To Say Nothing of the Dog
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3573.I45652 T6 1997|
To Say Nothing of the Dog: or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last is a 1997 comic science fiction novel by Connie Willis. It takes place in the same universe of time-traveling historians she explored in her story Fire Watch and novel Doomsday Book.
The book's title is inspired by the subtitle of an 1889 classic work, as explained by the author in the dedication: "To Robert A. Heinlein, Who, in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog."
The story begins in 2057 at Oxford University. A machine which makes time travel possible has been developed, but time travel itself is used primarily as a tool for historical research. Although millions were spent to develop time travel as a commercial venture, it turned out to have no profit potential. The natural laws of the "time continuum" prevent anything of significance from being brought from the past to the future, and also act to keep time travellers away from historically critical events, such as the Battle of Waterloo. Any attempt to break these laws results in the time machine preventing the desired goal of travel: the time traveller is sent to the right time but to a distant place (30 miles from the Coventry Cathedral, or Mexico, to give two examples in the novel), or to the right place but a time distant enough to keep the traveller from interfering in a way that might create a paradox (the narrator reaches the Cathedral but in the year 1395). In extreme situations, the continuum can correct paradoxes by changing the course of events in minor ways to keep the eventual outcome the same.
The background to the story is that Lady Schrapnell, a wealthy American neo-aristocratic woman with a will of iron, has conscripted most of Oxford's history department to help her rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it was destroyed in the Nazi Blitz during World War II. (The post-WWII cathedral has itself been deconsecrated and demolished to make way for a shopping center.) The project is beset both by protesters who think the money could be better spent elsewhere and by Schrapnell's own insistence that "God is in the details."
The one remaining detail is the "Bishop's bird stump", a large piece of Victorian bric-a-brac. (The exact nature of this item isn't revealed until late in the book.) As the story begins, a team of Oxford historians is sent to Coventry just as the crucial air raid ends to determine whether the bird stump was in fact in the Cathedral at the time.
Complicating the effort is the fact that the British knew about the Coventry raid in advance, thanks to the decoding of the Nazi Enigma machine-encoded message by a similar machine in the possession of the British. The knowledge was withheld because the German High Command would have changed the code if they had suspected that it had been broken. The code-breakers were able to supply valuable intelligence later in the war, so anything that compromised the secret, including an interloper from the future, might change the course of history. At first it seems that the paradox is related to the Victorian era, but it relates to the Enigma code.
The protagonist, Ned Henry, is a specialist in 20th century history, assigned to search for the Bishop's bird stump. He has made so many jumps into the 1940s so quickly that he has developed "time-lag", the time-travel-induced form of jet lag, and must recuperate before he returns to work. There is, unfortunately, an emergency in progress. A historian sent to the Victorian era has returned bringing something from Victorian England with her which the historians believe may rip time itself apart if it isn't promptly returned...and Ned, who knows virtually nothing about the 19th century, is the only one available to return it. (Theoretically, nothing may be brought through the time machine in either direction as it might cause time to unravel, and safeguards have been put in place in order to prevent significant objects making the journey.)
Unfortunately, Ned is being "prepped" (in this case, listening to explanations of 19th-century English customs through a sort of headphones) while simultaneously being told his mission and destination. As a result, he arrives in 1888 with little understanding of what he is supposed to do or where he's supposed to go other than a vague impression he's supposed to meet his contact at "Something End".
He meets Terence St. Trewes, a besotted young Oxford undergraduate, and agrees to share the cost of a hired boat for a trip on the River Thames from Oxford down to Muchings End, where Terence hopes to meet his love, Tocelyn "Tossie" Mering. Ned, Terence, Cyril the bulldog and Professor Peddick (an Oxford don) travel down the Thames navigating locks, beautiful scenery, crowds of languid boaters in no hurry to get anywhere, and the party of Jerome K. Jerome, an homage to the original novel from which To Say Nothing of the Dog draws its name and themes.
Fortunately, Ned's contact in Muchings End recognizes him when he arrives and identifies herself: she is a young woman named Verity Kindle, who is pretending to be Tossie's cousin. Lady Schrapnell sent Verity to read Tossie's diary because Tossie (an ancestor of Lady Schrapnell) had written about a life-changing event involving the bird stump at the first Coventry Cathedral (St Michael's Cathedral), an event which had caused her to elope with a mysterious "Mr. C" to America. It is only at this point that Ned learns the nature of the object he is to return: Tossie's pet cat, Princess Arjumand. (Cats are extinct in 2057 due to a feline distemper pandemic.)
However, returning the cat did not clear up the time disruption, as people attempting to visit Coventry during the air raid are still missing their target—they are either in the right place at the wrong time or the right time but miles from the target. Have they changed history by bringing Terence to Tossie? What will happen to them if Lady Schrapnell is never born? Or if Terence doesn't marry Peddick's niece, Maud, and thus doesn't become the grandfather of an RAF pilot who bombs Berlin and goads Hitler into bombing London and Coventry?
The solution involves the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes, the methods of Hercule Poirot, and the style of Lord Peter Wimsey. In the meantime, Ned, Verity and their colleagues have to deal with packs of dogs guarding the marrows, hostile theatrical costumers operating the time machine, phony spiritualists, kittens, abstruse mathematics, the Battle of Waterloo, the unalterable fact that the butler did it (they always do), the Coventry Ladies' Altar Guild, more dogs, and a crime which was committed before anyone realized it was against the law.
- Ned Henry, 21st-century historian, assigned by Lady Schrapnell to search for the "bishop's bird stump" by all possible means. This includes attending every jumble sale held in Coventry in 1940.
- Verity Kindle, another historian, who specializes in 1930s detective fiction. She masquerades as Verity Brown, a distant niece of Colonel and Mrs. Mering, in order to find and read their daughter's diary. Witnessing Baine the butler throwing the cat "Princess Arjumand" in the river Thames, she jumps into the river, rescues the cat, and obstinately brings her through to 2057, beginning the whole cascade of events.
- Professor James Dunworthy, a historian who has been associated with the Time Travel program from the beginning. He also appears in the story "Fire Watch" and the novels Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear.
- Finch, Dunworthy's clever and efficient secretary. He eventually joins the other time travelers in 1888, masquerading as the butler at the estate of the Chattisbournes, who are neighbours of the Merings. He finds the role easy to play, as he excels at organization and service.
- Tocelyn "Tossie" Mering, a beautiful and intelligent "rose of England" who, through the influence of her parents, is flighty, spoiled, and ignorant. She is Lady Shrapnell's ancestor. It is her memoirs, and her account of having her life changed when she visited St. Michael's Church in Coventry, which later became Coventry Cathedral, which inspired Lady Shrapnell to begin the reconstruction. Tossie agrees to be engaged to Terence, but she is in love with the butler, Baine, and she elopes with him and moves to America.
- Colonel and Mrs. Mering. The Colonel is retired from the Indian Army and now devotes his time to collecting exotic goldfish. Mrs. Mering is a hypochondriac and a fan of spiritualism. The novel credits her with inventing the "jumble sale", that is, a bazaar where people donate unwanted household items, instead of donating items they have made, such as cakes, scones, craft items, etc.
- Terence St. Trewes, a young Oxford undergraduate whom Ned meets when he first arrives in 1888. Despite his not having any money about him, Terence is in fact a minor aristocrat and will have a considerable income, making him perfect for Tossie in the eyes of her parents.
- Professor Peddick, an Oxford don, Terence's personal tutor, who accompanies Terence and Ned on their trip downriver. Professor Peddick is an authority on both exotic fish and military history - which instantly endears him to Colonel Mering, and secures the trio an invitation to stay in the Merings' house - and an outspoken defender of the Great Man Theory of history.
- Professor Overforce, another Oxford don, and Professor Peddick's rival for a prestigious chair. Professor Overforce does not appear in person, but is frequently mentioned as an advocate of the Social Darwinism view of history.
- Baine, the Merings' butler. It is revealed later that "Baine" is merely a nom de métier he was given when working for the Merings' neighbours. According to the book, employers routinely give their servants pseudonyms for various reasons. Mrs. Chattisborne calls all her maids by the same name so as not to have to learn new ones. Mrs. Mering believes it is more refined to have English rather than Irish servants. She also uses the name "Jane" to refer to a maid named "Colleen." Baine previously worked for the Irish peer Lord Dunsany under his real name, but Mrs. Mering will not have it used in her house. Baine is like P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, in that he is very intelligent (much more so than his employers), well-read (he reads Thomas Paine while awaiting orders) and incredibly efficient, ministering to his employers' every need, and even anticipating them. His real name is William Patrick Callahan; he is in love with Tossie, and having wooed her much as Petruchio woos Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, he marries her and they move to America, where they both become active in Hollywood.
- T.J. Lewis, a mathematician and expert in time theory. Since he is black, he cannot be sent back in time by Lady Shrapnell, which is fortunate because he is needed to run simulations in an attempt to discover how bad the disruption of the space-time continuum might be.
- Lady Shrapnell, a rich American with a will of iron and a voice that can overcome any opposition. She has married into the Shrapnell title and is obsessed with rebuilding Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was the day before it was destroyed, in honour of her ancestor Tocelyn Mering. Everything must be completely correct, as "God is in the details". This includes the "bishop's bird stump", which was thought to be completely indestructible yet disappeared the night of the air raid.
- Elizabeth Bittner, widow of the last Bishop of Coventry. Old and infirm in the 2050s, she was one of the pioneers of time travel in the early 21st century. She was also a great beauty who entranced men, including Dunworthy. Ned compares her to the fictional Zuleika Dobson for her effect on her fellow Oxfordians. Appearing late in the narrative, she proves to be crucial to explaining the bizarre happenings.
Comedy of manners
Most of Willis' novels invoke the comedy of manners, as the main theme or as comic relief. In this novel there are echoes of the comedy of P. G. Wodehouse, with the hapless Ned being persuaded to get involved in clandestine activities in country houses, particularly sneaking Terence's dog Cyril into his room so he does not have to sleep in the stable, as Mrs. Mering has decreed. Having done so he finds that between Cyril's snoring and Princess Arjumand's insistence on sleeping on his bed, he gets very little sleep at all.
One other theme is how, despite changing manners, human nature does not change. This appears as the same scene plays out with different characters, as one person, be it Lady Shrapnell in 2057, a Coventry curate in 1888, or Mary Botoner, the cathedral's original builder in 1395, harangues a builder or craftsman about finishing a job, only to be told all the ways that it is not possible in the time allowed.
The mystery novel
In the later chapters the book both parodies and functions as a mystery novel. In the beginning it is not apparent that there is a crime, let alone a mystery. The only questions are: What happened to the bishop's bird stump, which was definitely in its place a few days before the bombing raid, and how was Verity able to break through all the safeguards and bring a cat into 2057? Later it becomes clear that someone stole the bird stump, but not who, how or why. Ned begins to see himself first as Hercule Poirot, but then as Lord Peter Wimsey, with Verity as his Harriet Vane. Since he fell for her at first sight (even as, like Harriet Vane when Wimsey first saw her, she stood accused of a crime) this is not hard. In the final chapters he proposes to her, using the same words that Lord Peter used to propose to Harriet in Gaudy Night. The final sentence of the book is her acceptance with Harriet's exact response: "Placet".
On re-reading it becomes clear that clues to the mystery are scattered, as convention requires, here and there throughout the text. Some, like the pseudonyms of the household servants, appear like references to Victorian manners, but mean more than is apparent. At the end, "the butler did it", although the actual crime was committed by someone else.
The final twist to the mystery comes from science fiction: the theft of the bird stump itself was committed as part of an even grander design, relating to a time and a place both far removed and intimately connected with the events in 2057.
The object known as the "bishop's bird stump" functions as a classic "macguffin", an object which drives the plot and the characters without needing to be particularly important in any other way. It is not actually a bird stump, merely something that the Cathedral's sitting bishop foisted on the Flower Committee when they requested the purchase of a bird stump to use for flower displays. It has no material or aesthetic value, and indeed it is spectacularly ugly even by Victorian standards. It is made of cast iron and is decorated with a jumble of mythical and historic images, ranging from scenes from the Bible to sea shells embossed with the dates of famous battles. Its few claims to importance are that it profoundly affected Lady Shrapnell's ancestor Tossie Mering, and that it was known to be in the Cathedral when it was destroyed. Its actual disappearance is all the more mystifying considering that it was virtually indestructible and the last thing that anyone would consider stealing. Once the thief is revealed, the motive remains inexplicable, except in terms of the grander design revealed at the end of the plot.
Theories of history
Professor Peddick believes profoundly in the influence of individuals on the course of history, while his rival Professor Overforce has adopted the theory that large-scale trends such as population and climate shape human history, the actual events of which are merely one way the inevitable course of history plays out. Ned Henry is torn between the two extremes, as he realizes that specific people and circumstances are responsible for many events in the history he knows. In the broader sense, something like the downfall of Nazi Germany was almost certainly inevitable in the long run, though the specific set of events that lead to the history Ned knows, and in which he grew up, mean that he needs those events to happen in the way recorded.
Overforce is also supportive of the theories of Charles Darwin, particularly their rejection of a purpose to evolution. Peddick believes in a Grand Design which shapes history.
Free will vs. determinism
In the novel it is supposed that "the continuum", meaning the structure of space-time itself, is capable of corrective action to repair anomalies and incongruities. This extends, according to T.J. Lewis's simulations, to changing events before the incongruity even happened. More often, the continuum prevents problems by preventing time travellers from arriving at critical times and places. Thus while many simulations show that any attempt to interfere with a critical event, such as the Battle of Waterloo, will fail to change the outcome, in practice no time traveller can be sent to any place or time where such interference might be possible. Any attempt results in them finding themselves in a completely different place and time.
However, once the time travellers think an incongruity has been caused, as when Princess Arjumand is brought from 1888 to 2057, they attempt to correct the problem themselves. In doing so they seem to cause even more problems, as when Ned appears to interfere with Terence meeting Maud Peddick, instead creating a situation where Terence becomes engaged to Tossie. They gradually come to believe that they are actually part of the corrective process without understanding how it is operating. As Professor Peddick pronounces, "you cannot see the Grand Design when you are part of it." Thus while they are exercising what they think of as their free will, they are unwittingly acting out predefined roles.
In the later chapters this manifests itself as unexpected trips to times such as 2018 (in an earlier version of the time travel lab), 1933 (where an enlightening conversation about the mysteries of Agatha Christie is overheard) and to 1395 (where Ned notices a resemblance between Mary Botoner and someone he knows in 2057). Finally both Ned and Verity find themselves in Coventry Cathedral on the night of its destruction, the very place and time that nobody has been able to reach before. They are there to witness something, but what?
- "1999 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30.
- "1998 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30.
- Since the literary Lord Dunsany would have been only 10 years old in 1888, Baine was most likely employed by his grandfather, the 16th Baron Dunsany - see Baron_of_Dunsany#Barons_of_Dunsany_.281439.29.
- To Say Nothing of the Dog at Worlds Without End