Tue
Feb 19 2013 11:00am

How Can This Be So Gripping? Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

How Can This Be So Gripping? Josephine Tey's The Daughter of TimeYou probably heard that they found the bones of Richard III a few days ago, under a car park in Leicester. Actually they found them a while ago, but they’ve now been confirmed to be his bones from forensic and DNA evidence. Naturally, this immediately led me to pick up Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a book I’ve read so many times that I’m now on my third copy. It’s about Richard III, of course, but it’s not about Richard III in any normal way. It’s not a historical novel, it’s a detective story, and when you think about it it’s very odd. I first read it as a teenager. It was my first Tey. I went on to read and re-read everything she wrote. I find her compulsively readable. Whatever it is that makes me get completely sucked into a book and keep on reading and come out blinking hours later when I need to put the lights on to keep seeing the page, that thing Heinlein has for me, Tey has it too.

Inspector Grant is Tey’s recurring detective character, and here we find him in a hospital bed, bored. He is bored by the hospital, by his nurses, and by his available fiction choices—each one a type, a frothy romance, a cosy detective story, a noir, a Regency, a modern romance etc. It is possible to deduce by the existence of Cold Comfort Farm and the novel described here, The Sweat and the Furrow by Silas Weekley, that there was a whole genre of “realistic” books about farming and sex and misery. I have read none of those books, and only deduce their existence because two different writers parodied them in a way that leads me to see their shadow. One wishes to take Grant a whole pile of copies of Astounding, but before I have a chance to get on my time machine, he gets interested in researching Richard III and the plot’s away.

This is a book about research. It’s the story of chasing Richard through secondary sources and primary sources and putting together the clues to discover who really killed the Princes in the Tower. Grant doesn’t get out of bed; a subordinate, a friend, the nurses and eventually a research assistent bring him books and information. He starts from a portrait of Richard and works outwards from there. It’s either a very faithful portrait of how writers do research or I learned how to do research from reading this. (I genuinely wouldn’t care to guess which.)

It isn’t perfect. There’s far too much of Grant’s uncanny ability to read character from faces—which one could argue makes it fantasy. There’s also far too much of the Velikovskyan style of argument that goes “The facts are A. Somebody did B. How could anybody possibly do B when faced with A? We must therefore have the facts wrong.” I find no difficulty imagining people who do B. Maybe I just have a wider imagination, or maybe I get out more.

I have not independently investigated the argument that Richard didn’t kill the Princes in the Tower. It’s not my period. I’ve heard people argue that Tey’s cheating and leaving things out. I honestly couldn’t say. I find Tey’s Richard and Shakespeare’s Richard interesting fictional characters, and the same goes for John M. Ford’s Richard, who did kill the princes in the tower but only because they were vampires... and I think the relationship of all three of these constructs to the bones they dug up in Leicester is symbolic rather than actual. But you can’t help thinking about it when you read The Daughter of Time because the subject of The Daughter of Time is how a lot of received history is bunk. At the very least it causes the reader to interrogate history instead of accepting it.

But what I love about the book is the details, the way the research winds through the books, the little “o”s coloured in on the page of the child’s history, and the hospital food, and Brent Carradine’s indignation across time with John Morton.

There are several series characters here, though it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the other books and don’t recognise them. Marta Halland and the authors of several of the awful books are in To Love and Be Wise, and Marta is also in several other books. Sergeant Williams is in all of them. The new characters, the nurses, doctor, matron, the researcher Carradine, and Grant’s landlady, are all beautifully drawn. It’s clear she intended them to be caricatures, but she breathed life into them. Of course, the book is geninely funny here and there. And there’s a joke for Tey enthusiasts—not only has Grant seen her play (as Gordon Daviot) Richard of Bordeaux, but Marta is trying to get a female playwright to write something for her and the playwright sidles off to write a detective story instead.

None of which explains why this is a book that I’ve read twenty times and can pick up again and be entirely engrossed by to the point of missing my stop on the metro, or why I wanted to read this again because they’ve found Richard’s body.

Should you live in Australia, you might be interested to know that Tey died in 1952 and her books are therefore out of copyright there and available on Gutenberg Australia. She left her copyrights to the National Trust which preserves historic sites in Britain (England is thickly seeded with king’s bones), so people who live where she is still in copyright can at least feel confident that their money is going to a good cause.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

18 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
That sounds really good. I like historical detective work, so thanks for pointing this out and onto the list it goes.
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
I loved this book! Read it as part of a college class for the first time.
Tey's argument about the Prince's mother was one of her best points in support of Richard. Well, it's the point I remember best 8+ years later.
Nicholas Winter
3. Nicholas Winter
Gutenberg Australia is accessible from anywhere on the Net and anyone can download from there. I'll leave it up to the ethics of others if they should do so...
Nicholas Winter
4. farah311
Adored this book. For me one of the attractions tho was that "sick in bed". To be sick in bed and *not* feel useless!
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Farah311: Yes, and it's amazing that this book works when all the action on the part of the protagonist is perforce mental.
brightening glance
6. brightglance
The same copyright rules apply in Canada, as far as I know.
Nicholas Winter
7. Andrea K
One of my favourite books - whether you agree with the thesis about Richard or not, it will turn sideways any belief you had in "received history" and make clear how much is secondhand retelling.

And for a book which starts out with an entire paragraph describing the ceiling above the detective's bed, it's amazingly gripping.
Nicholas Winter
8. kb_run
I just finished listening to the audiobook! Derek Jacobi does an amazing job with the characters -- I highly recommend it!
Theresa Wymer
9. Tekalynn
Tonypandy!

Yes, this book was definitely my Ricardian gateway drug. Not everyone will agree with the historical conclusions, but it's certainly worth reading.
Pamela Adams
10. Pam Adams
This is my second favorite Tey- Brat Farrar leads the pack. I also love Richard III, the play, and the idea that it's all a lie amuses me no end.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
11. spinfuzz
I'd have to read the book before I gave a definitive opinion of it, but I tend to think that presenting the opposite opinion of "received history" in a well-written fiction as a way of exposing its conjectural nature is not the best way to go. If written well, as you posit, I think it just creates a lot of conspiracy theorists rather than the curiosty to go read primary and secondary sources for themselves. The verisimilitude of the fiction, and the research the author had put behind it would make it seem like there was serious refutation. Add to that emotional attachment to the story, Tey's story, apart from all the Richard hallabaloo and you have people who would defend Richard on the basis of a novel, rather than having looked at sources themselves.

As evidence for my theory I'll submit comment #2 above:
Tey's argument about the Prince's mother was one of her best points in support of Richard.
Tey doesn't have an argument. She's writing a story, and using a centuries-old mystery involving royalty to give it some glam. Nothing wrong with that, but it's a story not a historical argument.


I've taken a medieval English history course that did a good job of admitting that more than half of Richard's bad image is the way Shakespeare and the Tudor historians made him deformed. On the other hand, history does show that the queen mother, The Princes in the Towers' mother, sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey immediately upon reaching London. and that Richard did not allow the princes out of his grasp once he got a hold of them. And lo and behold, when they disappeared, he was king.


I'd say that to present a case saying Richard didn't do it would be pretty hard in the face of this admittedly circumstantial evidence. It would be something like the Shakespeare authorship question. It makes for a good movie, but doesn't hold up to much scrutiny as a theory.

Anyways I am sorry to get so worked up about it, but there's a difference between enjoying a book that uses research and history to tell an entertaining tale and connecting that tale to criticism of real history.
Nicholas Winter
12. sylvia_rachel
I love this one. I need to reread it again, but I can't find my copy... Library ho!
Nicholas Winter
13. JaneP
This is also my favourite Tey book. I have a soft spot for Elizabeth Peters take on Tey and the Richard III debate in The Murders of Richard III one of her Jacqueline Kirby mysteries. Its like a web of novels referencing novels.
Nicholas Winter
14. neroden
"On the other hand, history does show that the queen mother, The Princes
in the Towers' mother, sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey immediately
upon reaching London."
That's true....

"and that Richard did not allow the princes out of
his grasp once he got a hold of them."
There's no evidence they TRIED to "get out of his grasp", however. Maybe they liked him.

"And lo and behold, when they disappeared, he was king."
One of Tey's major points in the novel is that there's no evidence that they actually disappeared on his watch, and not, for instance, several years later.

One of the things the novel impresses on you is just how thin the historical record actually is -- just in general. We imagine that we would know the day when someone disappeared. Not so much if it was in the world before voluminuous government records. We have random letters which happened to survive; we know the record is incomplete.

If you died today, how would people in the future know when you died? Think about it. Hospital records -- tax returns -- etc. Little of that existed for most of history, and much of what did exist has been destroyed over time. And that's something this book made me think about.
Nicholas Winter
15. Dorothy Wilson
We now have a reconstructed face of Richard III which is currently on tour and in the British Museum. I wonder what he would make of it?
Nicholas Winter
16. Louisa Hinchliffe6
I have read this more than once and have just started to read it again as I found my old copy with the pages falling out. When I 've finished it, I'll comment again.
Nicholas Winter
17. Tereasa
When I was doing my BA, my historiography prof suggested I read the novel "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey to see why you need real investigation when studying history. Never assume a thing. Re-reading it 15 years later, and it's still as fresh. I also missed my train because I was deep into it. It's still my no.1 recommendation to history students. Question everything.
Nicholas Winter
18. PaulaR
Definitely my favourite book by Tey! No doubt about it. Also it landed me right in the midst of the "Did he, didn't he?" debate. Am currently reading the book Mike Pitt wrote about the discovery of Richard's bones (in which he deals with the Wars of the Roses in about 4 pages, making my head spin.)

If anyone can help me find out how Tey went about the research she must have done for "The Daughter of Time", I would appreciate it. Having little to no luck so far myself (other than finding the Act of Attainder), and I do so want to join the argument. If the "sainted Sir Thomas" truly did what he did, he deserves belated pilloring!

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