Saturday, 16 March 2013

The [abused?] Daughter of Time

(… or fostered by wrong-headed romantics?)

On the plus side, Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel is an engaging detective story which appeals to the reader’s sense of fairness, seeking truth in place of unfounded allegation and exposing the way in which history can be and is written by the victors, especially after a change of regime. It also made scathing criticisms of the unthinking myth-mongering prevalent in what is now the heritage industry and in primary-school textbooks, too often endorsed without examination in more serious works.

Where it goes seriously haywire is not so much about Richard III as in the matter of “Tonypandy”.(pp.109-110 and onwards recurrently to the end of the book).  This resonant Welsh place-name – later sneered at as “silly”- is hijacked to characterise the sort of myths referred to above (p.127: ‘Pure Tonypandy. A dramatic story with not a word of truth in it.’) Tey’s supposed justification for doing so actually embodies many of  the faults she picks up in the sources for what we may call Shakespeare’s Richard*:

·         a  distorted account imputed  to the tradition she is attacking – “the shooting down by troops that Wales will never forget”. What is rightly remembered  is the calling in of troops indicating the government’s manifest readiness to shoot striking miners. (An internet search will show how the centenary of the events of 1910-11 in South Wales was commemorated).
·          reliance on hearsay (40 years after the event), use of selective or no evidence, tabloid-style slander unsubstantiated.
·         victors’ version of events uncritically accepted. Tonypandy was not an  isolated outbreak of lawlessness; the miners were forced back after a protracted struggle with numerous clashes. 

Of course Tey had no sympathy for striking miners or for the  lower orders generally. Similar instances of blatant bias, dogmatically asserted as undeniable truth, and the familiar buzzing of favourite bees in her bonnet (like the fixation on physiognomy with which her detective’s quest begins), occur throughout as in her other works.

Why bother about all this? Because historical accuracy matters, and those who denounce official versions should be more scrupulous, not less (or no better), in our own practices than purveyors of the established orthodoxy.

You don’t have to be a wrong-headed romantic to think there is a good case made out in the book for rejecting the once-traditional, Tudor-led assessment of Richard III, but it may help, especially if you buy the whole package of Tey’s portrayal of him. Being a mid-20th century-style family man and general good guy would have been somewhat at variance with his military side as well as his position of power. But it would be seriously wrong-headed and worse than romantic to take her unsupported word for any of the other instances of what she so wrong-headedly calls Tonypandy, first and foremost that significant episode of British labour history and class struggle itself.

On p.221 Inspector Grant realises, no doubt speaking for his author as usual, that “History was something that he would never understand…”  Evidently – as long as the experience of the vast majority of humanity is discounted as of no interest.

Page  refs. as in: Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time. London, Arrow Books 2009. First published by William Heinemann, 1951.

Tangentially related SmothPubs pamphlet: What is Libertarian History? by Liz Willis (2011) 12pp.

Even more tangentially related article: E. Willis, ‘English detective fiction and the “People’s War”’. Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol.42, no.1, 2006: 13-21.

* The enduring fascination of Shakespeare’s Richard – as crime-fiction noir not history; as memorably portrayed by Paul Daneman in the BBC’s 1962 Age of Kings series, not pantomime villain –  is another discussion.

Remembering 1911 - see also Tonypandy riots article on wikipedia.

Reality Check: A Place in History,
by Colin Philpott 
(Ammonite Press 2012)
Medicine, War - and Murder: Health Professionals in English Detective Fiction of the Second World War.  Another sidelight on detective fiction, otherwise unpublished Word document here

New suggestion for further reading: 

Josephine Wilkinson, The Princes in the Tower: Did Richard III murder his nephews...? Stroud, Amberley, 2013.   
A sequence of essays presenting a scrupulous and thorough consideration of the evidence now available in relation to different aspects of and suspects in the case. Delivers several “not guilty” verdicts but arrives at no final conclusion, although sign-posting a direction in which one may be sought. And more, or More (as in Sir Thomas, on whom Tey expended so much scorn, and who first supplied many of the key details in the traditional tale): in effect endorses a crime-fiction categorisation of the Shakespearean script by demonstrating how More’s patently inaccurate narrative was shaped by dramatic moralising rather than historical imperatives. 
To treat Thomas More’s History of King Richard III as a work of history, then, is to do it a disservice and to overlook More’s point entirely. (p.127)
[... It] has no place or purpose as source material for historical enquiry. (p.128) 
Given that More’s History of King Richard III should be viewed as drama rather than as history, it is perhaps only fitting that the darkest and most memorable portrayal of Richard III should be found in the work of the greatest dramatist of the all, William Shakespeare, whose play Richard III clearly owes much to Thomas More. (Note 54, p.176). 
Paul Daneman as Richard
in BBC's An Age of Kings, 1962
(It may be worth noting here that in editions of the collected works, Shakespeare’s play is called “The Tragedy” , not “The History” of King Richard III).  

1 comment:

  1. Continuing with the crime-fiction connection, the first chapter of "The Murders of Richard III" by Elizabeth Peters (1974) provides a readable rough-and-ready summary of the pro-Ricardian case as it stood at the time. And the rest is a good read too, especially for anyone bitten by the Richard bug.