Friday, May 27, 2011

Adventure classics -- Shakespeare out of joint

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey
In the last novel published during Josephine Tey’s lifetime, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant uses his enforced leisure during a hospital stay to unravel a centuries-old historical mystery. The fictional Grant concludes that England’s King Richard III, although vilified by his Tudor successors and, most famously, by Shakespeare as the murderer of his two young nephews, was innocent.

The fictional inspector’s devotion to research is impressive. Although he initiates his investigation from his interest in observing faces as indications of character, he delves through layers of sources to find those as close to the time – the late fifteenth century – as possible. In the pre-Internet world of The Daughter of Time’s publication (1951), Grant enlists the help of friends and employs an American graduate student to uncover facts.

But there are facts and there are facts. A member of the American Branch of the Richard III Society, the late librarian Judy Weinsoft, analyzed both Shakespeare’s and Tey’s depictions of the king in Strutting and Fretting His Hour Upon the Stage ( She concluded that neither Shakespeare nor Tey herself – in either her novel or play on the same subject -- scrupled to distort facts that stood in the way of their versions of the king. Weinsoft states: “But where Shakespeare rearranges the chronology of events to suit a dramatic purpose, (Tey) simply eliminates events she deems unsuitable to her favorable portrayal of Richard.”

Does that mean we can't enjoy either writer's version of the life of Richard III?  Weinsoft noted that Shakespeare's goal was to write a compelling drama.  Tey's was to write a compelling detective story and the interest actually lies in Grant's enthusiasm for his pursuit of a very cold case, heightened by gossipy reports of the activities of the modern characters.  Tey's familiarity with the theater of her day wittily and literately enlivens the book.

Leaving one further mystery -- that of Josephine Tey.  She was born Elizabeth MacKintosh in Inverness in 1986.  Described as  lively, mischievous and a noted gymnast as a girl, she became notoriously reclusive by the time her play "Richard of Bourdeaux" first made her famous in 1932.  Even Sir John Gielgud, who became a friend while starring in the play, commented, "It was difficult to tell what she really felt, since she did not readily give her confidence, even to her few intimate friends."  However, her extreme bitternessover World War I led him to surmise that she might have suffered a bereavement during the war.

She wrote her plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot -- the name listed on her obituary in the New York Times -- and the more popular mysteries that she considered, in Gielgud's words, her "yearly knitting," under Tey.  She kept knowledge of her terminal illness secret even from those closest to her for nearly a year before her death.  At the end, she was cremated, leaving a specific request to have no flowers.

(Next month -- the small Texas town of Cross Plains holds a Robert E. Howard festival each June, comemorating, ironically, the author's death.  In his honor, Adventure classics for the coming month will be all Howard -- and not just Conan.)

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