To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


published 1997



To say Nothing of the Dog 2



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.


To Say Nothing of the Dog 4


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.

To Say Nothing of the Dog


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.


To Say Nothing of the Dog 3


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.





















Comments

  1. Susanna Tayler21 July 2017 at 12:07

    Oh, this is really interesting!. I've seen lots of very positive reviews of this book and kept wondering about reading it. But I was given two of Connie Willis's other books by a friend (Blackout and All Clear) and gave up because of the Americanisms.
    Those ones are also time travel novels set (you can guess from the title) in WW2. There's a lot made of one of the time travellers having to have an appropriate 1940s name, but then later on there is a (non-time-travelling) Wren or ATS girl called Paige. This seems unlikely (Betty, Joan, Marjorie - yes. Paige - no.)
    Also she describes people arriving at a rural station waving from the open platforms at the ends of the railway carriages. It's really not too difficult to google a picture of British railway carriages...
    So it's a bit disappointing to find out that this seems to be a common problem in her books, because in theory she seems like an author I'd really enjoy.

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    1. Oh yes, our experiences tally! And it does really seem important when she makes, as you say, a fuss about the right word in other circs. Paige! Absolutely not. She and Sharon have wandered in from some other era.
      And yes, totally agree - it is plain disappointing, when she is obviously such a good and imaginative writer.

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  2. Hmmm....the premise sounds interesting, Moira, although I don't usually go for the time-travel thing, myself. And it sounds as though there are some solid bits to the story. But I know just what you mean about the need for good editing. It would have gone far to correct those language anomalies, and deal with the amount of detail. No, if I'm being honest, I think I'd wait on this one.

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    1. Probably right Margot, though there was a lot to recommend, and she really knows her detective stories and characters! And there were definitely elements of clues and so on there.

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  3. Interesting review. I loved Blackout and All Clear, despite the Americanisms and the odd anachronism, but when I read a selection of her short stories recently, which included some time travelling ones, my least favourite stories were the time travelling ones for exactly the same reasons as you mention here. I still love Connie Willis though, and will definitely give this one a go. Thank you!

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    1. I am so torn about Blackout and All Clear! I don't know whether they would annoy me too much. But, as I say, she IS a good writer...

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  4. I love Connie Willis, and I really liked Blackout and All Clear (though even I could spot some of the Americanisms). But Doomsday Book is probably my favorite. I actually quite like time travel stories -- my absolute favorite Star Trek movie of all time is the one where they traveled back to 1980s San Francisco. I find the concept very appealing.

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    1. There you go, more to send me back and forth on Blackout and All Clear. Yes, I do enjoy a good time travel story, going back in time and trying not to change things (or changing something vital)...what a premise.

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  5. Doomsday Book is the one I would like to read before the end of the year. I will have to find a copy first, so we shall see. This one my husband started and did not get into but plans to try again so he still has his copy and I can read it, and he is eager to read Blackout and All Clear. I had heard that there were many places she had gotten the British setting wrong, but hope that I won't even notice. I am also concerned about the length. But I hope to get over that and read Doomsday, this one, and Blackout and All Clear.

    I do hate it when books written by British authors are published here and terms are changed to the U.S. terminology (with the authors knowledge), which is why I try to get UK editions when it really matters to me. But most cases I would not know the difference, and when I think I have noticed something like that, occasionally I am wrong. But I do know how that kind of thing can take you out of a book, like it or not.

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    1. And now I'll have to look up Doomsday Book, I don't know anything about that one! There is such a lot to recommend in her writing, I think I will have to try another book.
      Yes, I can never understand the point of changing terms for US/UK audiences, except perhaps in cases of extreme misunderstanding. I remember reading American classics like Tom Sawyer and Little Women when I was a child, and being very puzzled by some of the terms, but that never stopped me enjoying them, and I could guess what they meant, or try to find out...

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    2. To say nothing of differences in spelling. I still remember vividly coming across "kerb" in a book when I was young and being startled that such an obvious error got into the book!

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    3. Yes - sometimes you have to be careful before you jump in!

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  6. Hi,
    I generally liked Willis up until I read this one which is indeed long-winded. (My longer thoughts on this book are on my blog at https://jackdeighton.co.uk/2012/09/20/to-say-nothing-of-the-dog-by-connie-willis/. I have also reviewed four more of her books.)
    Her failures to capture British usages are annoying - to British readers. I expect most US readers won't notice them.

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    1. Thanks - I went over to your blog and enjoyed your review and having a general wander around - any other interested readers should look at your post on this book too.
      You're probably right about US readers - but it does annoy because it could easily be put right by paying an extra editor to do an extra read...

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  7. Time travel? Long-winded? A pass from me.

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    1. No, you don't need to stop by this one... Nothing by her in the tubs?

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  8. Hmmm, it looks like this could be another case where an editor would have helped. It's especially ironic because I recall Jerome K Jerome claiming that 3 M3N... was at least partly created by his editor, who cut out lots of travel information and encouraged him to increase the humour content.

    Modern day Americanisms in what is supposedly a period piece are grating. They're especially galling as having someone proof-read for such would surely be simplicity itself. I've read so many Sherlock Holmes pastiches that were ruined for me because of stuff like this.

    Time-travel stories do fascinate me, although they also give me a headache. Stephen Baxter's sequel to Well's THE TIME MACHINE was THE TIME SHIPS. Very enjoyable stuff, but the central conceit (each travel in time creates a new universe) means that you feel that you should be keeping some sort of map to remind you where you are. There are some stories of Time Patrol by Poul Anderson, where a futuristic police force has to make sure that no vandalism is done to established history by malign or careless tourists in history. There's all sort of stuff about causality violations and such, but I still remember the script editor of Doctor Who from the early '70s claiming that whenever a potential plot hole emerged from time travel in stories, he introduced a concept called 'The Blinovitch Limitation Effect'. This would be used by the title character whenever someone questioned him about a problem with the plot. This phrase could be trotted out, but someone would burst through a door and interrupt him before he had to explain what the Hell it actually meant!

    ggary

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    1. I know - this is a known problem, and not difficult to solve: I just wonder why writer and publisher aren't embarrasses.
      I love historical time travel, but don't worry too much about the rules... so loving the Blinovitvh Rule!

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    2. Reminds me of The Man Who Folded Himself. A fun book.

      I started Three Men in a Boat a while ago, put it down, and never picked it up again. I was just booooorrrrrrrrrred. Did it get better?

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    3. Might be worth another try - it does have strange longueurs, but when it is funny it is VERY funny, and there are scenes in it that live with you forever...

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  9. I'm not a fan of time travel books, don't think I've read any. But the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series is very popular over here. Are they read over there?
    Two friends are totally wrapped up in these books. One is going on an Outlander trip to Scotland in a few days and the group is visiting areas cited in the series.

    And on terms and spelling -- it's confusing sometimes to read a book with idioms and words that differ from U.S. language. I've wondered if authors were misspelling or if there is an idiom I don't get.

    Luckily, a neighbor is from England and I ask him questions about the language. He's good at explaining idioms. "Taking the piss" was one I really didn't get but I did after he explained it.

    And it depends on the setting of the book and the author. If I read a book in dialect, I'd be lost.

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    1. Ha! Yes, sometimes you can figure an expression out by context. Other times it's like Holy Hell what the heck does THAT mean?

      Speaking of dialect, I remember watching the TV series made from the All Creatures Great and Small books, and the first few I watched were almost incomprehensible to me. It was my first real exposure to the Yorkshire dialect/accent. But it was surprising quickly my ear got used to it, though.

      If I read a book in dialect I have to say the dialog silently in my head or I'll never figure out what's what.

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  10. Kathy and Paula: There's room for plenty of misunderstandings - and that's despite the fact that nowadays we watch so much of each others's TV that things should be clearer. I can see that 'taking the piss' could be a problem.
    I remember reading an Outlander book 20 years ago: I wasn't bothered about continuing, but I knew people who loved the books, and then I know people who loved the TV programme too, but I have never seen it.

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    1. Yes, my older sister adores the Outlander TV series. I think she was thrilled when my genealogical research revealed we really were nearly totally Scottish on our dad's side. My younger sister and I don't get the cable channel that runs the show, so I've never seen it. Never read any of the books either. Looked a bit bodice-ripper-ish to me.

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    2. It's a book and series that divides people I think! The person who lent me the first book couldn't believe that I didn't want to borrow the second, and kept on trying to persuade me for quite a while...

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  11. MY two friends are Outlander fiends. One is a retired nurse and she relates to the protagonist, also a nurse.

    I could never understand dialect if it's a lot of the writing. And, in fact, I'm having trouble hearing all of the dialogue in British mysteries on TV or dvd, even Broadchurch because it's hard for me to understand the dialogue if the accents are strong. This is aging. Other friends have this problem and turn on subtitles in English to read the dialogue.

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    1. I went to see a play recently, and it featured Scottish young women with very strong accents and a lot of dialect words. For the first few minutes I thought 'Oh no, I'm not getting this at all, I'm not going to understand a word.' But surprisingly quickly I got used to it, and loved the play...

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    2. Good thing or you'd have needed those supra-translations they have at the opera!

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    3. Honestly, I wondered if I needed them!

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  12. Getting older has its bad moments when one realizes one's senses aren't as good.

    Last week I was going through 20-year-old files. I saw some notes of mine and thought, "What tiny handwriting I had then! I can't read a word of those notes."

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    1. I re-read things I wrote years ago and am always astonished. Sometimes I don't understand what I was talking about, sometimes I wince at what I said or bow I said it.

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    2. My favorite occasion was reading a paper I wrote for a class at school and being rather impressed with it! I think my brain worked better then.

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    3. Lucky you! Occasionally that happens, and very nice it is too, but more often I wince a little at what I said in the past...

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    4. Well, it was only once....

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