Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: An Exploration of One Writer's Claims about Research

One of my favorite books is Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. In this fictionalized novel of scholarly detection, Tey's Scotland Yard character, Alan Grant, delves into the truth behind the Princes in the Tower: Were they killed by their uncle Richard III?

It is the ultimate Richardian defense. It has flaws--for one, it is more than likely that one of Richard's cohorts did dispose of the princes. Unfortunately, many Richard III scholars who disagree with the Richardians tend to belittle Tey's novel, to the point where they ignore some of her fundamental (and valid) points.

The latest Richard III book I tried to read made complimentary noises about Daughter of Time being a good read . . . for sweet little ladies. I'm not kidding about the last part. It was the most patronizing and appallingly stupid remark I'd read in a long time. And the guy called himself a scholar!

So I decided that it's time someone took Tey's claims about historical research seriously. Not her claims about Richard III necessarily. But her larger points about history, sources, and scholarship. If I taught a course on research, this is the book I'd have people read. Hopefully, an examination of Tey's claims will explain why:

The novel begins with Grant, bored. He broke his leg chasing a suspect, so he is stuck in the hospital for several weeks (Daughter of Time was written in 1951; nowadays, Grant would get stuck with a few pins and be sent home.)

Grant's long-term girlfriend Marta Hallard suggests that he entertain himself by investigating a historical mystery. To get him started, she brings him pictures of various historical personages. Richard III's portrait (see above) is amongst them. Grant is so struck by the man's face (he doesn't look like a monster!), he begins to investigate.

Claim 1
Source 1: A schoolbook. 

Grant gets two schoolbooks from a nurse. The first is the type of tertiary source where history is broken up into chronological stories: "all in clear large print and one-sentence paragraphs." Tey writes:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
So true! I love the fascinating intricacies of history, the complexity that one discovers by delving into a single moment of time. Things look smooth and non-complex from the outside. From the inside, they are series of causes, consequences, choices, and randomness: everything at once!

However, I am a big fan of teaching the simple, orderly history that actually gets remembered. In my American & New England Studies program, I encountered students who complained about this "high school" approach. People should know that the North also owned slaves! People should know that there were multiple reasons for the Civil War! Stepping back a hundred years, it's true that more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!"

Not the Middle Ages. Plate 3 from Hogarth's
The Rake's Progress, 1732-1733.
Except it turns out that Paul Revere's message had greater impact and spread to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth!

Besides which, knowing history stories is far less upsetting (and problematic) than a lack of knowledge about history--as when well-educated adults confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). I don't expect every educated adult to understand that the King James Bible was largely influenced by Tyndale's Bible. I don't expect them to know that Europe in the Middle Ages endured more than one plague. I don't expect them to know that plague doctors did in fact improve their doctoring methods (although nothing to the equivalent of antibiotics). I don't even expect all of them to know that the Dark Ages (Rome falls) is not the same as the Middle Ages (people pick up the pieces).
I do expect the average educated adult to know the distinction between Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Things do get slightly more confusing after that. Still, the "modern era" belongs in a different category from the Middle Ages.

I have sympathy with those teachers and scholars who want to emphasize the complexity of history. I personally get quite irritated when people try to argue the one-way version of history ("Once upon a time, people were prim and proper about sex; they've gotten less prim and proper every decade until now when things are at their worst!"). The Regency era, for instance, was far more raunchy than the Victorian Era (which followed it) and even, in some ways, far less self-conscious about its raunchiness than us moderns are about ours.

Things don't always work to clear patterns. C.S. Lewis, for example, argued that the Renaissance was not a clean break with the Medieval Era. And he's right! (Tey will make a similar point later on.)

Still, knowing that the Renaissance represents a specific historical era is a place to start. The saddest aspect of history in school is that not teaching the simple, supposedly "bad" version of history doesn't give students any place to hang their hats. If they don't know the classic stories about the Revolutionary War, how will they understand the debates about the Revolutionary War? If they don't know when the American Civil War took place, how can they understand the attending complexities of the Civil War?

I recently had a student who didn't know what courting was; when he found out, he decided to write a paper about it (the sort of decision that makes teachers smile!). He got a long of things wrong (such as the assumption that every culture before "now" promoted arranged marriages). But at least he now knows that there was a "then"! Trying to explain the role of arranged marriages (and the semi-arranged marriages of Austen's time period) would be impossible if he didn't have a "then" in the first place.

Better simple, clear, chronological stories from history than a lot of different ideas about history with no context. 

Coming up . . . Source 2: The Other Schoolbook

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