This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about The Daughter of Time which is the other one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this all about history, so it doesn’t really matter.)
The Daughter of Time is a mystery book in which a detective hypothetically solves the murder of the two Princes in the Tower while laid up in the hospital. It is also a book I love very deeply. I am not kidding about either part of this. Tey always tends to be a cerebral writer, for a writer of mysteries, but The Daughter of Time is something else altogether. As I wrote in my notes, “it’s a mystery…about history!” (Sorry, not sorry.)
But it’s also a very typically Tey sort of book. She tends to insert her points into the mouths of characters who are very unlikely to think such things. She’s not very interested in continuity (witness Marta, who basically is whoever Tey needs her to be for this particular book). There’s a nostalgia for a lost Britain which never was, which also ties back to the conservatism of Latchetts in Brat Farrar. She can’t help getting derailed with complaining about the Scots.
And yet, for all this–Teyness–it’s also full of her best qualities as a writer: her vivid characters, her ability to convince you that it all makes sense for as long as the book lasts. This was the book that sent me on a long path of Emotions About Richard III, which is weird and specific but here we are. Rereading it this time, I cared the most about the part of the book that’s about history, about what is remembered and forgotten. I will probably never not cry at the end (“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” sob sob sob.)
I also am reading it this time in the context of multiple ongoing conversations about American history and the way it is sanitized and wrongly taught. I’m reading it against the backdrop of people claiming that the White House wasn’t built by enslaved people, or that it’s all okay because they were treated well. (Shut up, Bill O’Reilly.) It’s impossible not to think of this. It’s likewise impossible not to notice that Tey manages to be both revisionist and essentially conservative. That is–while The Daughter of Time makes some fascinating points about the way we’re taught history and that it isn’t benign or objective, it also spends a lot of time defending the British government. This is a weird tension that Tey never really resolves. Or rather, she doesn’t think it needs resolving.
(She does make the very accurate point that “when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.” Anyone who has tried to point out George Washington’s flaws, for instance, will be familiar with this.)
Despite this, her eye to character and her look at Richard III’s reign as a mystery remain really compelling to me. Do I think that Henry VII murdered the Princes? I don’t know. Do I think the historical evidence is as clear as she paints it? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter, in a certain sense. I’m always moved by the story she does tell, of this king who inherited abruptly and did his best to make the country he ruled more prosperous, liberal, and just. I’m moved by the desire on the part of Grant to tell the truth and give him his due. Do I trust that Tey is telling the absolute truth here? No, not really. But I believe it, for the space of 200-odd pages, nonetheless.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1951, adult mystery (about history) (please don’t be mad at me) (I can’t help it)