Monday, June 29, 2009

Before the Da Vinci Code, there was The Daughter of Time. A Historical Novel Review.

The Daughter of Time

by Josephine Tey

Cover: I don’t know if you can tell from the picture here, but in the painting there is a pair of feet coming out from underneath a tapestry. This is irrelevant to anything that happens in the book, but quaintly intriguing, in that old “whodunit” sort of way.

Summary: Did Richard III really murder “the princes in the Tower”?

Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard is laid up in hospital for months with a leg horribly broken in the line of duty. He is dismayed to be without any sort of stimulating activity, grumbling to nurses and visitors alike, until one of his old friends presents him with a series of historical portraits. Knowing that he has a knack for discovering characters by examining faces, she implores him to study the portraits and see if he can resolve famous crimes of history. He lights upon one portrait of a man he claims could not be guilty of a crime, and is surprised to learn that it is Richard III, famous for brutally slaying his nephews and hiding their bodies toward the end of the Wars of the Roses. Everyone he consults seems to see something different in the face, but none conclusively see it as that of a murderer, much less a cold-blooded one. With the help of his friends, Grant sets himself to the task of vindicating the story of Richard.

My Review: This is a short book (about 200 pages), but I didn’t want to put it down for a moment… and the whole thing technically takes place in Grant’s hospital bed. It is a brilliant “literary thriller,” and for all I know it was one of the first of the genre, having been written in the 1940s. While the main character himself is never in any danger, I kept turning each page as fast as possible to find out what else the characters were going to find out… would they ultimately be disappointed? How could these two discover something that vigilant historians and royal scholars had not discovered over the last several centuries? I was hooked.

The novel acts as a great “gateway drug” (hehe!) to becoming addicted to Ricardian lore. I currently understand very little about the Wars of the Roses (being more of a Tudor reader, myself) and now I want to see if I can uncover for myself whether or not Richard could be guilty of the murder of the princes.

The main evidence—and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here if it’s 500 year old information, but just in case… SPOILER—rests on the fact that there is no contemporary record of an accusation against Richard during his lifetime. Inspector Grant points out that the murder of the princes should have acted as a rallying cry for Henry VII’s troops as he headed into the final battle at Bosworth. Furthermore, there were other heirs besides the two boys… in fact, there were nine others. Richard would have had a lot more killing to do.

And so on. I don’t know if I believe yet that Henry Tudor killed them, as Grant concludes, but he puts up a great case that makes it practically impossible to believe that Richard could have done the deed.

If you have ever done research, I think you’ll sympathize with the characters’ struggle for the perfect evidence for their theory, and if you enjoy British humor, I think you’ll like it even more.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • This is the portrait referred to in the novel, which is now part of the Royal Collection. According to this terrifically helpful article from the Richard III Society, it was definitely painted about 100 years or so after Richard's lifetime, but was likely a copy from a portrait painted from life. There is apparently evidence that the painting was later revised, probably to make Richard slightly uglier and more in fitting with the Tudor "mythology." The shoulder that we see on the left was repainted to look higher than the one on our right, and the eye that we see on the left was made to look narrower. The lips may have been thinned as well. All in all, this is what created the hunchbacked, monstrous character we all know and love.
  • While waiting for more primary document research to be conducted by his friend, Inspector Grant consults a novel on Cicely Nevill. On P. 59 of my paperback copy: "It was, moreover, the almost-respectable form of historical fiction which is merely history-with-conversation, so to speak." Heeeeey... I see what you did there, Josephine.
  • I love the ending, when Grant's research assistant comes to the devastating realization that he was not the first to absolve Richard of the murders. It's such a great moment that everyone has every once in a while, where you realize it's really hard to be original. But you have to keep going and keep searching and keep working at what you love, and Grant's assistant knows he must carry on in his mission.

I highly recommend this book. I read it for the first time years ago when a teacher recommended it to my history class, and reading it for the second time now, knowing a bit more and having done research for school, I got even more out of it. I want to go and read more about the Wars of the Roses and Richard, so I picked up a history book and an Elizabeth Peters mystery, The Murders of Richard III, at my last bookstore/library visit. Look for those reviews here in future.

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  1. I also really loved this one. The whole Richard III debate is fascinating.
    Ohh and I just realised I made a big mistake in the time frame for the new Byatt novel I mentioned in a previous comment, I meant late 19th and early 20th, feel like an idiot.
    I'm going to medieval fair a couple of weeks and am looking forward to attending some interesting talks including a talk given by someone from the Richard III society.
    Enjoying catching up on your blog.

  2. Now that I've been reading a bit about Richard lately, I can definitely understand why people get so passionate about the debate. That sounds like it would be a lot of fun to go see a comprehensive talk about it.