Follow TV Tropes


Literature / To Say Nothing of the Dog

Go To
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a 1997 novel by Connie Willis. The story is set in Oxford, England, about 60 years into the future, after Time Travel has not only been invented, but pretty much everyone except historians has lost interest in it. This is mainly because it turns out that you can't bring things from the past to the future, or at least, you aren't supposed to be able to. Most of the history of this period and rules of time travel are laid out in Willis' earlier novel Doomsday Book, which takes place in the same universe.

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, the History Department of Balliol, Oxford University, has been thrown into chaos by the pet project of a rich donor: to rebuild a cathedral that was destroyed during World War II, exactly as it was at the moment it was bombed. Ned Henry is charged with finding out what happened to the Bishop's Bird Stump (a bird stump, incidentally, is a kind of flower vase; this particular bird stump is cast iron, and extremely Victorian), and is having some unexpected difficulty with the task. Then another historian, Verity Kindle, accidentally brings a cat from Victorian England to the present. Ned and Verity go back to Victorian England to try to sort out the problems caused by the missing cat, before history begins to change. And the bird stump is still missing. . .

The novel's name is a reference to the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's Victorian comic classic Three Men in a Boat, to which is makes a few references.


Tropes present in this novel:

  • Complete-the-Quote Title: Again, the book's title comes from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).
  • Contrived Coincidence: Justified. Not the coincidences, the trope itself — when push comes to shove, the space-time continuum will pick causality over plausibility every time. The number of these becomes a source of humour for the reader, and terror for the protagonists — with that much coincidence in the air, the continuum must be trying to choke down something big.
  • Discussed Trope: Frequently. For example, on first arriving in the Victorian era, Ned (or his interior monologue, anyway) comments that, were this a book, he'd have quickly found a newspaper to let him know the date. Then, he promptly finds a newspaper. Which, it later transpires, is several days old. The page quote of Exact Eavesdropping is another example.
  • English Rose: "No historian, no matter how casually she caught up her trailing white skirts with a kid-gloved hand, no matter how erect she held her head on her aristocratic neck, could hope to capture the quality of stillness, of clear eyed innocence of the girl on the bridge. She was like a delicate blossom, capable of growing only in a single time, adapted only to the select hothouse environment of the late Victorian era: the untouched flower, the blooming English rose, the angel in the house." It turns out to be Verity, who is not from the Victorian era.
  • Eternal English: Averted. Ned mentions near the beginning that he initially had trouble with World War II-era English while working on jumble sales during the Blitz. He manages to follow upper-class English of the 1890s easily enough (except for some of the slang) but finds lower-class and regional dialects to be almost impenetrable. Then at one point he finds himself transported to Coventry Cathedral in the 1300s and he only catches the occasional meaningful word in the locals' Middle English, represented phonetically.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: At the beginning of the novel, a very disoriented Ned overhears some vital information, but can't make sense of it without context, and he complains that this trope is never present in real life.
  • Extinct in the Future: Cats went extinct in 2004 due to "distemper", so the 2057 era characters are fascinated when they come upon them during time-travelling. In the end, some are brought back via time travel.
  • Floral Theme Naming: The Chattisbourne sisters are named Rose, Iris, Pansy, and Eglantine. Their mother even introduces them as her flower garden.
  • Foreshadowing: Quite a lot. The rules surrounding slippage, Verity's mystery novels, even Princess Arjumand all point to important plot points.
  • For Want of a Nail: Small items, like cats, can have huge impacts on history. At one point, when ruminating on just how much trouble he's in, Ned quotes the Trope Namer poem directly. More frequently, though, the narrative instead cites "This is the (X) that (Y)'d the (Z) that (W)'d the house that Jack built" as an equivalent phrase.
  • Genre Savvy: Verity reads a lot of 1930s mysteries, so when they find themselves with a mystery to solve in the Victorian era...
  • Glurge Addict: The entire Victorian era, pretty much. Tossie especially.
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel: Ned's chief worry through most of the book is that some small misstep or other will somehow lead to a Nazi victory in World War II. And unlike many users of this trope, several hypothetical chains of events are actually proposed specifically stating how various changes to the timeline might actually lead to this happening, despite it never actually coming into effect.
  • Grande Dame: Lady Schrapnell is a direct allusion to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Of a sort. Near the end of the book, TJ's analysis discovers that the entire Second World War was apparently part of a long chain of Contrived Coincidences intended to fix some kind of massive temporal anomaly somewhere in the middle of the 24th century.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Not the dictator's death specifically, but the same idea that averting a tragedy leads to the Nazi victory. Background wise, in the past anyone who set out with the intention of doing Hitler in ended their time-jump at either the right place a few years out, or at the right time on the other side of the planet.
  • I Reject Your Reality: Lady Schrapnell in spades. Every reason the researchers can offer for her not getting her way, she rejects as a lazy excuse.
  • I Want Grandkids: At the end of the book, Lady Schrapnell decides that what her new cathedral needs is a christening, which of course means that Ned and Verity need to get married and have babies. They don't particularly mind doing so.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: There's a brief appearance of Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Baine the butler previously worked for Lord Dunsany, but this is a subversion as this is the father of the famous author, who is only aged ten in 1888.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Ned refers to Verity as a "naiad" for a while after seeing her water-soaked and becomes enamored with her beauty. He also admits to himself that he looks very sharp in a boater hat.
  • Lighter and Softer: The previous "Oxford" book by Connie Willis, Doomsday Book has some of the same characters (those in charge of time travel research) but is extremely grim. This instead is much more comedic in nature.
  • Love at First Sight: Ned falls instantly in love with Verity as a byproduct of time-lag, though a romance does spring naturally between them as well.
  • Mind Screw: The way so many elements come together towards the end to point to a totally unexpected (though thoroughly justified) conclusion feels like a cross between this and a Plot Twist.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Lady Schrapnell.
  • Newspaper Dating: Subverted. Historians are taught to ascertain their space-time location by looking at newspapers, but the one Ned finds turns out to be a few days old.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: TJ can't do drops because the nineteenth and most of the 20th century is a "10 for blacks" in terms of danger. This doesn't stop Lady Schrapnell from trying though. There's also a Pakistani net technician exempt for similar reasons.
  • The Oath-Breaker: Verity explains to Ned that Terence can not break the engagement; only Tossie can.
  • Obfuscated Interface: Only TJ can understand the cloud-like mathematical displays outputted by his simulations of the Battle of Waterloo. Justified by Ned making the comparison that doctors often tell a patient 'you see the lung, here' on similarly incomprehensible medical scans.
  • Once for Yes, Twice for No: In the seance scene. Since Ned and Verity are trying to make the "spirit" give totally different answers than the "spiritualists" who are the reason for the seance in the first place, Hilarity Ensues.
  • Releasing from the Promise: Much of their angling to try to get Tossie to do this to Terence.
  • Rose-Tinted Narrative: Indulging in sentimental monologues is one of the leading signs of time-lag. Probably another Shout-Out to Three Men in a Boat, in which Jerome now and then interrupts his satire in favor of misty meditations on history for no apparent reason.
  • Running Gag:
    • One of the most notable symptoms of time-lag is really poor decision-making, and the main characters rag each other mercilessly about it whenever the other does anything strange, such as expressing an appreciation for Victorian art.
    • Penwipers. Ned has bought dozens of them, to justify his presence at the many historical jumble sales Lady Schrapnell sends him to looking for the bird stump. And he has no idea what they are for until halfway through the novel, when he sees Verity use one (they're for wiping pens, oddly enough). They continue to be mentioned right up until the end, when Verity names their new kitten Penwiper.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Lady Schrapnell's attitude toward the laws of time travel physics/causality, and a whole lot of abuse in general. The only reason the researchers put up with her at all is that they badly need her money to fund the department.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story (At the end of the book, it turns out that the entire bizarre adventure is possibly part of the timestream's self-correction for another paradox that will occur hundreds of years in the future.) Characters suspect that the Allies to win WWII solely to cause a cathedral to be build in Christ Church Meadow! Just exactly how big was that incongruity in 2678?
  • Shout-Out:
    • Principally, to Jerome K. Jerome's still-hilarious Victorian travelogue Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). While boating down the Thames (with two other men and a dog). The principle characters of that story make an appearance as they pass Ned Henry going upstream.
    • Baine saying "As you wish" multiple times, when ordered around by a spoiled mistress, whom he is in love with is a reference to ''The Princess Bride.
    • P.G. Wodehouse is mentioned and quoted several times. His plots revolved around making sure the right people get engaged and the wrong engagements are broken off, much like the plot to ensure Tossie marries Mr. C rather than Terence.
    • Multiple mystery novels, especially including The Moonstone (one of the few to exist when much of the story is set), Hercule Poirot, and Lord Peter Wimsey.
  • The Butler Did It: Lampshaded, Verity reads a lot of mystery novels, and explains this trope in great detail. And in the end played straight, the Butler did do it, just not the "it" anyone was expecting: he runs off with his employer's daughter.
  • Temporal Paradox: An unusual case. Instead of being a straight violation of causality itself, the anomaly Ned and Verity investigate is something that should have been prevented by the manmade safeties built into the time travel net which are designed to stop such things happening in the first place. It turns out that the violation was allowed in order to help correct an earlier violation, which took place BEFORE the safeties were created and the net was unregulated.
  • Temporal Sickness: "Time-lag", caused by having too many jumps over too short a period. Effects include forgetfulness, visual and auditory hallucinations and an absolute conviction you haven't got time-lag. In the beginning of the novel Ned is of course is most certainly not experiencing any time-lag, as he explains to his supervisor and the glowing white angel.
  • Time Machine: It's housed in Oxford and sends people through time and space.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Lady Schrapnell, Terence, the Merings, the Chattisbournes are all rich eccentrics.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Ned at the beginning, when he's completely blitzed with time-lag. Only a mild form, however, since it's quickly apparent to the reader that Ned isn't thinking straight, and with a little thought can work out what's really happening.
  • You Are in Command Now: Discussed, in the form of the (fictional) Ensign Klepperman, who found himself in command of a ship in WWII, in the Battle of Midway.