Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot is one writer I really like.
I like her whodunits, I like her plays, I like her historical novel about Henry Morgan, and I’m dying to read Claverhouse, her life of John Graham, the Bonnie Dundee. She writes great characters and brilliant dialogue, she anticipated by decades the modern debate on language in historical fiction… Quite an author after my own heart.
Of all her things, my favourite has to be The Daughter of Time, ostensibly one of her Inspector Grant mysteries – but so very much more than that.
To begin with, by having Grant stuck in hospital with a broken back, Tey practically invents the armchair detective. Oh, right – technically it’s the bedridden detective, but you get my point. And this is only the beginning, because this time the investigation delves far, far into the past… Fact is, when actress friend Marta Allard brings him a handful of reproductions of historical portraits to play detective as a pastime, Grant becomes obsessed with a portrait of Richard III. Without knowing who it is, he pronouces him a good and conscentious man – and is rather thrown on learning the face he likes so much belongs to Shakespeare’s hunchbacked monster.*
What does one do, in this case? Well, Grant enrols a nurse, a young American historian and Marta herself, and directs them in an investigation into the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Facts are sifted, witnesses gauged and… listened, sources compared – except, everyone has been dead for centuries, so it all happens by books and records.
The result might have been a dead bore in lesser hands, but Tey makes it a wonderful tale about how history is told, shaped and perceived. About the weight of lies, misdirection, political expediency, and propaganda. About the role of literature. About asking questions and questioning given truths.
All of it delightfully written, with very engaging characters, and dialogue to die for.
Having felt somewhat sorry for Richard even when all I knew of him was Shakespeare and Stevenson, long before I even knew there was such a thing as Ricardianism, I fell in love with this book. And frankly, it’s not even all about Richard. I’m not, and never will be, a rabid Ricardian, but to find a novel that, without ever becoming preachy, makes such an interesting and convincing case for history, for its fluidity and iridescence, was a real trove and joy.
It’s one of those books everyone should read – if only to get a glimpse of the true nature of history, the one that boils, and roars, and glimmers beneath the curricular surface.
* Ironically enough, some modern scholars seem to believe the portrait in question to have been a piece of Tudor propaganda, aimed at showing Richard as frail and ill, and therefore unfit for the throne…
- “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (makinghistoryatnorthumbria.wordpress.com)