Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time was written by Josephine Tey, the pen name of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish woman. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, apparently.

The book begins with a lovely little quote: Truth is the daughter of Time. It is apt, because the story is about a detective who, during a hospital stay, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the "Princes in the Tower" - the tale of the two children of Edward the IV, long-rumored to have been murdered by Richard III.

The main character is lying bored out of his mind in a hospital bed with a broken leg when a friend brings by a pile of historical pictures to amuse him. Because he doesn't think Richard III has the face of a murderer, he begins delving into the story to find out what really happened. Daughter of Time is practically a theoretical treatise on the necessity of primary sources for all research and study. Tey makes a strong and damning argument that the history books most of us grew up with - one page per century/civilization are worthless nonsense.

Tey illustrates how our perception, regardless of validity or truth, is what really becomes history - she seems to have a very post-modern viewpoint of what we call history - particularly re: her rejection of the very linear way we organize the past:
...One was the kind of history book known as a Historical Reader. It bore the same relation to history as Stories from the Bible bears to Holy Writ. Canute rebuked his courtiers on the shore, Alfred burned the cakes, Raleigh spread his cloak for Elizabeth, Nelson took leave of Hardy in his cabin on the Victory, all in nice clear large print and in one-sentence paragraphs. To each episode went one full-page illustration.

The second-half of the book was a little boring for me - with the challenge of being restricted to the hospital room, out of necessity, her characters move into a sort of Socratic exchange, like, "So Richard the III couldn't possibly be responsible for the death of the two boys, could he?" "No, he couldn't have, because..." and so on.

Finally, what Tey focuses on is the persistence of false histories to masquerade as fact through incompetence (on the part of the chroniclers) and indifference (on the part of the audience). All in all, I thought it was a really amazing book, especially for anyone interested in history in general and British monarchs in particular.

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