To Say Nothing of the Dog
On the surface, England in the summer of 1888 is possibly the most restful time in history—lazy afternoons boating on the Thames, tea parties, croquet on the lawn—and time traveler Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling back and forth between the 21st century and the 1940s looking for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s birdstump. It’s only the latest in a long string of assignments from Lady Schrapnell, the rich dowager who has invaded Oxford University. She’s promised to endow the university’s time-travel research project in return for their help in rebuilding the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years before.
But the bargain has turned into a nightmare. Lady Schrapnell’s motto is “God is in the details,” and as the l25th anniversary of the cathedral’s destruction—and the deadline for its proposed completion—approaches, time-travel research has fallen by the wayside. Now Ned and his colleagues are frantically engaged in installing organ pipes, researching misericords, and generally risking life and limb. So when Ned gets the chance to escape to the Victorian era, he jumps at it. Unfortunately, he isn’t really being sent there to recover from his time-lag symptoms, but to correct an incongruity a fellow historian, Verity Kindle, has inadvertently created by bringing something forward from the past.
In theory, such an act is impossible. But now it has happened, and it’s up to Ned and Verity to correct the incongruity before it alters history or, worse, destroys the space-time continuum. And they have to do it while coping with eccentric Oxford dons, table-rapping spiritualists, a very spoiled young lady, and an even more spoiled cat. As Ned and Verity try frantically to hold things together and find out why the incongruity happened, the breach widens, time travel goes amok, and everything starts to fall apart—until the fate of the entire space-time continuum hangs on a sance, a butler, a bulldog, the battle of Waterloo, and, above all, on the bishop’s birdstump.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a science-fiction fantasy in the guise of an old-fashioned Victorian novel, complete with epigraphs, brief outlines, and a rather ugly boxer in three-quarters profile at the start of each chapter. Or is it a Victorian novel in the guise of a time-traveling tale, or a highly comic romp, or a great, allusive literary game, complete with spry references to Dorothy L. Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle? Its title is the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome’s singular, and hilarious, Three Men in a Boat. In one scene the hero, Ned Henry, and his friends come upon Jerome, two men, and the dog Montmorency in—you guessed it—a boat. Jerome will later immortalize Ned’s fumbling. (Or, more accurately, Jerome will earlier immortalize Ned’s fumbling, because Ned is from the 21st century and Jerome from the 19th.)
What Connie Willis soon makes clear is that genre can go to the dogs. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a fine, and fun, romance—an amused examination of conceptions and misconceptions about other eras, other people. When we first meet Ned, in 1940, he and five other time jumpers are searching bombed-out Coventry Cathedral for the bishop’s bird stump, an object about which neither he nor the reader will be clear for hundreds of pages. All he knows is that if they don’t find it, the powerful Lady Schrapnell will keep sending them back in time, again and again and again. Once he’s been whisked through the rather quaint Net back to the Oxford future, Ned is in a state of super time-lag. (Willis is happily unconcerned with futuristic vraisemblance, though Ned makes some obligatory references to “vids,” “interactives,” and “headrigs.”) The only way Ned can get the necessary two weeks’ R and R is to perform one more drop and recuperate in the past, away from Lady Schrapnell. Once he returns something to someone (he’s too exhausted to understand what or to whom) on June 7, 1888, he’s free.
Willis is concerned, however, as is her confused character, with getting Victoriana right, and Ned makes a good amateur anthropologist—entering one crowded room, he realizes that “the reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.” Though he’s still not sure what he’s supposed to bring back, various of his confederates keep popping back to set him to rights. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a shaggy-dog tale complete with a preternaturally quiet, time-traveling cat, Princess Arjumand, who might well be the cause of some serious temporal incongruities—for even a mouser might change the course of European history. In the end, readers might well be more interested in Ned’s romance with a fellow historian than in the bishop’s bird stump, and who will not rejoice in their first Net kiss, which lasts 169 years!