Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Daughter of Time

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
Richard III, Shakespeare

The thing with used book sales is that you never really know what you're going to get. Most of the time, it's drivel that shouldn't take up space in your library. On some occasions, it's pure serendipity when you finally find that volume that you've been looking for all these years.

Case in point: Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.

To most people, the book would just be another detective story, and perhaps one with the driest of subjects. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, laid low after breaking his leg in a chase, is convalescing in a hospital. Grant is bored out of his wits until his friend encourages him to take on an unsolved mystery just to while the time away. The crime: Richard III's alleged murder of his nephews in the Tower of London.

As I said, a quaint little book of passing interest to most people. But this book and I have a long history. To fully appreciate that, you have to delve briefly into my education.

For the record, I took up Engineering at the University of San Carlos Technological Center (USC-TC) in Cebu City. Now, in Engineering in USC-TC, they spend five years beating the philosophical and literary nonsense out of you. A succession of cranks and cons, broken only by the rare light of dedicated teachers, showed you what the real world was like and how to get ahead in it. I lost all the good study habits I picked up in high school in that five years.

So I had to pick up the things that really mattered from the sources readily available to me: comics and science fiction.

More drivel, you might think, but in this you are wrong. In an early scene of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk reads out loud from a book that Spock gave him: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Sheer poetry! I was enthralled. In the absence of the Internet, I had to spend a long time finding out that it was the opening line from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

And then there was issue #10 of Comico's Jonny Quest series. The title was "Winters of Discontent," a highly unlikely but fun romp into time travel. When I read the opening lines from Shakespeare's Richard III, which formed part of the opening sequence, I was again enthralled. I read the play not long after, and caught Al Pacino's underappreciated Looking for Richard in the theater.

The main story of that issue, however, dealt with the injustice wrought on Richard Plantagenet and perpetrated by Shakespeare's play and an account of the monarch purportedly written by Sir Thomas More. Writer William Messner-Loebs put in a reference to his source which was -- you guessed it -- Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.

Popular knowledge of Richard III, owing in no small part to Shakespeare's play, paints him as a scheming hunchback who killed his brother to seize the crown. Everyone "knows" that he had his two nephews imprisoned and killed in the Tower of London. Everyone "knows" that he accused his mother of having an affair and that therefore his elder brother was illegitimate.

But was he? Richard III was an able administrator who ascended as regent with the untimely death of his brother Edward. Though he was named lawful king by a zealous supporter, he in fact made sure that his brother's son was next in line for the throne. Unfortunately, the line ended with his death at the Battle of Bosworth and the ascension of Henry VII.

And the murders of the nephews? They never happened, apparently. It was slander perpetrated by John Morton, the corrupt Bishop of Ely and enemy of Richard III many years after the king's death. It was rather Henry VII who was more methodical in the elimination of his enemies. Morton was also the source of Sir Thomas More's account of Richard III, which Shakespeare in turn used as the basis for his play.

Whichever version of the story is true is not particularly relevant for me as the lessons that The Daughter of Time offers for readers of history. For example, here are some lines I particularly like:
Truth isn't in accounts but in account books. The real history is written in forms not meant as history. In Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books. If someone, say, insists that Lady Whoosit never had a child, and you find in the account book the entry: 'For the son born to my lady on Michaelmas eve: five yards of blue ribbon, fourpence halfpenny' it's a reasonably fair deduction that my lady had a son on Michaelmas eve.

The book also introduces the term 'Tonypandy,' after an incident in the Scottish border.
The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It will never be overtaken now. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.

That leads me to think of how much of Philippine history really is bunk. Much of our own accounts are blatantly propaganda; and the historians who put it together afterwards weren't exactly bereft of their own agendas, either.

Ms. Tey isn't so kind to historians, at least the kind that wrote the books I read in high school and college:
"Historians should be compelled to take a course in psychology before they are allowed to write."

"History is toy soldiers...It's moving little figures about on a flat surface. It's half-way to mathematics, when you come to think about it."

All this also leads me to think about the current situation. The sitting president -- who has never fully addressed questions about her legitimacy -- and her cohorts may try to muzzle the press and all forms of negative public opinion; similarly, her political opponents may try to do as much damage by bringing in convenient bits of facts at the opportune (or inopportune) times; and even bloggers like me may weigh in with our opinions; but ultimately, the truth will come out. In the account books, in the pictures, in the testimonies. Not any amount of doctoring can alter the entire tale consistently.

Truth, as the old saying goes, is the daughter of time.