Josephine Tey, Sleuthing Into The Mystery of History

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By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In a smart, witty novel called "Miss Pym Disposes," an actor invites a woman to attend a performance of Shakespeare's "Richard III," with himself in the title role. The woman has been rebuffing his bumbling advances for some time, but that isn't the only reason why she says no. "Richard III," she says, is "a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play."

That novel was published in 1949 but its author, Josephine Tey, scarcely had written her last word on the subject. Three years later she published "The Daughter of Time," the entirety of which is devoted to a defense of the king whom Shakespeare called "this poisonous bunch-backed toad," "that foul defacer of God's handiwork" and -- just to leave no doubt -- "this carnal cur." The novel was an immediate success and has remained steadily in print for more than half a century, praised or damned depending on where one stands in the unending debate over Richard III -- but loved as a book of singular originality, ingenuity and humanity.

At least technically the novel is a mystery. Its protagonist -- unless one considers that to be Richard himself -- is Alan Grant, the Scotland Yard inspector around whom many of Tey's novels revolve. The suspense does indeed mount, as the cliche goes, with a fair number of unexpected twists along the way; Tey was good at that. But "The Daughter of Time" deserves to be read as a work of literate (even literary) fiction, not just as a detective story. As such, it stands up surpassingly well.

"The Daughter of Time" is by far the best known of Tey's novels, but many of her others are equally admirable. She is a strange and fascinating case, a recluse about whom little is known, to the extent that no photographs of her are believed to have survived, if indeed any existed in the first place. She was born Elizabeth MacKintosh in 1896 or 1897 in Scotland, a place that figures significantly in many of her books, most notably "The Man in the Queue" and "The Singing Sands"; she loved her native land and its landscape, admired and was amused by its plain-spoken, cantankerous natives, and viewed its tangled history with both pride and asperity.

We know that she found her way as a young woman to the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham; she became a physical education instructor, but perhaps the most important effect of this expertise is that it enabled her to set "Miss Pym Disposes" in a similar institution and gave Tey a knowledge of medical matters that served her well when it came to describing injuries, corpses and other matters essential to detective fiction.

From teaching she worked her way into writing, which she seems to have loved from early youth. She began to publish novels under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot. The first, "The Man in the Queue," was published in 1929 and introduced Alan Grant, who possessed not merely the requisite assets for detective work -- "devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage" -- but also a most un-policeman-like style and manner:

"Some years before, Grant had inherited a considerable legacy -- a legacy sufficient to permit him to retire into idle nonentity if such had been his desire. But Grant loved his work even when he swore and called it a dog's life, and the legacy had been used only to smooth and embroider life. . . . It was owing entirely to the legacy, therefore, that Grant was an habitue{acute} of so exclusive an eating-place [in London] as Laurent's, and -- a much more astonishing and impressive fact -- a pet of the head waiter's. Only five persons in Europe are pets of Laurent's head waiter, and Grant was thoroughly conscious of the honor, and thoroughly sensible of the reason."

Gordon Daviot soon became the author of plays as well as mysteries. Some of these appeared under excessively fey titles -- "Lady Charing Is Cross," "The Pomp of Mr. Pomfret" -- and were not especially successful, but her first, "Richard of Bordeaux," about Richard the Second, played on the West End for a year. It was, John Gielgud writes in his memoirs, his own "first . . . success as a director." He remembered the play, and its author, fondly: "Shakespeare's Richard, though a wonderful part for an actor, has no humor and can be monotonously lyrical -- Daviot's play was amusing and its pacifist angle had a great appeal when it was produced."

Precisely what MacKintosh/Daviot did during the Second World War is unclear -- the war scarcely figures in her writing -- but after it ended she enjoyed a period of extraordinary productivity. Between 1947 and 1952 she published -- now as Josephine Tey -- "Miss Pym Disposes," "The Franchise Affair," "Brat Farrar," "To Love and Be Wise," "The Daughter of Time" and "The Singing Sands," the manuscript of this last having been discovered not long after her death in early 1952. Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.

Certainly that is true of "The Daughter of Time." Its title is taken from an "old proverb" not to be found in any dictionary of quotations in my own library -- "Truth is the daughter of time" -- and its central preoccupation is the theme suggested by that proverb: the elusiveness of historical truth. On its face the novel is a brief for Richard III's defense, but more deeply it is an inquiry into how history is written and for what purposes. As such it is unlikely to find favor with many practitioners of that trade, for Tey, speaking through Grant and other characters, has little good to say about historians.

Today's American reader is likely to know little or nothing about the case of Richard III or to be prejudiced against him by Shakespeare. The first edition of the play appeared in 1597 and within five years "had become part of popular mythology" in England, according to E.A.J. Honigmann's useful introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare edition of "Richard III."

The portrait painted by Shakespeare is almost without exception malicious. The Richard who emerges in this play is surpassingly evil. He does have a conscience, and as the drama winds toward its bloody conclusion he becomes plagued by it, but mainly he is ferociously ambitious and wholly unscrupulous in pursuit of that ambition: the throne occupied by his elder brother, Edward IV. Richard loves Edward, even venerates him, but upon the king's sudden death Richard determines to usurp the throne. This requires doing away with his brother George, Duke of Clarence; and then having Edward's two allegedly illegitimate young sons put to death.

The legendary, infamous murder of the princes in the Tower of London is carried out by two assassins. At once Richard begins plotting his next cruel move, but in the end he is thwarted, and killed, by Henry, Earl of Richmond, at Bosworth Field.

Henry is of the house of Lancaster, Richard the house of York. The former's ascent to the throne as Henry VII ushers in the Tudor dynasty and marks the beginning of the end of the three decades of battle between the two houses, known as the Wars of the Roses -- a conflict acerbically described by Inspector Alan Grant as "meaningless as watching a crowd of dodgem cars bumping and whirling at a fair." By way of a fine example of Tey's prose, consider Grant's brisk summary:

"For thirty years, over this green uncrowded land, the Wars of the Roses had been fought. But it had been more of a blood feud than a war. A Montague and Capulet affair; of no great concern to the average Englishman. No one pushed in at your door to demand whether you were York or Lancaster and to hale you off to a concentration camp if your answer proved to be the wrong one for the occasion. It was a small concentrated war; almost a private party. They fought in your lower meadow, and turned your kitchen into a dressing-station, and then moved off somewhere or other to fight a battle somewhere else, and a few weeks later you would hear what had happened at that battle, and you would have a family row about the result because your wife was probably Lancaster and you were perhaps York, and it was all rather like following rival football teams."

These musings come to Grant as he lies in his hospital bed, his leg broken in the line of duty. Various novels lie by his bedside, evanescent things he has no interest in reading, the flimsiness of which he dispatches in a few wicked paragraphs. He wonders: "Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays [enslaved] to a formula?" -- which is, of course, Tey's declaration that no formulas are to be used in the pages that follow.

Grant's reveries are interrupted by the arrival of his friend Marta Hallard, a hugely successful and entirely lovely actress; in book after book their relationship remains (so far as the reader can discern) maddeningly platonic, but that is just another of Tey's jokes. When Grant confesses that, immobilized as he is, he has fallen under "the prickles of boredom," Marta suggests he do some "academic investigating. . . . Finding a solution to an unsolved problem." She brings him a gallery of faces -- Grant is a great one for the study of faces -- from the print shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum. One, the "portrait of a man . . . dressed in the velvet cap and slashed doublet of the late fifteenth century," especially interests him:

"A judge? A soldier? A prince? Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist. A man at ease in a large design, but anxious over details. A candidate for gastric ulcer. Someone, too, who had suffered ill-health as a child. He had that incommunicable, that indescribable look that childhood suffering leaves behind it, less positive than the look on a cripple's face, but as inescapable."

He turns the likeness over and learns that it is Richard the Third: "Crouchback. The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy." His curiosity is piqued. He does not believe that a man with that face could have committed those murders: "Nothing in that face fits the facts of history." Nurses and friends bring him books, and Marta persuades a young American who is doing research at the British Museum to help his inquiry. Grant becomes a bedridden cop on the beat: "I'm asking myself the question that every policeman asks in every case of murder: Who benefits? And for the first time it occurs to me that the glib theory that Richard got rid of the boys to make himself safer on the throne is so much nonsense."

If nonsense it is, then it is nonsense widely accepted. Honigmann writes: "Some have . . . tried to prove Richard not guilty of the death of the two princes in the Tower; but the majority still holds with the common opinion of the time that the chief beneficiary had the greatest motive." Tell that to Alan Grant. He believes that another player in this cast of characters -- a man described as "a crab; he never went straight at anything" -- had far more to gain from the death of the princes than did Richard.

The case made by Grant and Tey seems to me persuasive, if far from ironclad. Winston Churchill, who knew rather more about such matters than I, read the novel and, in "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples," disagreed: "It will take many ingenious books to raise the issue to the dignity of a historical controversy." On and on the argument will go, as it had for centuries before this novel appeared, but when considering "The Daughter of Time" one does best to relegate historical nitpicking and even amateur sleuthing to the background. Concentrate on the book's virtues as fiction and its exploration of the mystery and uncertainty and downright falsehood that too often are at the heart of our inquiries into the past. Alan Grant has a word for that: "Tonypandy." To find out what it means, read "The Daughter of Time," which repays the reading many times over.

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, Scribner Paperback Fiction, $12. Eight of Tey's novels are reprinted in this series, and all are also easily found in used-book stores, on the Internet and in libraries.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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