To Say Nothing of the Dog

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To Say Nothing of the Dog
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Connie Willis
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Bantam Spectra
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 434
Awards Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1999)
ISBN 0-553-09995-7
OCLC 36954540
813/.54 21
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 novels Doomsday Book (1992) and Blackout/All Clear (2010).

To Say Nothing of the Dog won both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999,[1] and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1998.[2]

Title Source[edit]

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."

Plot introduction[edit]

The story begins in 2057 at Oxford University. A machine that 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 novel opens just as one time traveller appears to have violated the laws of the continuum by bringing a cat from Victorian times to 2057.

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.

Plot summary[edit]

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" on Victorian-era background information through a pair 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, a 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. 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[3] 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, an undergraduate student in computer science. Since he is black, he cannot be sent back in time by Lady Schrapnell, 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 Schrapnell, 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 Oxonians. Appearing late in the narrative, she proves to be crucial to explaining the bizarre happenings.
  • Princess Arjumand, Tossie's pet cat, named after Mumtaz Mahal, whose rescue from drowning almost destroys the space-time continuum. Plays a major role throughout the narrative.
  • Cyril, Terence's pet bulldog. Plays a major role throughout the narrative.


  1. ^ "1999 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  2. ^ "1998 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  3. ^ 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 (1439)

External links[edit]