I had looked at the back cover of this audiobook on a few occasions before I finally decided to check it out (of the library). The idea of a mystery that gets its start with a man scrutinizing a portrait and trying to analyze the character of the subject – it put me in mind of recent books such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring. I haven’t read that latter book either, and don’t plan to, as nothing I’ve read about it particularly interests me.
I did finally check out The Daughter of Time, however, as the CD-based audiobook holdings at the library are limited, and trying something I may not enjoy has many times given me new authors and even new genres to enjoy. This time it was definitely a good choice, and I intend to look for more books, on CD or otherwise, by this author. I would not have expected to find a discussion of the historicity of events from the time of Richard III and Henry VII interesting – and perhaps it is a very rare writer who can make it so. But Josephine Tey does it admirably.
One reader review at amazon.com points out that “most Americans have only a passing familiarity with English royalty and even less with their interwoven families” and that is certainly the case for me. I know a bit about major figures such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the rest are little more than names – several of which were used too many times to keep easy track of.
The same reader says, however, that “unless you are familiar with these people and CARE about who did what to whom and why the book becomes tedious very quickly.” I don’t particularly care about them, but I do care about whether we can trust what is written in history books. This book explores in depth whether Richard III was responsible for the deaths of his nephews, but it raises larger questions about how we know what happened in the past.
The protagonist, Alan Grant (who is confined to a hospital bed and horribly bored until he starts trying to unravel this mystery), finds well-respected history books that treat Richard’s guilt in this matter as undisputed fact. He is initially skeptical primarily because he considers himself an excellent judge of faces, and the portrait of Richard III does not appear to be that of a villain.
As he continues to study the matter, particularly with the help of an American doing research at the British Museum, he finds more and more primary evidence which does not support the accepted tradition. Moreover, approaching the case with his background as a police inspector, he is increasingly convinced that the facts flatly contradict the history books.
The details of the investigation would be of interest primarily to those who do care about Richard’s guilt or innocence, but the larger questions are what interest me. How is it that a story with no apparent basis in fact could be not only propagated but become the accepted version? How could historians acknowledge Richard’s generally sterling character while at the same time accusing him of arch villainy? If a story invented by an enemy to discredit Richard could become the history that every schoolchild knows, what else might we “know” that is in fact sheer fabrication?
Other incidents of historical rewriting are brought up. One of these is the Tonypandy Riots of 1910 and 1911. The novel presents the striking miners’ version of the events as having almost no basis in fact, but having become widely accepted from having been often repeated and not adequately refuted. I don’t know which account is closer to the truth (no doubt it lies somewhere in between, but who knows which side it is closer to), but for Alan Grant, Tonypandy becomes a synonym for a made-up story becoming accepted as history.
There are other examples, one of which had to do with the Scottish Covenanters, and a more recent one which I can’t remember at all. I may consider looking for this book in print format just so I can go back and find those details. One would like to think that such rewriting of history belongs primarily to the distant past, before the Information Age made it so easy to do research and double-check facts.
But the very reliability of most printed information makes it easy for us to accept as fact what is not. And many people today are probably just as ready to believe a story which paints their political faction in the best light – or their opponents in a poor light – as the English of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
The period of history which most interests me, as far as determining its accuracy, is that the times and peoples of the Bible. I have often been frustrated, reading accounts by people of different persuasions regarding the truthfulness of the Bible, that they each seem to have done some historical research yet come to opposite conclusions. Since historians can clearly be biased, despite their protestations to the contrary, the only way to avoid having to choose which one to trust would be to do my own primary research, which I have neither time nor resources nor training to do.
I see, from reading wikipedia, that historians today are still divided on the issue of whether Richard had his nephews murdered. As clear a case as Grant presents for Richard’s innocence, there are apparently facts subject to a contrary interpretation. In the end, much of history is going to be a matter of interpretation. There are just too many ways for evidence to be lost or destroyed, disputed by people who know the truth but may or may not be telling it, or simply ignored because “everyone knows” a different version of the facts.