Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Dr. Katherine Schaap Williams, Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, about Folger collection items related to the novel The Daughter of Time. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) is a detective novel that turns its lens on history, as if the past is a perpetually unsolved mystery. Inspector Grant is confined to his hospital bed while he recuperates from an accident, but with help—from the medical staff who attend him, an actress friend skilled in appraising character, and a graduate research assistant who fetches information from the British Museum archives—he takes up the question of whether King Richard III, reviled as a notorious murderer, did kill his nephews. As Grant revisits an apparent fact of English history, the novel highlights the importance of returning to primary sources to read what historical documents actually say, rather than just what we assume or have been taught that they say. Part of the fun of reading this novel, therefore, is how it insists that archival work—such as that of scholars who study historical texts—is urgent, necessary, and useful.
The novel turns on disability, specifically the question of how Richard’s appearance offers evidence for his person. Although Grant remarks on Richard’s hunchback formation, he is astonished by Richard’s face; the detective thinks he looks better suited to the bench as a judge than to the dock as an alleged criminal (44). In the hospital matron’s words, Richard has a face “full of the most dreadful pain” (49). This emphasis on reading the face is reminiscent of early modern physiognomy, a quasi-medical discourse, which tried to interpret bodily features as a clue to the person. Here, for example, is an image from the Folger’s copy of Thomas Hill’s The Contemplation of Mankind (1571), depicting the contrast between faces.
In Hill’s definition, the “crookednesse of the backe” we associate today with scoliosis, “doth intimate the wickednesse of conditions”—as if a bent spine is a punishment or the sign of a potential wrongdoer, visible evidence to be deciphered.
In the case of Shakespeare’s Richard Gloucester, that body is marked by “deformity.” Richard Gloucester is the most famous disabled character scripted by the most famous English playwright. Shakespeare’s play was popular in its moment: performed in the early 1590s and printed in 1597, King Richard III was reprinted regularly over the next two decades before it was collected in the 1623 Folio. In his opening soliloquy, Richard calls himself “deformed” and declares that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Consequently, scholars of early modern literature and disability studies alike interpreted Richard Gloucester as evidence for a moral model of disability, the idea that physical deformity signifies inner evil.
In this account, the moral model of disability in the past gives way to a medical model of disability in the present. The medical model asserts that disability is an individual catastrophe to be corrected or cured. Disability studies critiques this fantasy of eliminating disability, refusing what we call the ideology of cure: the idea that disability is only a deficit and that a disabled person must hope for a future medical intervention to make them “normal.” Against a medicalized notion of disability, early work on disability theory, emerging from the disability rights movement, advanced a social model of disability. The social model of disability distinguishes between impairment (embodied difference) and disability (which happens when a person encounters an environment not built to accommodate their body). Subsequent work in disability studies embraces disability as a valuable identity category and argues for the importance of disability as human variation. Building on these insights, literary disability studies attends to the cultural meanings of disability and tracks how disability operates as a powerful symbol within a text or a shortcut to characterization.
Accordingly, readings of Shakespeare’s Richard III often understand Richard’s disability as a metaphor for the failure of sovereignty, or as Tudor propaganda that rewrites the historical figure to condemn him. Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III describes Richard’s appearance as “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favored of visage” and subsequent plays beyond Shakespeare’s—such as the unattributed play The True Tragedie of Richard III, pictured here—borrow this language to describe Richard’s body.
In Tey’s novel, Grant and Carradine investigate the shaky foundation of More’s account and the assertion that “the hunchback is a myth” (98), concluding that Richard was not actually disabled. We know that the historical Richard had scoliosis; the discovery of his skeleton in 2011 confirmed this diagnosis. Yet I want to underscore how Grant’s efforts to prove Richard’s innocence invoke the body as evidence. Richard’s presumed evil requires a disability myth and exonerating him assumes an able body. Ideas about disability are never neutral. They emerge from and frame cultural norms that interpret able bodies as desirable.
And disability characterization drives theatrical representation. The surgeon tells Grant about seeing Olivier play Richard III, a “dazzling elaboration of sheer evil” (32)—and Shakespeare’s Richard Gloucester remains a desirable role for actors, though the role is typically played by nondisabled actors, turning Richard’s disability into a stereotype. Literary representations of disability foreground the metaphorical interpretation of bodies, and performance produces its own histories of embodiment. Beyond books, the Folger’s collection extends to theater realia—material objects—such as commemorative ceramics that depict the legendary David Garrick as King Richard III, and Edwin Booth’s costume when he played the role. If, as Marta suggests in the novel, actors understand that “faces are a professional matter” (83), strategies of reading the body as shorthand for the person also inform theatrical representation.
It remains difficult to challenge received ideas about disability in the past. While researching the chapter on Shakespeare’s Richard III for my book, Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater, I became fascinated by verse libels written in 1612, on the death of Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. Cecil was Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer and one of the most powerful men in England; he served as counselor to both Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI/I after his accession to the throne in 1603. When Cecil died, verse libels—brief, anonymous, catchy, biting popular verse—circulated widely, mocking him and comparing him to Richard III based on his bodily shape. Cecil was short-statured and had scoliosis; like Richard, he was marked by a visibly distinctive disability, and the libels marshall his “crookbacked” spine as evidence for abuse of power.
In my book, I read these libels alongside Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Deformity” in his Essays (1612) a key text for early scholarship in disability studies that used the essay as evidence for ideas about disability (often in relation to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III). Bacon’s essay begins “Deformed people are commonly even with nature…” and he warns readers to be wary of disabled people, who, he asserts, are likely resentful because of their disabilities and who might be good at political subterfuge. Bacon’s generalizing about “deformity”—and “deformed people”—helped to shape the template for the moral interpretation of disability. Yet what changes this interpretation of Bacon’s essay for me was learning—from historians who worked on the verse libels—that Bacon was Cecil’s cousin and known to be jealous of Cecil’s political advancement. The essay is personally motivated, not a dispassionate philosophical account of disability, troubling the scholarly assumption that these sentiments reflect general attitudes toward disability in seventeenth-century England.
I have been suggesting that a disability studies approach to Tey’s novel highlights the question—what can you know about a person from how they look?—yet it also asks us to query the assumptions that underlie such a question. Richard III has shaped the narrative for how disability matters in the past and how a disabled body (too often a stereotype reproduced by a nondisabled actor) should look on the stage. As The Daughter of Time asserts, history is never just a matter of what happened. The stories we tell about disabled people in history are always a matter of who gets to tell them.
Importantly, we might understand this element of the novel as an illustration of the social model of disability. Grant’s denigration does not reflect their actual capacities; disability is not about the body itself or what the nurses can or cannot do. The narrator tells us that Grant calls Nurse Ingham the disability slur “to compensate himself for being bossed around” (1): the term reflects his humiliation about temporary disability and discomfort with the need for care. The novel is focused on Richard’s appearance as evidence for his innocence—he has a nice face!—but this element of the narrative reveals how Grant’s own experience of embodiment is shaped by ableism. A disability analysis of this novel, therefore, cuts across multiple scales of interpretation, inviting us to attend to the politics of disability that frame assumptions about “normal” bodies in the first place.
Further Discussion for The Daughter of Time
- What surprised you about the mashup of the detective story and “unsolved mystery”—which we usually think of in relation to the genre of true crime—with historical content? What’s the relationship between history and fiction?
- The novel’s epigraph attributes the title to an old proverb, “Truth is the daughter of time.” Does the story bear out this proverb, or suggest that the truth will out? Or might we think of this story as a demonstration of how often myths go unrecognized without careful readers who examine their history?
- How might the temporary disability of the narrator relate to the question of Richard’s body as evidence? Here, I’m thinking about the important content warning: Grant issues Nurse Ingham and Nurse Darroll nicknames based on their respective heights, invoking a stereotype and using a disability slur. Both terms he uses for the two women are references to their size, reflecting cultural ideas about embodiment.
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