Dec 22, 2009

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Give me research. After all, the truth of anything at all doesn’t lie in someone’s account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time.
I wonder how exciting the premise of The Daughter of Time will sound if I simply tell you it: Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is in a hospital bed recovering from a broken leg, and there he remains until the end of the book. But to pass the time, he decides to have a go at solving one of the greatest mysteries of British history: that of Richard III and the little Princes in the Tower.

It all begins when his friend Marta brings him a portrait of Richard III. Without knowing who it is, he decides that the face must belong to a wise and kindly man—perhaps a judge. Inspector Grant is naturally taken aback when he realises it belongs to a notorious murderer: after all, he takes pride in his ability to read faces. This is the point where the premise would have lost me in shuddery reminiscences of phrenology and other criminal theories with less than subtle racist undertones, if not for ther fact that Inspector Grant says,
“There isn’t a murder type. People murder for too many different reasons.”
…which caused me to promptly forgive him, and, if not exactly believe that anyone can tell innocence or guilt from a face, at least suspend my disbelief. I’m glad of that, because The Daughter of Time is an excellent book. It’s an academic mystery, with the investigation solely taking place in old history books and archives, but trust me, it’s exciting all the same.

Sadly, I don’t know enough English history for The Daughter of Time to truly work for me as a mystery. I knew about Richard III, of course (mostly the Shakespearian villain, which I naturally didn't fully buy, not only because he's fictional but because I don’t believe in monsters), and I knew about the murders, or supposed murders. But I don’t know enough to be able follow the historical clues and make my own deductions. The case presented here seems completely convincing to me, but then again, what do I know about its historical accuracy or likelihood? (But I bet Meghan has an opinion, and I’d love to hear it.) In any case, The Daughter of Time still very much worked as a wonderful written history lesson and as a reflection on what exactly history is.

Regardless of whether or not one accepts the arguments in favour of Richard III, this book makes some excellent points about the fact that history is always just one side of the story. This is inevitable, because if there’s one thing humans are, it’s storytellers. And when we tell a story, we pick a perspective, no matter how dispassionate we try to be. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors, and I’m sure there are plenty of figures who have been unjustly villanized—or undeservedly glorified.

For this reason, The Daughter of Time is very much a book about critical thinking and shades of grey and the power of propaganda. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe Tey’s Richard III to be closer to the truth than the villain most of us learned about. What matters is that the point — that things are always more complex than they seem — is one that sill stands, and always will.

Favourite bits:
“I liked the Portrait Gallery best because it gave one the same sense of proportion that reading history does. All those Importance who had made such a to-do over so much in their day. All just names. Just canvas and paint.”

He turned the pages and marvelled how dull information is deprived of personality. The sorrows of humanity are no-one’s sorrows, as newspapers readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart remains unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news; a solitary child drowned in a pond is a tragedy.

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed.
Very odd, isn’t it?
Other opinions:
Andrea’s Book Nook
Reading Adventures
Shelf Love

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. A crime solved completely from his sick bed. Marvellous. I t sounds fantastic. I am not much of a historian, ( although I do enjoy Victorian novels) but this sounds really good.

  2. I have a book by Alison Weir on the princes in the tower. I remember learning a bit about them in school and always being intrigued by the story. I think I would enjoy The Daughter of Time!

  3. Great review! I love that aspect you mention, about how people view history and facts are, how there are so many shades of gray in what can seem so straight-forward a story. Sigh. History.

  4. I do think the premise sounds good. After all, it isn't always necessary for the mystery solver to be chased by a killer, as some authors think. I think it sounds very good! And I love the last quote about the "kill the messenger" sentiment. So true!

  5. I tried reading this earlier this year but my utter lack of knowledge of English history was my downfall here. I couldn't keep track of all the threads and I have to admit that I just didn't find the "mystery" all that interesting. I know most people credit this as one of the best mysteries of all times, but I guess it just wasn't for me! I'm glad it worked better for you!

  6. I definitely want to read this one, but maybe I'll review English history a bit before I do it!

  7. I remember doing a paper on Nero in college. He was evil, but no more than other emperors. The bad Nero vibe spurned from Gibbon -- Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- getting nearly ALL of his information from the diary of a contemporary of Nero; she was a woman who loathed Nero and was locked in a power struggle with him. Changes things when you think of history having two sides!

  8. There's a lot of revisionist theory about Richard III as many historians now believe Henry VII (who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth) made sure Richard III was portrayed as evil to legitimise his claim to the throne. And Shakespeare of course was under the patronage of the Tudors. I found Tey's account fascinating as it was my first introduction to this new historical thread.

  9. I love the premise of this book. Why not spend the time convalescing doing something worthwhile?

  10. I briefly read about the story of Richard III when i visited the Tower of London, and it seemed like a pretty grim story.

    Phrenology and physiognomy are so interesting! There have actually been some recent studies that validate the claims of the physiognomists, but they are still trying to figure out if it is all due to self fulfilling prophecies or whether a person's face can actually tell of that person's personality. Cool stuff!

  11. I remember reading this book ages ago, I think Gerald Ford may have been president at the time, and really loving it. It would be a great way to spend the days if one was sick in bed.

  12. Not having READ the book, the fact that the narrator 'likes his face' is interesting to me, in that, frankly, it seems to imply that the narrator himself is biased, just as history is biased. Reading someone like Howard Zinn, for instance, one certainly bypasses many of the biases of traditional history, but the bias of Zinn: in favor of the underdog, of leftist/anarchist movements, against America the government, etc - are as strong as the biases of traditional history. That's the thing about history: it's written by the winners, even when it's written by the losers :D.

  13. Just wanted to stop by and say Happy Holidays to you an yours. Thanks for being a loyal blogging buddy.

  14. I read this last year and loved it for the historical questions it raises. I knew a bit about Richard III an the princes (what you'd learn from reading Shakespeare and visiting the exhibit on the princes at the Tower of London), but it could have been about any historical mystery as far as I was concerned. The question of how we know what we know about the past just fascinates me, and Tey illustrates the challenge beautifully.

  15. I loved this when I read it a while ago, and found the solution to be completely credible.

    One thing I did find amusing was the hospital care that he received for a broken leg. No way would he have found time to solve this in this day and age. Broken leg is a couple of days in hospital at most!

  16. Josephine Tey is a marvelous writer and this was a wonderful book--a brilliant conceit, and fun!
    So glad you liked it.

  17. I'm really glad you liked this book!! I tought it was very good, too. I actually think I read it when Marg did, with a group. When I mentioned this book, I forgot to add the Kate Ross books. Have you read them? There is a short series (Julian Kestral mysteries). I think the series would have gone on, but Ross died pretty early into it. I think there are 4 books. "Cut to the Quick" is the first, and I read the second, "Broken Vessel" as well. Mysteries set in the early 1800's England. Really good!!

    Nice review, by the way!

  18. I've been wanting to read Josephine Tey's books since I read a 'meh' mystery starring her earlier this year.

    And I TOTALLY second Stephanie's suggestion of Kate Ross' books! They're so wonderful! But they're out of print. :( And she died in her 40s, so there are only 4 of them. :(

  19. I read this when I was youngish and became a quite rabid defender of Richard III. I even have a print of his portrait in my living room! And I think this was also the book that made me love portraits the way I do. The first time I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. :P

    Also, happy holidays! I always enjoy your blog posts and get wonderful recommendations for what to read next!

  20. I really like the sound of this one. Academic mysteries are love, as is anything that explores our relationship with history.

  21. I love the vagaries of history. I've actually had friends ask me if it's boring because they assume it's all just fact, but history is so fluid and it's incredibly exciting to look at the primary sources and properly question what historians always just assume. That's what made this book for me.

    And of course I have an opinion. Thank you for asking. ;) I do believe Richard III ordered his nephews killed, simply because he has more of a credible motive than anyone else, even if it doesn't quite match up in its manner from his personality and previous experience. If you are the king and the former king is still alive, you're in for some trouble, as Richard III would have known from his brother's experience. It's generally concluded that Henry VII did not do it, simply because the time between their last appearance and his accession is too long. Otherwise, he'd have the same motive, and this conclusion would make more sense. =)

  22. Impressive that he's trying to solve the mystery from the hospital.

  23. Gosh, it's probably been a decade or so since I've read this, but I remember really enjoying it. I've actually been meaning to re-read it since this summer when I read A Secret Alchemy (from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville, and also very good, although unlike this one it comes down against Richard III), but I haven't gotten around to it yet... thanks for the reminder!

  24. I've been meaning to read this one for a while. I enjoy books like this. And I have to agree with Meghan about the vagaries of history. :) If you think social history is bendable, just think of art history! I love how facts can take on completely different meaning depending upon how one looks at them.

    If you want to read another mystery about Richard III, Elizabeth Peters' The Murders of Richard III is pretty good.

  25. Vivienne: I thought it was such an interesting premise! And it's never boring for a second.

    Kathleen, I think you would!

    Aarti: Sigh indeed. I wish we could know what really happened, but on the other hand, the uncertainty is so interesting!

    Jill: Very true!

    Steph: I took a couple of courses in English history some years ago that definitely helped. Still, I did have some trouble keeping up. I imagine that the more you know, the more rewarding this book is!

    S.Krishna: Yes, I think that'd make it more enjoyable!

    Amanda: Something similar happens here - turns out that the most well-known version of the story was written by someone with very good reasons to hate Richard III!

    chasingbawa: Yes, definitely true about Shakespeare and the Tudors. Tey's version is fascinating indeed!

    Kathy, exactly!

    She: I'm afraid I'm very suspicious of those things :P

    C.B. James: It would!

    Jason: The thing that makes the book so good is that Tey definitely doesn't ignore that - the fact that Grant himself has a bias, and that personal likes and dislikes are part of what shapes history, or what we know as history.

    Diane: Thank you so much! I hope you had a fabulous holiday season.

  26. Teresa: I completely agree!

    Marg: lol, definitely true. He'd have been out of there in no time :P

    ds: I need to read more of her books!

    Stephanie: I haven't, but they're on my list!

    Eva: As soon as I read Stephanie's comment I thought, "Aren't those the out of print mysteries Eva mentioned finding on bookmooch"? I'll have to see if I can find them!

    Jenny: I can't believe I went to the National Gallery but not the National Portrait Gallery. What is wrong with me?! And thank you :D I hope you had a great Christmas, and Happy New Year!

    Memory: They are love indeed <3

    Meghan: I knew you'd have a sound opinion :D Thank you for your thoughts, and I definitely agree that history is anything but boring!

    Ladytink: Isn't it?

    Fyrefly: Thanks for the recommendation - adding A Secret Alchemy to my list.

    heidenkind: Yes, I can imagine about art history! And thanks for the recommendation. I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Peters for ages.

  27. I too read this book this year and really enjoyed it, especially as it was so opposite to Shakespeare - who got his research on Richard III from a hatchet job by Thomas More.

  28. I have heard people rave about this book, but I honestly don't see the attraction. I don't think I would really be able to get into this book because I don't know very much about this period of history. I am sorry that this book wasn't a great read for you.


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