The Daughter of Time

My mystery book group met this past weekend to discuss Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time. In a way, I’d like to write simply that while it’s not a historical novel, it’s all about Richard III, that you have to be prepared for some serious history, and that it’s really good and I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Because that it wasn’t historical fiction but was all about Richard III is all I knew about it when I picked the book up, and I’m glad I didn’t know more. So if you’re interested in reading this book, you might stop here.

I was glad not to know more because I was delighted to discover the structure of the novel: the fact that it takes place solely in a hospital room and that nothing happens action-wise except people coming and going, bringing books and having conversations about them. What an unusual structure for a mystery novel, and how cleverly done! I love that the mystery is entirely historical, about the question of whether Richard killed the two princes in the Tower and if he didn’t, then who did. (As a side note, I was in the Tower just a few weeks ago, and now I wish I’d read this book beforehand. They had an exhibit about the question of Richard’s guilt, and you could vote on who you think the murderer was. Alas, I can’t remember who the other options were.) I love that the mystery is solved solely through historical research and logical deduction. Although there’s a lot of intuition involved as well, as the whole mystery gets going when Tey’s detective, Grant, decides that Richard does not look like a murderer. He has this feeling, based on his years working with criminals, that Richard isn’t one.

I also loved how the mystery branches out from the question of who killed those princes to questions of history and history writing. As much as the characters research historical events, they also think a lot about how we learn history, what we remember and don’t remember from our history classes in school, the various ways history gets written, and why historical untruths get perpetuated. Tey is great at covering a whole lot of ground answering these questions without making it seem formulaic or contrived. Grant and his fellow researcher, Carradine, get a hold of history textbooks, historical fiction, scholarly tomes, and contemporary accounts and documents, and they survey various types of people on what they remember and what they believe about history, all without awkwardness in the narrative. And it turns out that history is shockingly unreliable. People believe things they’ve heard from authorities they no longer remember, and often those “authorities” turn out to be biased or lazy researchers or too busy looking at the larger picture to get the details right. And once people believe a certain thing, they resent finding out otherwise. Rather than accepting correction and being grateful for the truth, they get angry at the person bringing the news.

The book’s epigraph is “Truth is the daughter of time.” Wikipedia just told me that the full sentence is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” from Francis Bacon. That explains the title — the idea that time will eventually lead to truth and will win out over so-called authorities — but I wonder how much the book really backs up that idea. Grant and Carradine are on a quest for truth, and at least within the frame of the book they find it, and yet theirs seems a lonely crusade in a world that seems determined to cling to falsehood. Carradine has decided by the end to write a book against “tonypandy,” their term for received versions of events that turn out to be false, but who can really win against common opinion that’s been passed down for generations? I’m not quite sure if this book is undermining the idea that time will bring us closer to truth, or, more simply, celebrating Grant and Carradine as savvier, smarter seekers of truth than most other people. What it certainly does do is celebrate the joy of research and discovery. Rarely in a novel is scholarly research shown in such detail and made to seem so much fun.

Grant is very suspicious of the way history gets written as narrative. He wants facts, concrete bits of information gleaned from primary sources, not the stories woven around those facts — or woven around no facts at all, which is often the case. But we can’t do without narrative — without turning history into a story. All Grant is doing is creating a counter-narrative to the one historians and textbooks have been telling all along. And that is what Tey is doing as well, of course, making the argument that by delving into facts and turning those facts into a narrative, the detective and the novelist — neither of whom are “authorities” — can reveal something true. Whether we believe it or not is another matter.

The opinions in my book group were generally positive, although not everyone liked Grant’s rather arrogant manner. The question arose of whether this book works well the second time around, and I’m wondering as well if I would like it as much if I were to read it again. Once you understand the premise and the trajectory of the book, it might not be as much fun to wade through all the historical details, which do take quite a lot of wading through. Anybody out there who has read this multiple times have opinions?

This is the second Tey mystery I’ve read, and both have done such interesting things with the genre that I’d like to read more. This one has practically no action directly described, and Miss Pym Disposes only turns into a mystery in the last 1/4 of the book and is as interested in psychology as an academic discipline as The Daughter of Time is interested in history. I’m looking forward to seeing what other unusual things Tey has done with the mystery genre.

18 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

18 responses to “The Daughter of Time

  1. “Anybody out there who has read this multiple times have opinions?”

    Well, I may be an atypical case, but I’ve reread the book many times, most recently about 2 weeks ago. It continues to be delightful to me but the reasons have changed over time. I read it now for the historiographical interest as much as for anything else. When I first read it, I promptly became a convert to the “Ricardian” cause–I was in 6th grade! I even joined the Richard III Society of Canada, and I still have my framed copy of the famous portrait up in my office at work. I’ve actually just started working up an essay about my collection of Ricardian novels (I have about a dozen) and their relationship to the ‘official’ histories, all of which point to Tey (often, with scorn or condescension!) as a key figure in spreading a particular version of events as well as a particular attitude towards the key sources. I find it interesting that pretty much every one of the novels spends a lot of time talking about Richard’s appearance, pretty clearly (I think) picking up on Tey’s (or Grant’s) preoccupation with the portrait and the sense that this is a face that somehow needs explaining. Anyway. I could go on and on! But I’ll save it for my essay.

  2. I tried to read this book a while back and I just could not get into it. I know it’s supposed to be one of the best mysteries of all-time, but maybe it’s because I don’t like historical fiction or know very much about the Royals… either way, I just couldn’t connect with this one and found it really boring. I know I’m in the minority on this one though!

  3. One thing I forgot to say in my post is that it was interesting how much Grant got from reading that one novel about Richard’s mother, stressing yet again the whole question about history and fiction and getting to the truth. Methinks Miss Pym Disposes must be the next Tey your armchair psychologist here reads.

  4. This is a good one, especially for the questions it raises about how we know what we know about history. I think Tey’s counternarrative has become pretty influential. I get the impression that a lot of people take Richard’s side now, partly thanks to Tey, although I’m not sure how many academics who study the period do. (And I’d love to know!)

  5. I absolutely loved the Daughter of Time – I couldn’t read it fast enough. I’m fascinated by history anyway and had already read other accounts that take into accounts the historical sources, some agreeing with Grant and others not. I’m also interested in how history is seen through the accounts of contemporaries with their own bias and who may or may not have had particular axes to grind. History is after all someone’s ‘story’ of events. And it is a murder mystery too.

    I’ve only read it once – I borrowed it from the library – and wonder too how I would react on re-reading it. I think I may just have to buy a copy and find out.

  6. I’m with Rohan on this. Being a Yorkist by matter of birth I have always known that Richard was innocent and so when I first read the book it was simply confirming the facts as far as I was concerned. However, on re-reading it I have become much more interested in the way in which we interpret history has changed over the years. This is even more the case at the moment because I’m working with my Shakespeare groups on ‘Richard II’ and there you can see that Shakespeare was on the cusp between two different ways of ‘reading’ history and that is partly what made the play the success it was.

  7. “What it certainly does do is celebrate the joy of research and discovery. Rarely in a novel is scholarly research shown in such detail and made to seem so much fun.”

    Yes! I absolutely agree, and this was definitely the aspect of the book that appealed to me the most. I think it might hold up on a reread for me, but then again I tend to forget plot details easily and get to be surprised all over again.

  8. Eva

    I read this via audiobook, but the British narrator’s atrocious American accent for Carradine got in the way a bit. I did enjoy it for how it questioned the ‘strictures’ of history: nowadays, revisionist historians are a dime a dozen, but I imagine when this was first published they weren’t quite so common! And my nerdy self had fun with all of the scholarly stuff, except I wasn’t positive what Tey’s sources were, or how much to believe of the history. I gave up on the first Tey I tried (The Man in the Queue), so I was happy I enjoyed this more. I suppose I’ll have to give Miss Pym a go next!

  9. I read this book years ago and loved it! I’m reading The Returned by Hakan Nesser right now and it immediately reminded me of Daughter of Time because the chief investigator is in the hospital and trying to solve a murder. Then, just as I was making the mental comparison, Inspector Van Veeteren makes the comparison himself.

  10. How interesting! I’d stopped reading Tey a while back because I’d had a couple of novels by her that turned out to be duds (well, for me). But I always loved Miss Pym Disposes and Brat Farrar. Perhaps I should pick this one up – I’m always willing to try an author again.

  11. I’m glad you liked this one that much, this is my favorite by Tey. Many further happy readings!

  12. Between you and Emily, I’ve been convinced that this is one I should put on my TBr list and actually get around to reading. It sounds like fun. So thanks, I think ;)

  13. I’ve read a few books by Tey that I’ve liked (Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair) but for some reason this one hasn’t appealed to me as much as her other books, which is strange as I love historical fiction. I do have it, though, and I suspect I when I get to it I will likely wonder why I ever waited so long to read it. I like that she seems to do unusual things with the genre rather than the same old same old.

  14. What a fascinating post and fascinating set of comments! I’m particularly intrigued by Annie’s comment that Shakespeare’s Richard III was at the transition point between two different manners of interpreting history. I hope you do a post about this, Annie!

    I’m also drawn in by much of what you say about Tey’s examination of history and how people become attached to their received version of reality, regardless of whether it turns out to be true. I’ll have to pick this up sometime!

  15. Rohan — your essay sounds great! I really want to know more about how Tey is viewed by scholars and by other novelists. I was happy to believe Grant entirely while reading the book, but afterwards started to wonder how right he is or isn’t. His preoccupation with the portrait is fascinating — it seems bizarre to me that all the characters see him as something besides a murderer, because how much can you tell from a face? His trust in observation and intuition seems exaggerated, even if he is a police officer and has seen lots of criminals. My book group wondered why Tey didn’t say more about who painted the portrait and what his motivations might have been — how can we trust the portrayal?

    Steph — I think to enjoy this book you need to be in the mood to wade through a lot of details and learn a lot of history, and I certainly understand why that might not be appealing! In another mood, I might not have liked it so much either. But I enjoyed following all the history, and so it worked for me. Thank goodness for that family tree in the back, though!

    Emily B. — yes, it’s interesting that Tey chose a historical novel to include among the scholarly works — but perfectly appropriate, of course. I think you would like Miss Pym Disposes.

    Teresa — I want to know the answer to that question as well. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people were influenced by the novel; I certainly came away sympathetic toward Richard!

    Margaret — I’d be curious to hear how you do with the book the second time around. Those questions of history are great ones; you are right that history is someone’s story of events, and this book certainly shows the dangers of forgetting that quite well.

    Annie — I have never read the Shakespeare Richard plays, and perhaps I should. Your argument about different ways of reading history certainly sounds interesting!

    Nymeth — I’m the same way about plot details and often forget the endings of mystery novels, although in this case I might remember. Some day I’ll have to reread the book, and then I’ll be able to answer my own question :)

    Eva — oh, those bad American accents can be SO distracting! I’m sure the British feel the same way about American readers messing up their accents as well :) Yes, her ideas about history don’t seem ground-breaking today at all, but they probably were more so in her time, and I really liked the way she dramatized those ideas so well.

    Jenclair — interesting that the Inspector makes that point himself — it’s kind of an obvious reference that needs to be made! I was wondering how many other people had written plots like this one — where there is hardly any plot at all.

    Litlove — well, perhaps Brat Farrar should be my next Tey, then! Or The Franchise Affair — that one sounds good too. I’m glad we agree on Miss Pym Disposes!

    Smithereens — thanks! Your posts on her were inspiring.

    Stefanie — I think you might like it, and if not, Emily and I will just have to take the blame :)

    Danielle — I may not have picked this one up if it weren’t for the book group because I would have been uncertain how I would have liked the all the history. But knowing what I was getting into, I ended up liking it a lot; I think you just have to be in the right mood.

    Emily — I hope Annie writes that post too! When you’re in the mood for a non-traditional mystery, it’s perfect.

  16. I stopped reading right there! It sounds wonderful and will be my second genre book for the summer reading program. xoxo

  17. I just rescued you from spam, Lily! Annoying wordpress. I’m glad you stopped right there, and I hope you enjoy the book. Do tell me what you thought.

  18. I enjoyed this book many years ago, so it’s an interesting point about 2x around. I haven’t read Miss Pym, that I can remember–so I think I’ll have a go at that.

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