The topicality of writing about Richard III in the week leading up to the celebrations surrounding his reburial seems rather obvious- and possibly a bit of overkill, really- but nevertheless, in the hype surrounding the details of the events planned for Leicester between 22- 27 March 2015, and the excitement about Richard III’s updated image, it seems timely to reflect a bit on the changing reputation of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and King of England 1483-1485. And what better way to do this than by looking at a possibly rather unexpected source, a detective novel by Josephine Tey! It is a detective novel with a difference though because this one sees the detective, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, laid up in hospital with a broken leg, and lots of time on his hand. Inspector Grant is bored, and decides that instead of writing a fluffy novel, he’d much rather investigate a mystery, in fact, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. And so the tracks are set for a look at the histories and stories surrounding the alleged murder of the two sons of King Edward IV, Edward and Richard.
It’s certainly an unlikely premise for a detective novel, both given the fact that the crime was committed several hundred years ago (having said that, there are plenty of books who use historic murder as a plot device) but also because the main investigator is immobilised and relies on being furnished with new information by a cast of subsidiary characters who visit the bedridden Inspector and are sent off to run errants and find evidence in turn; from that point of view it reads almost like a sitcom episode where one character stays put in a room and everything that happens in the room is hearsay and debate and interpretation. Which is of course the very point Tey wants to make: the telling of history is a subjective process of selecting some facts and disregarding others, and the sum total of these decisions, over hundreds of years, might result in a contemporary perspective on events that might differ sharply from what was actually witnessed and from what in ‘truth’ happened. Daughter of Time is a clever book that challenges a belief in history as simply a series of stories, but for all its interest, its also a very enjoyable read by a master detective novel writer, a clever wordsmith who can hold a reader’s attention; in fact, I thought a lot of the craft of Hilary Mantel while reading the book, in its meticulous attention to detail but also in adopting the storytelling device of shifting the narrative focus to an unexpected narrator and therefore creating an alternative perspective. As such, its actually not relevant whether the (respectable!) research that underpins the books is accurate and all up too date (this has been questioned by Alison Weir, for example), because ultimately, Daughter of Time remains a detective story and does never pretend to be anything else. The point she makes is certainly poignant: where Polydore Vergil, writing under the patronage of a Tudor King, describes Richard III, the political enemy of his patron as a ‘myserable man … little of stature, deformyd of body, thone showlder being higher than tother, a short and sowre cowntenance, which semyd to savor of mischief and utter evidently craft and deceypt’, other sources can praise his enlightened legal reforms and his mercy. There are multiple, parrallel, conflicting stories that emerge from the past- and thinking about the past requires an approach akin to that of a detective. Questions need to be asked, evidence needs to be considered, alternative versions need to be examined, and the beauty of this process is not about finding out the ‘truth’, but rather in engaging with the process in the first place. History is not about reaching the endpoint of a pre-set destination- for me, its about the fun that can be had in undertaking the journey at all. History – and the reputation oif its key players- is in the eye of the beholder? Well, maybe. Maybe not.
History, and its dominant versions are about visibility and creating a legacy, so what makes the events in Leicester so interesting, so fabulously exciting for an art historian like me whose core research interests are on self fashioning and identity, is the way in which legacy and memory are created and new narratives are forged. Will I be in Leicester at the weekend to watch events? Try and stop me….
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time was first published in 1951.
The quotation above is taken from Polydore Vergil, ‘Life of Richard the Third’, Three Books of Polydore Vergil, Camden Society Reprint (2011, from an 1844 original), pp. 226-227.