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Posted on 24 Aug 2018 in The Godfather: Peter Corris |

The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Daughter of Time

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When you say ‘I read it a hundred years ago’ about a book you’re about to re-read, what you really mean is that you can’t remember whether you read it ten, 20 or more years ago. This is not the case with me and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951); I know precisely when I first read it.

In 1964 I took up a position as a teaching fellow (i.e. tutor) in the History Department at the newly opened Monash University. Lacking a first-class degree, I was lucky to get the job but events had favoured me.
That year Monash’s law school had begun teaching and, following the example of other law schools, one of the mandatory subjects was British constitutional history. As I had got first-class results in the two British History units at Melbourne University, I appeared to have more credentials for the position than others.

The lecturer in the brand-new subject, obligatory for law students but also available to those doing Arts, was a man of mixed Welsh, Swiss and English heritage who gloried in the name of John du Voisin Morgan. John had served in the British army, acquired a history degree at Cambridge and worked for British Petroleum. Somehow he had morphed into a senior tutorship in British History (Law) at Melbourne, the subject the Monash unit was based on. Now at Monash, he followed the Melbourne model and The Daughter of Time was a set text designed to introduce students to the elements of historical research, evidence and argument. The book involved an investigation into the character and behaviour of Richard III and specifically into whether or not he was guilty of the murder of the princes in the Tower of London as alleged in Shakespeare’s play and other accounts.

That’s when I read the book: in February before the beginning of term in 1964 – 56 years ago.

Regrettably, the teaching strategy was not a success. The intake at Monash was not the cream of the crop; the best performing students at the matriculation examinations who aspired to be lawyers naturally opted for the established university rather than the new one. Many of the Monash law students were not readers of fiction and struggled to learn any kind of lessons from the way things played out in the novel. Many, perhaps most, were strongly career-oriented and couldn’t see the point of spending time on 15th-century history which they could have devoted to torts or commercial law. A few of the brighter students saw the point and benefitted from the exercise, but John and I struggled to award enough marks to ensure an acceptable pass rate in the subject.

In the process John told me a story he’d heard about Zelman Cowen (later to be Australia’s Governor-General from 1977 to 1982) when Cowen was teaching law at Melbourne. There was a student who only needed to pass the constitutional law exam (which he had failed several times) to obtain his degree. Cowen told his colleagues he would give the man an oral and ask him whether Australia had a federal political system.

‘If he answers yes,’ Cowen said, ‘I’ll pass him.’

‘And if he answers no?’ a colleague asked.

‘I shall reason with him,’ Cowen said.

It was a bit like that with some of the students over the three years I taught at Monash.

The Daughter of Time is a delightful novel and it’s no surprise that it is still available as an e-book and in an audio version 67 years after its publication.