To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Cover art by Eric Dinyer

2057. Historian Ned Henry (specialising in the late 20th century) has made so many jumps to various points in the past that he now suffers from time lag. This makes him incapable of following simple conversation, understanding or obeying instructions, thinking prosaically or otherwise function as a normal human being. His work time has been hijacked by one Lady Shrapnell, who is intent on rebuilding, restoring and otherwise refabricating Coventry’s apparently famous Cathedral, last seen standing during the Second World War before a bunch of Nazis bombed the shit out of it. Lady Schrapnell has not just hijacked Henry’s work hours – she has every historian Oxford can offer her (and some they can’t) combing the past, researching the minutiae of the Cathedral’s construction, decoration, vestry adornments, what-have-you. Ned Henry’s particular task is to find “The Bishop’s Bird Stump”. Much like the Scarlet Pimpernel, said Bird Stump’s present location cannot be ascertained. It cannot have burned during the air raid, since for reasons of hideous monstrosity it is indestructible; Lady Schrapnell is determined, with a voluble, bullying obduracy, to find out what happened to it, and if possible place it in the reconstructed Cathedral. In another life, Lady Schrapnell was probably Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha (of glass-chewing, werewolf lunar howling fame).

His extreme time-lag means that Henry needs a vacation, now. Lady Schrapnel will not have any malingering, so he also needs his vacation far away, where she will not go. Conveniently, another historian has brought about a Catastrophe which can only be solved by sending someone back to the Victorian era with a simple set of instructions to follow – and once that is done, he can stay there as long as he likes, should he need the rest.

Ned Henry and Verity Kindle (who caused the Catastrophe) go back to 1888, to contact Tossie Mering (Lady Schrapnel’s ancestor, whose diary bears close examination), fix the Catastrophe, have assorted adventures with cats, dogs, fish, eccentric Oxford dons, Church bazaars, uppity Butlers, all while maintaining perfect Victorian decorum and searching for the perfect man for Tossie.

I’m not sure I’d recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog to a historian, or to a history buff. While I find the novel hilarious and engaging, with a breakneck plot that never stops fizzing here and there and elsewhere, I must admit it is not a very plausible story, nor is it one that has room for much suspension of disbelief. Further, for historians, Ned Henry and Verity Kindle show more expertise with Victorian poetry, Jerome K. Jerome and early 20th century crime fiction than they do with historical trends beyond the broad strokes  and of course, a load of useless trivia regarding the Cathedral. The relationships within the novel – set in the Victorian period or in the 21st century – are all fairly heavily influenced by P.G. Wodehouse’s style (the only thing missing from one of the sequences is the obligatory waggling about the cries of “My Mate!”), and heavily rose-coloured by such romantics as Dorothy L. Sayers. The entire novel reads as an extended to homage to Wodehouse, Jerome, shades of O. Henry and Peter Wimsey (possibly some Agatha Christie, but I never read her much). Somewhere in between all these devotions is Connie Willis, but it’s rather hard to get a proper hold of her.

A further problem is that we never learn the precise mechanism of the time travel device, generally called “the net” – it self-regulates to ensure nothing can be brought back from the past to the present (our future!) and that no ghastly paradoxes are allowed. (When necessary, the net will simply not open out onto a period of vulnerability to time tampering.) It’s never made clear how the net works with the continuum of time, how sentient “it” or the continuum is, how it does what it does… we do have a lot of technobabble, but it is technobabble, pretending to explain what it only describes. Since so very much of the novel’s many, many exigencies are dependant on the net and the continuum, this can be a problem.

And yet. I found To Say Nothing of the Dog a delightful, fun, relaxing read —  a welcome change from all the doom and gloom, ‘the future of this city hangs in the balance’ sort of fiction I’ve been reading lately. If you’re looking for some light reading, or have a yen for some Wodehouse or  you’d like to read about life on the river, I recommend it highly!

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