A Thoughtful Spot for Encouragement and Shelf-Help
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
by Victoria Botkin
During the months since I started thinking about reviewing this book the world has changed. We’re now seeing something even worse than the historical revisionism this book is about: historical erasure. But this book is also about unearthing lost truths; something very relevant to today.
(By the way, this review was written by a friend to whom I gave the book, as part of a letter, which I’ve kindly been given permission to post.)
Hello again, Mother B,
I wanted to write you a short note thanking for your enthusiastic and persistent recommendation of “The Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey. I just finished it yesterday. I have seldom heard you plug a book so frequently (and you plug books with abandon), but I see that every ounce of enthusiasm was justified. Who knew that the research process could make such a captivating subject for a novel? I could never have conceived of a fascinating novel about someone laid up in bed.
The premise is great-a police inspector with gobs of free time finds his fascination with faces gets him second-guessing the character of a historical black sheep. The author uses the scenario really well: Grant gets a random sampling of public opinion on Richard right there at his bedside. It contrasts with his unfolding discoveries. He has enough time to delve deeply into sources since he hasn’t got anything better to do while laid up with a broken leg. The hunt for the truth breathes new purpose into his life and into that of his friend, “The Sheep.” They illustrate how satisfying it is to “search out a matter”.
There were a couple points that were particularly memorable. Towards the end of the book, Carradine and Grant discuss the human bias against having settled facts corrected. They speculate about why this is. I think it’s because it’s too humbling. It’s too hard to admit that I—not an undiscerning sort—have been duped, right along with thousands of other honest, sensible, people. And if something so established as Richard III’s villainy is a mere fabrication, what else could be? For that matter, what couldn’t be? Are we sure that James Madison authored the Constitution? Did Christopher Columbus really discover America?* Once open, the door to skepticism is hard to shut.
In raising this dilemma, the book is extremely relevant. Everyone everywhere has to decide which information to trust or whom to trust for information. Or whether or not to question the things they’ve always taken for granted. Or when to jump ship from their preferred news platform. Or whether to hang on and plunge headlong into impassioned defenses of the truly ridiculous. Stop ones’ ears or reconsider? Learn to think, even if it means reconsidering settled fact? (i.e. “settled facts” that earth is being destroyed by humans and President Trump is a racists, etc, etc).
I’ve found myself thinking about how difficult it is to promote truth and honesty in research. It’s a lot of work! It requires care and sense of personal responsibility for the truth. How could so many historians and textbook authors unwittingly perpetuate a false narrative? How could so many editors re-print unsubstantiated accusations against public figures? I would like to be a careful researcher and faithful witness, but it’s going to require sacrifice. The same goes for tricky life situations, layered with hearsay and unsubstantiated evidence. Can I value the truth enough to be careful with it?
Another thing: Grant isn’t exactly in quarantine, but close. If he lived in 2020, would he have just watched Netflix instead? How many historical mysteries are not being untangled right now?
Well, you probably get the idea that I liked the book.