Seduced by the Story

A man who is interested in what makes people tick doesn’t write history. He writes novels .. . A man who understands about people hasn’t any yen to write history.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey wrote The Daughter of Time in 1951 as a ferocious critique of historians and downloadtheir methods wrapped up in a ripping good mystery novel. I am astounded I only recently discovered her work. Those of us who revel in both history and fiction are well advised to study her art.

In the book, Tey’s hero, Alan Grant is a policeman who has been laid up by an injury and confined to his bed. A chance view of a portrait of Richard III piques his interest. Richard III is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain who murdered his two nephews and sealed their bodies in the Tower of London to be discovered two hundred years later. Everybody knows that, right?

As an experienced detective with an interest in the faces of criminals, Tey’s hero finds that

The Princes in the Tower, John Everett Millais, 1878

The Princes in the Tower, John Everett Millais, 1878

the portrait simply does not look like the face of a cold-blooded murderer. No one he shows it to considers the portrait to look like a murderer either. I didn’t either. When Richard’s name is mentioned, however, everyone says “Oh yes. He murdered those princes in the tower.”

The policeman in him asks, “Did he?” With the help of a young assistant he begins to assemble the evidence, primary sources for the facts of the case, the witnesses, the motives and the opportunity. As it turns out there are no witnesses. The primary accounts come from Shakespeare via Thomas More who got it from Cardinal Morton. The problem is the cardinal wrote long after Richard died, owed Richard ill will, and was at pains to curry favor with Henry VII. Odd that. There are however many contemporary letters, chronicles and documents. Alan and his assistant eliminate the impossible and question the unlikely. They ask, “Who stood to gain?” Piece by piece, using modern police procedures, Alan builds the case for Richard’s innocence and Henry’s likely guilt.

Late in the book his assistant makes another discovery: their findings are not unique. This allows the novelist to give some credit.

 A man named Buck wrote a vindication in the seventeenth century. And Horace Walpole in the eighteenth. And someone called Markham in the nineteenth.

A Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey

King Richard III, by unknown artist, late 16th century

King Richard III, by unknown artist, late 16th century

If that is so, why do people persist in believing Richard murdered his nephews? In my experience, people like a good story and will cling to it. My own relatives are much less interested in my careful research into our distant ancestor Antoine Brulé who migrated to Canada in the 1660s than in some mythical descent from the explorer Etienne Brulé who came sixty years earlier. I can document Antoine but Etienne provides a more exciting story.

Tey’s answer? Debunking a closely held myth makes people uncomfortable. “So they reject it and refuse to think about it.” Without a doubt the story of the poor princes in the tower will persist in spite of Alan Grant or Horace Walpole. It is too delicious a story to reject. As for me, however, I’m converted. Tey’s excellent story telling convinced me far more thoroughly than any historian could have. I believe I am a Ricardian.

Where do you find truth? History or fiction? Which do you prefer, fact or a good story?