Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Daughter of Time

Copyright © 2007 José Cossa

A Book Review of Tey, J.  (1959).  Daughter of Time.  New York, NY:  Berkeley.

The book is a mystery novel about detective Alan Grant’s encounter with the portrait of Richard III and Grant’s consequent search for the truth about the murder accusations charged on Richard III for many centuries.  In 1952, Elizabeth MacIntosh, under the penname Josephine Tey, challenged the historical narratives created by the house of Tudor (and associates) and were propagated by the likes of William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More for many generations following the mysterious murder of the two princes, nephews of Richard III, in 1485.

The portrait of Richard III, initiates Grant into a quest for truth against the traditional view that described Richard III as a hunchback and murderer villain – a view that favored the house of Tudor even in the eyes of the common citizen.  The evidence of the impact of this Tudorian perspective is seen in the fact that Grant was himself convinced of this perspective until he came to encounter a portrait of a different nature; or, at least for the first time in his life he was in a position to form a first impression of Richard III without the interference of prior information – he had no idea whose picture it was until he turned to see the signature.  The striking thing in the event is his interest in Richard’s portrait among those of Robert Dudley, and Lucrezia Borgia.  This is an encounter that changes the life of a man whose job was that of hunting down criminals and enemies of the monarchy.

In this book, Tey purposely sets the scene to start out that way, Grant’s encounter with  Richartd’s portrait, in order to render us a view of history unheard of before.  The fascinating thing is that Tey, purposely or not, teaches us one important thing – that historical research can begin from a portrait and one of the first steps is to determine whose portrait it really is and if there is any historical value that a signature can reveal – it is an evidence of the resourcefulness of artifacts.  In this case, a signature at the back of a portrait becomes a door to a groundbreaking perspective of history.  Tey engages Grant in external criticism of a document that mattered not to its original owner yet became a tool that would supplement a perspective of Richard III that would change the history, the daughter of time.

In terms of literary devices, the book takes the form of an epic because in it Tey attempts to recover the image of a hero, Richard III, through another hero, Alan Grant.  The narrative unfolds in a linear fashion starting in a bored hospital bed and ending in a fascinating discovery.  Our living hero revives his passion of working with portraits and murder mysteries and ascends to become a historian and a successful detective whose meaning in life is fulfilled as he discovers and acquits his true hero.  Grants success is due to his effort to reconstruct historical evidence by means of research.  He begins by deconstructing all the known ‘facts’ about Richard III and engages in the construction of new facts.  His underlying question does not only hinge on whether Richard III murdered the two princes, but it hinges also on “who murdered the princes in the tower? And, Why would anyone murder them?”  These questions and Grant’s personal instinct, that a man such as Richard III would have not committed a (that) murder, prompt Grant to carefully consider an analysis of internal and external evidence as well as an analysis of primary and secondary sources in order to establish the truth.  Grant puts together a research team to undertake the complex task.  The team made of hospital staff, friends, fellow policemen, and a researcher, provides Grant the adequate information for his work.  Metaphorically speaking, this team gathers pieces of the puzzle and hands on to Grant and he puts them together.

When reading the story, one could easily charge Grant of being obsessed with mystery, but his research method cast doubt to the readers’ doubts.  Reading Tey makes one wonder about the narrative and factual evidence claimed in history books and the main challenge is that of ‘whose perspective is being promoted in the books we read?’  As an African, I find Tey’s challenge to be seriously taken since the perspective of history books is often that of the dominant class or the winner.  The British had not known no other story apart from that of the house of Tudor, and not being rooted in British history and life, I can only imagine and judge by limited personal observation that when Tey’s view was cast to the British public it divided the camp into three distinct groups – those who believed her view, those who scorned her view, and those who became confused by her view.  Tey demonstrates that history is not impartial, it takes the shape and form of the historian and the problem of bias is as natural as we perceive ourselves natural.  Often, even today when we have so much talk about freedom of speech, some historians write what characterizes their interests and write on behalf of those who provide them security and a comfortable lifestyle.  Tey’s lesson to us is that a true historian, however, will seek the truth even if the truth is contrary to the interest of sponsoring agencies; nevertheless, one must not be fooled to think that there is one immaculate history.  The important thing to remember is that such a belief in the absence of an immaculate history cuts both ways – that is, neither the perspective of the winner not that of the looser is the only perspective.  The greatest challenge is seeking the truth in the rubble of these often conflicting perspectives.

As a novel, the book presents a very good flow of events, which are in accord with Tey’s interest.  The structure and narrative are rather impressive to a first time reader, in particular.  Only those who have studied extensively about British monarchy and have analyzed archival material on the life and times of Richard III would be able to see the breaches in the novel, and even then their view should be subject to further scrutiny.  One needs to be cautioned of the fact that Tey’s book is a novel replete with a hybridism of reality and fiction.  Fiction can be a great danger for historical research, but it can serve a great purpose if used in context and with caution.  In The Daughter of Time, fiction serves the excellent end of entertaining the reader.  By the nature of the book, one can tell that Tey did not intend to write a strict history book, but intended to write a book that would challenge historical narrative.  I wondered if Tey had fears while writing this book and if the use of a novel as a means of spreading a revolutionary idea was Tey’s coping mechanism.

The book has the additional value of providing information about British royals, e.g., Richard III, Cicely Nevill, Edward IV, Elizabeth, Henry VII, etc., for biographers and historians.  As a piece of literature, for non-historians, The Daughter of time is a fascinating reading replete with emotional instances.  My initial impression was that of curiosity in regards to the nature of relationship between the detective and nurse Ingham, aka the Midget.  Tey also vividly uses simple and colorful language to depict the scenes and the personages.  The narrative starts off with an apparently unconcerned and mean man, and finishes with a transformed heart – compassionate and grateful to the point of causing confusion to those around.  Such is the effect of discovery of truth.  When one finds fulfillment in his or her search there is a sense of relief and accomplishment, and the journey of life becomes more purposeful.  The last scene between detective Grant and the Amazon was, in my opinion, the climax of the emotional journey wrapped within Tey’s the Daughter of timeThe Daughter of time is a story not just of history and politics, but also a story of humanity and faith – a story that portrays human relationships, compassion, and convictions.

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