‘The Daughter Of Time’ by Josephine Tey – history isn’t the stories we learned at school.

I re-read Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ as part of a buddy read on BookLikes, so I shared my thoughts as I went along. I’ve structured this review to give my overall impression and then included the impressions I had as I read through the book.

Overall Impression

Set in 1951, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is an investigation of whether or not Richard III was the monster our history books say he was. It is carried out by a Inspector in the Metropolitan Police who takes up the investigation to relieve his boredom while at being confined to a hospital bed, flat on his back, while he recovers from an injury. Richard catches his attention because the detective prides himself on his ability to read faces and is chagrined to find that, without knowing his name, he has classed Richar as being ‘on the bench’ rather than ‘in the dock’.

The Daughter Of Time’ is remarkable for being entertaining, humorous, occasionally suspenseful and never overtly didactic, while delivering a serious insight into the way myths are created, peddled as history and become part of the national identity through the indoctrination of young children via the use of simple, memorable, emphatic ‘true-stories’. It shows how, once embedded in this way, these stories become unassailable, not because they cannot be disproved but because we have built them into our own story and will not easily give them up for that would be like pulling on a loose thread, once you start, there’s no telling what might be undone.

It’s also remarkable for twisting the novel form to its purpose. ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is close to being a play, especially if you include Shaw’s plays with their lengthy stage directions and off-stage character insights. It depends almost entirely on dialogue. Yet who would watch a play with only one set, with all the physical action being off-stage and most of the passion happening inside the head of disgruntled, immobile Police  Inspector? Well, actually, a lot of people, if you think of the success on The Weet End and Broadway of Whose Life Is It Anyway’ twenty years later.

It’s a novel that is hard to classify other than under the categories like ‘Original’, ‘Innovative’ and ‘Bold’ – all of which are terms that were used by the Englsh Civil Service to warn of a need for caution.

It could have been written with the three goals enshrined in the BBC’s charter in mind: ‘To inform, to educate and to entertain.’

It must have been well ahead of its time when it was published in 1951. Now, it’s a step away from the programs that the BBC make where a photogenic historian, usually a woman with long red hair and an impeccable upper class accent or a long-haired charismatic Scotsman, speak to camera from visually impressive historical locations, interspersed with actors in period costumes glowering at one another and miming out the actions the photogenic historian’s voice-over is describing.

As a novel, it doesn’t do much for me. As a wake-up call to cast off the weight of the dead hand of history, it’s outstanding. It’s also a lot of fun.

8%. – a very cunning start – I pity her publisher

It’s been many decades since I read this book so I knew I was going to see lots of things now that I didn’t see then, I just didn’t expect that to start with the first chapter.

I like the set-up and the description of ‘the prickles’ of boredom that are tormenting Inspector Alan Grant. I don’t like Grant very much, but I’m making allowances, assuming that he’s being testier than usual because of his situation and isn’t always so unpleasant about women or such a snob.

What makes me smile is that this chapter is a tongue-in-cheek pitch to Tey’s publisher. Here she is, an established author with five books to her name and what is she about to bring to her eagerly-waiting fanbase? – a book where the detective can’t leave his bed, the crime is five hundred years old, all the suspects are dead and the ‘hero’ is a man people have been hissing and booing on the stage for generations.

So she starts the book with an attack on what we’d now call ‘branding’ in publishing.

Grumpy Grant, faced with a motley pile of the lastest novels thinks:

‘There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It’s a horrible thought.’

and shortly afterwards opines:

‘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.’

How’s that for a warning shot across your publisher’s bows?

17% What we really teach in schools

I love the way Tey challenges our received wisdom on 2,000 years of English history by going back to the books that fed us that wisdom.

She describes one of the school books, an Historical Reader,  by saying that:

‘It bore the same relation to history as Stories from the Bible bears to Holy Writ.

After describe it’s simple storytelling style she says:

‘This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud’s Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness.’

Sadly, this is true and almost every one of those stories is false. There is no 2,000-year history of England because for most of that time England didn’t exist.

When I went to university, I was shocked to discover how much I’d been lied to at school. I studied at York, which I learned had been known as Jorvik and had spent a century or so as the centre of the Viking lands in the British Isles. In school, I’d been told that Vikings had raided England but I hadn’t been told that a large part of what gets called England didn’t belong to any English King until it was conquered by the Normans who had invaded the island. This changed my whole attitude to history. 

I read ‘The Daughter Of Time’ while I was at university and wondered how, if this stuff had all been written in 1951, I was still fed Shakespeare-as-history in the 1970s.

37% Like a set of Matryoshka dolls

The storytelling is strucuted around an elborate conceit that reminds me of a set of Matryoshka dolls nested within one another. Alan Grant is reading a fictional account of the life of Richard III’s mother, written by a fictional author of Tey’s invention, in in order to establish real events and then mixing in a non-ifctional account from Thomas Moore – all while having absolutely nothing happen, not even a change of scene.

It’s a lot to take in and ought to be dull and dry and unforgivably static, but it isn’t. It’s engaging and occaisionally amusing. I’m not sure how Tey is doing that.

44% Meeting the woolly lamb

I love the way the researcher who will do the legwork for Grant is introduced. Grant’s actress friend, Marta, on hearing that some research needs to be done, immediately thinks of her ‘woolly lamb’. The scene that follows lights up the book.

The tap at his door was so tentative that he had decided that he had imagined it. Taps on hospital doors are not apt to be tentative. But something made him say: ‘Come in!’ and there in the opening was something that was so unmistakably Marta’s woolly lamb that Grant laughed aloud before he could stop himself.

The young man looked abashed, smiled nervously, propped the spectacles on his nose with a long thin forefinger, cleared his throat, and said:

‘Mr Grant? My name is Carradine. Brent Carradine. I hope I haven’t disturbed you when you were resting.’

‘No, no. Come in, Mr Carradine. I am delighted to see you.’

‘Marta—Miss Hallard, that is—sent me. She said I could be of some help to you.’

‘Did she say how? Do sit down. You’ll find a chair over there behind the door. Bring it over.’

He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging unfastened round him in negligent folds, American-wise. Indeed, it was obvious that he was in fact American. He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread round him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim.

This is becoming quite cinematic in a ‘Rear Window’ kind of way, although ‘The Daughter Of Time’ predates Hitchcock’s movie by three years.

52%. – Troops at Tonypandy?

Grant makes Tonypandy into a noun describing events where the popular narrative diverges significantly from the facts and where the narrative is strong enough to resist being corrected by exposure to the facts. He is refering to the riots in Tonypandy in the Rhonda Valley in South Walres, during the miners strike of 1910/11 which he claims have been mythologised.

Police blockade a street in Tonypandy during the events of 1910–1911

I looked up Tonypandy on Wikipedia, a source that can be modified be anybody but which we tend to rely on, and it agrees neither with troops-shot-miners version or Grumpy  Grant’s it-was-unarmed-Met-police-with-no-troops.

it seems history is a constantly changing story only loosely linked to what happened, especially once all of the medical records disappear.

67% Fake News As History

The more I read the contemporary accounts of Richard and compare them to the received wisdom, the more I wonder what candy floss fantasy will have ossified into the received wisdom explaining Trump’s presidency or thé Brexit vote or who excelled in responding to the corona virus (which may, by then, be the alleged Corona virus).

I shudder at the thought that Fake News will become School History but it seems, in the case of the Tudors, it already has.

2 thoughts on “‘The Daughter Of Time’ by Josephine Tey – history isn’t the stories we learned at school.

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