Monday, February 18, 2013

Daughter of Time

This quick read by classic crime writer Josephine Tey was suggested in David Stewart's blog in the wake of the discovery of Richard III's skeleton. It turns out there is a whole movement of "Ricardians" seeking to rehabilitate his reputation as a cruel and monstrous tyrant. The team searching for the skeleton has that as one of their goals and Tey's "procedural," first published in 1951, was an early work seeking to correct his bad historical rap.

In this book, her detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg (for a period unimaginable under today's health insurance schemes) and is bored by the literary fluff he has to read. Because his finely honed detective skills give him confidence that he can tell much about people simply by studying their faces, a friend brings him a number of historical portraits to study. One is the classic portrait of Richard III, which immediately strikes Grant as the face of a kind and intelligent person who has suffered much, and not the monster accused by history of murdering his nephews to ensure his accession to the throne.

With the help of a convenient young American researcher, Grant works to find the truth about Richard III, focusing as a detective not on what people say, but on their actions and movements. When he finds "gaps," he zeroes in on them to find out why their behavior is at variance with the received truth. Long story short, this detective determines that Richard III had no motive for murdering his nephews; there was no evidence that he had or even that they were dead before Richard himself was killed in the Battle of Bosworth, ending the Plantagenet dynasty; that contemporary accounts portray Richard as a just and compassionate ruler; that the "confession" by Tyrrel 20 years after the fact that Richard commissioned him to kill the princes was a frame-up by the Tudors, who themselves are guilty of the crime in order to secure their own dynasty.

At the end, Tey reveals of course that all of this revisionist history has been well-documented in the 500 years since Richard III's death. But the combination of Thomas More's slanderous account and Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III as a murderous hunchback (Richard in fact had curvature of the spine from idiopathic scoliosis, but this was not visible or known to most people) meant that a wider public and school textbooks preserved this unsympathetic portrayal.

It turns out a certain Philippa Langley is heading the Ricardian excavation with plans to produce a miniseries telling the true story of Richard III centuries after his death and 60-some years after Tey's popular book. The title comes from an "old proverb" cited at the beginning: "Truth is the daughter of time."

The book itself has virtually no action. It could be a radio play or a static stage play because it consists almost exclusively of dialogue between Grant and his researcher and other interactions in his hospital room. For those of us who did not have an education in British schools, the proliferation of Edwards and Edmunds and Warwicks and Woodvilles and Lancastrians and Yorkists can all be a bit confusing. But with a little assistance from Wikipedia, it is an entertaining way to absorb a lot of history.

Two other things stood out for me: Tey anticipates the Hilary Mantel's debunking of the "sainted Thomas More" by several decades, portraying him as a scurrilous, dishonest tool of the Tudor effort to discredit Richard. The researcher, Brent Carradine, at one point describes More as "The mean, burbling, insinuating old bastard." So far from Paul Scofield's More in "A Man for All Seasons."

Second, Shakespeare's role in perpetuating what truly seems to be a false picture exposes his Histories as the blatantly political screeds they are. (Obviously the world is richer for immortal lines like the "winter of our discontent" and "my kingdom for a horse," but much of what the playwright wrote is fiction, not history.) For me, it fits in with the total deception surrounding Shakespeare since I'm firmly in the Oxfordian camp that believes a titled nobleman wrote these plays and not a functionally illiterate sometime actor from Stratford-on-Avon.

So until I see other evidence to the contrary, I am in the Ricardian camp and eager for the miniseries to be produced. In the meantime, I've ordered the much longer historical novel The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, a sympathetic portrayal of Richard III.

The discovery and verification of the skeleton is an exciting story of detection in its own right, and would make for a compelling documentary.

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