presence known, and is as unstereotypical as always. The two nurses in and out of Alan’s room, The Midget and the Amazon, are wonderful character sketches. And I love the Woolly Lamb – which little joke was played perfectly. The at-that-moment-inside joke was tossed out and left to hang in the air until Brent Carradine walked in the room, at which moment Marta’s half-comment fell shimmering around him. That, my friends, is how to pull off a classy gag in a novel. I do love Josephine Tey.

Alan himself is wonderfully well drawn, especially considering how little he actually appears in the books. Of just eight currently available books (there are more, which I will get my hands on somehow), he appears in six; of those six his role is tiny in one and far less prominent than, for example, Lord Peter in two or three of the others. And yet had you asked me before I reread the books I would have said he was on every page. He is not a “typical” detective, by any definition. Other mystery series heroes are of sensitive natures – there are poets in the oeuvre – but other than Lord Peter I can’t think of another drawn in such strong but delicate lines. He is not simply businesslike about his business; like Peter, he sees the people he tracks down as people, and viewing them as such is able to consider the possibility of innocence even where it’s improbable. And – like Peter – there is with the sensitivity and the high intelligence a fragility to him: his nature can – and will, in a later book – fight against itself. In this book the possibility is touched on. If Marta Hallard had not, with a perceptiveness and thoughtfulness often buried in the superficial layers of diva-ness, brought a packet of portraits to Alan’s bedside, we can see that the depression and boredom might have gotten the better of him. He is not a man who abides idleness, and, perhaps, not a man completely comfortable in his own unrelieved company.

The book I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not … , which overturns a great many school-bred misconceptions about American history, had less power to shock me when I read it long ago than it might have had I not read The Daughter of Time first. Josephine Tey had already opened my eyes to the vagaries of history and historians, and demonstrated how the accounts of the past which I had been taught and had faith in as solid ground might in fact be the thin layer of shallow-rooted grass that covers a quaking bog. Paul Revere did not, in fact, ride, or at least not alone and not the whole distance – and Richard III, famous (in no small part
thanks to Shakespeare) as the monstrous hunchbacked infanticide, was neither hunchbacked nor a baby-killer.

It’s all prime, grade-A, thorough-going Tonypandy.

At least if Paul Revere did not in point of fact ride as he is thought to have there is no terrible slander being done in the perpetuation of the story that he did, except in the diminishment (or elimination) of the roles of Dr. Samuel Prescott (who did complete the ride) and William Dawes (who got lost).

Brent Carradine, the young scholar who comes to Alan Grant’s aid in the novel, is outraged to discover the lies that have been perpetuated through the centuries, and enters into the quest for the truth with the zeal of the righteous. But he, too, had already had the scales knocked from his eyes by the facts behind another well-known mythos. The outrage and shock which the two men experience as they realize just how far from the truth the history books have strayed is in a way just the beginning: if this is wrong, how do we know what’s right? History is written by the victors of any given conflict, and once it’s down in paper and textbooks centuries of protests and refutations are not enough to bring the actual facts to light.

To wit: Richard III seems to have been a pretty great guy.

Had I world enough and time, I would love to trace the origins for the perceptual filters on Richard. Part of Shakespeare’s slant was to please Queen Elizabeth, perhaps – a usurper can’t be shown as a good ruler. Part may have been to skewer Cecil, who was a black-clad hunchback just as Richard is, and who hated theatre. There have been several attempts to rehabilitate how Richard is perceived, but none – including Tey’s – have caught. (People still insist on saying “Play it again, Sam”, too, no matter how often the incorrectness is pointed out.)

There are some wonderful self-referential moments in the book, one of which goes a ways toward explaining where this book came from in the first place and the other, perhaps, meant as a commentary on the work. Josephine Tey, you see, was Elizabeth Mackintosh, also known as Gordon Daviot, and as Daviot she was a well-known playwright. And probably her best-known play was Richard of Bordeaux. And Alan Grant is a fan.

…The direct line was broken by the deposition of Richard II. He knew all about that because he had in his youth seen Richard of Bordeaux at the New Theatre; four times he had seen it.

and

Marta: “After practically promising me that she would write it! After all our get-together and my plans for when this endless thing finally comes to an end. I had even talked to Jacques about clothes! And now she decides that she must write one of her awful little detective stories. She says she must write it while it is fresh – whatever it is.”
…The fifteenth century was more actual to him than any ongoings in Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I don’t suppose it will take her long to write her detective book,” he said comfortingly.
“Oh, no. She does them in six weeks or so….”

Six weeks. *sigh*

I wonder if Tey’s contemporary audiences recognized the inside jokes in that.

I’ve read The Daughter of Time at least twice in my life, and it doesn’t pall. If there is any sort of pattern to Josephine Tey’s books, it is only that they’re extraordinary, and never do the expected. In this, the man who has been in several other books the detective who investigates is flat on his back, and incredibly bored. The detailing of his boredom alone is worth everything: he’s desperate, and the well-meaning attempts of his visitors to date have been miserable failures. It’s wonderful.

The Daughter of Time is a beautifully written, fascinating, just plain fun illustration of, on one hand, a man who handles boredom about as well as Sherlock Holmes but happily takes a different route to quell it. On another hand it is an apparently clear and incisive study of the facts of history and Richard, and a compelling case for his innocence. And on a third it is a disconcerting reminder that Wikipedia is far from the only unreliable data source in the world. Fourth, and certainly not least?

It’s a truly great book.

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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in books, mystery

 

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2 responses to “The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

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