Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Book review

I finally managed to get a copy of Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. The book comes highly recommended from various sources, among them the The Richard III Society and Penny Proctor. Those of you who have read my review of Sharon Kay Pennman's The Sunne in Splendor know I'm a shameless apologist for the man. Even so, after four years on the subject, I'm still trying to get a handle on who exactly Richard III is and trying to come up with a good explanation for his schism in personality -- from loyal brother and devoted subject to usurper and perhaps, even murderer. The story of Richard III intrigues because there are no clear cut answers; the historical records at that time are dependent on two or three individuals, including the most famous of them all -- Sir Thomas More (in Tey's language, Sainted More). Because no one really knows what happened to the princes in the Tower, Richard III is a real life mystery and so it makes total sense for it to be a subject of a detective novel.

Tey's writing style is a wittier, more glib than her contemporaries, such as Agatha Christie. She is also accurate; with two exceptions (the execution of Lord Stanley Hastings did happen right away and without a trial and secondly, her portrayal of the Woodvilles is not completely correct -- the Woodvilles were heavily disliked and mistrusted by not only Richard III, but by others also), there are no glaring errors.

In addition, Tey managed to paint the psychological picture of Richard III and his times in a way that fits with facts. Like any skilled mystery novelist, she builds up the mystery which is based on two questions: Who was Richard III and who was responsible for the disappearance (murder?) of the sons of Edward VI? The first question is vitally important as it direct relates to the psychology of the man, which in Tey's hand, is radically different than what came into common belief after his death.

The portrait of Richard III popularly accepted by history was written after the fact and not by sympathesizers to the Plantagenets, but rather to those trying to solidify a weak claim (Henry VII) to the throne; the best way to do that would be to undermine the Plantagenet claim versus that of the Tudor. Tey does not ignore this important piece of evidence -- in fact, through Grant, Tey is very vocal about the power of propaganda. Sir Thomas More, who was five years old when Richard III was killed at Bosworth Field, is probably the one who is responsible for the popular view of Richard III which then passed into literature through the pen of William Shakespeare. Tey spares no respect for the author of "Utopia" -- he is rarely referred to anything other than The Sainted More and always with a bit of sarcasm on the side.

There's no question about the protogonist's motivation from the very first time Inspectator Alan Grant sees the portrait of Richard III. Grant wants to exonerate Richard III -- he simply doesn't believe that Richard III could be responsible for the murder of his nephews based on his psychological profile of Richard. So if not Richard III, then who? Grant goes through the information very methodically, with the help of a research student and a bunch of history text books. Using his knowledge of the criminal mind, Grant constructs a plausible case against another suspect entirely. When spun a certain way, yes, the facts certainly do seem to exonerate Richard III entirely. However, the facts don't necessarily convict the other person either, but rather offer up an alternative suspect that history (through the beauty of propaganda) seems to have overlooked.

However, the book falls short in a couple of places. The first is the intensity of the historical record presented. I read this book from the perspective of someone who knows more than average about this particular time period. Names, characters, and events seemed to have been glossed over -- while I followed properly, it may be someone with less knowledge of that time period may get confused or not follow as easily. Note that this a relatively short book -- my copy was just 200 pages. So there isn't a whole lot of build-up or background explanation; the reader is basically on her own. Given that, the convulated War of the Roses and the conflicts between Margaret of Anjou, Warwick the Kingmaker and Edward of York may lose some of their resonance (and mind you, I'm speaking from a historian's viewpoint; the backdrop, the reason why events happened the way they did during Richard III's reign did not just come into being -- it was a long process that culminated at Bosworth Field ).

Second, while Tey presents a plausible suspect who is not Richard III, she neglects to answer another question: If Richard III didn't do it, where were the boys during his reign? It's a small omission, but a telling one. While Tey has an answer for nearly everything else -- Elizabeth Woodville's acceptance of a pension from Richard III, allowing her daughters back to court, the absolute lack of scandal about the princes in the summer of 1483 -- she skips right over this question.

In general, this book is a quick read and fascinating. The dialogue is clever, though occasionally, due to British slang, occasionally a little bewildering. However, I enjoyed the characterizations, the descriptions and overall, the gentle humor that ran throughout; it's rare to find a mystery that is so light-hearted as this one -- but perhaps that's because we're over 500 years removed from the events described in the book.

I would however, recommend first acquiring a minimum background on the Plantagenents. While I don't recommend Alison Weir's "The Princes in the Tower," I do recommend her survey of The War of the Roses. Weir, as I've said before, has a tendency to embelish and make her biases abundently clear; one can often find facts in Weir's books that are not in evidence anywhere else as a result. That being said, I think her "War of the Roses" is fair and is probably one of the best books on the tumultuous time period that led to the demise of the Plantegenet rule in England. In addition, Jean Plaidy's The Reluctant Queen (about Anne Neville -- mistakenly called Anne of York here) and the aforementioned "The Sunne in Splendor" are both recommended as well.

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