As a Riccardian, Josephine Tey’s novel Daughter of Time is an old favorite.
Re-reading last night. I didn’t expect it to provide an example of how researchers go wrong.
The story goes like this. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is convalescing after an injury. A friend triggers his interest in Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. One of the most famous mysteries in the English-speaking world. Richard supposedly had them killed. It now seems that story was pure Tudor propaganda.
At one point in the novel, a student researcher tells Grant the story of the Boston Massacre. Grant responds by telling the story of the Tonypandy Riots.
Grant says the point of his story is not just “Someone blowing up a simple affair for a political end.” It’s how history has been falsified. “The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story in 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.“
When I was an undergraduate I read a similar story about the dangers of oral history. Star-crossed lovers in wartime Yugoslavia who ended up committing suicide. Except both of them were still alive, and the people telling the story knew them, knew their identity, and knew they weren’t dead.
This is the kind of thing we need to bear in mind when doing historical research. Very often it’s the story that matters. Contemporary accounts aren’t necessarily true accounts.
A few pages later, Grant and his researcher decide they need to look at reactions to the death of Edward IV. Tey gives us a great parting line: “Only historians tell you what they thought. Research workers stick to what they did.”
I’d say that’s sound advice for genealogists.
- Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacKintosh). Daughter of Time. Pocket Books, 1951.