We came through Day’s Lock in record time. And ran bang into a traffic jam.
The reason the river had been so empty before was because the entire armada had gathered here. Punts, canoes, outriggers, double-sculling skiffs, covered rowing boats, eights, barges, rafts, and houseboats jammed the river, all of them heading upstream and none of them in a hurry. Girls with parasols chattered to girls with parasols in other boats and called to their companions to pull alongside.
A girl in a sailor dress and a beribboned straw hat poled a flat skiff slowly among them and stood there laughing when the pole stuck in the mud. An artist in a yellow smock stood motionless on a raft in the middle of the melee, painting a landscape on an easel, though how he could see said landscape over the flower-decked hats and parasols and fluttering Union Jacks, I had no idea.
A rower from one of the colleges, in a striped cap and jersey, cracked oars with a pleasure party’s paddles and stopped to apologize, and a sailboat nearly crashed into them from behind. I yanked on the lines and nearly crashed into all three. ‘I’d best steer,’ Terence said.
commentary: This is a classic sci-fi time travel book, winner of many awards and in print for 20 years, and I first heard of it from my good blogfriend TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery. It tells the story of a group of time travellers from the year 2057, who need to sort out a number of problems in the past. It is a very complex thread of time, where a minor incident in 1888 may affect the outcome of the Second World War, and where a vase lost from Coventry Cathedral (bombed IRL in 1940) has the utmost significance. It takes a while to get this scenario set up, jumping around all over the place, but then the majority of the book takes place in Victorian England in 1888, where the hero/narrator Ned has to try to complete certain tasks, while pretending to be a young University man, and paralleling some parts of the Jerome K Jerome classic comic novel published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat: its subtitle, To Say Nothing of the Dog, gives this book its title of course. These characters, too, spend a lot of time going up and down the river Thames on a boat. Ned looks very much as if he is one of the characters in that book:
I looked the very image of a Victorian gentleman off for an outing on the river. My stiff collar, my natty blazer and white flannels. Above all, my boater. There are some things one is born to wear, and I had obviously been fated to wear this hat. It was of light straw with a band of blue ribbon, and it gave me a jaunty, dashing look, which, combined with the moustache, was fairly devastating. No wonder Auntie had been so anxious to hustle Maud off.
Many many other books, literary figures and real people feature, to an almost exhausting extent, although it is fun to spot the references. The book can be tremendously funny, and very very clever – the twists and turns of the time slippage are well worked out. Some of the clues are very easily resolved (was it supposed to be a mystery who Mr C was? – it seemed very obvious from early on), but on the other hand there were some very imaginative ideas about, say, how someone who had never encountered a cat or a tin-opener might react to them. There was high entertainment value, some of the time.
But my goodness it was long-winded – it was far far too long, and there were pages and pages of repetitious, uninteresting descriptions. For example, Ned kept looking for the cat (which has a vital role to play), finding the cat, then deciding not to secure it but to set it down to sleep. So then it gets lost again and then there are pages of him looking for it. This was just dull – there was no tension in it, and this reader just felt infuriated by Ned’s stupidity. (And very unsympathetic about various actions taken to save cats, which apparently put the future of the free world at risk – but, you know, cats are important.) The funny and entertaining bits - and they really were – had to be mined out of all this. I think if I’d been in charge of editing this book it would be about two-thirds of the length, at most, with no great loss.
The other problem with it was that the author is American, and she didn’t get anyone to check her English, and there are a lot of unlikely Americanisms there (for example, the young men calling their university ‘school’). I don’t, of course, object to Americanisms as such, but when they are this unlikely, and coming out of Victorian English mouths, it is plain annoying. And there is a huge irony when a major point of the book is that the time travellers must fit in, must not say the wrong thing. They do, all the time. And – in case you think I am just being pedantic – the mistakes seem like clues, that someone who gets something wrong is not who he or she is supposed to be, so it is not fairplay.
The worst example of all is not an Americanism – it is this from an Irish housemaid:
My sister Sharon, she’s in service in London…I am willing to go out on a limb here and say there was no Irish housemaid in the whole of London in 1888 called Sharon. So naturally I assumed Sharon was a time traveler. [Spoiler: she isn’t. It is just a mistake.]
If ever there was a book where skim-reading was needed it is this one. I would like to read more by Willis – she is knowledgeable, witty and literary – but I’m not sure I can face blockbusters that do not justify their length.
Three Men in a Boat has several entries on the blog.
The picture is Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon, by Edward John Gregory, and is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery near Liverpool. The photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, and was first pointed out to me by one of this blog’s longest-standing and most cherished supporters, Deborah Machin Pearson, who suggested it for the Jerome K Jerome book. Boulter’s lock is mentioned in the book: ‘an old woman in a mobcap was trying to sell Terence a mug with a picture of Boulter’s Lock on the side.’
The 2nd picture is of some members of a Queensland cricket team, comes from the Queensland State Library, and is featured on Wikimedia Commons.
Then there are a couple of cartoon pictures from Punch from a few years before this setting – the idea of messing about on the river doesn’t change.