In the year 2057 — when getting a Ph.D. in history is a high-risk endeavor requiring mental and physical endurance, athleticism, a working knowledge of quantum mechanics and Victorian table manners, and, as always, a firm grasp of the Chicago Manual of Style — Ned Henry is a doctoral candidate on a mission. The stakes? If he fails, the Nazis win World War II. The operation? Return a time-traveling cat back to 19th-century Oxford.
“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a classic whodunit — if the “it” were causing an incongruity that could rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe, and the “who” were a snowy-white feline named Princess Juju.
Did I mention this is a comedy?
That’s the premise of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a delightfully bizarre literary commingling of sci-fi and historical fiction. And considering that the Large Hadron Collider didn’t result in black holes or time travel technology last year after all, for a novel written in 1997, the science-y parts of the plot hold up. Besides, since most of the action takes place in 1889, Google wouldn’t have done Ned Henry much good, anyway.
And as tangled as the timelines are, this is, essentially, what’s going on.
In 2057, the aptly named Lady Schrapnell is working on a massive project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid during WWII. And because “God is in the details,” she’s employing scads of time-traveling historians to go back in time and find out exactly what the cathedral looked like the night before its destruction.
All that’s left to replace is the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a hideously ugly Victorian flower vase that, according to an inconveniently waterlogged journal entry, changed the redoubtable aristocrat’s some-odd-great-great-grandmother’s life in the summer of 1889 (and thus absolutely must be reproduced in the new cathedral).
But the unthinkable has happened: It’s missing, along with that great-great-something-great-grandmother’s pet cat, both of whose disappearances might just have a domino effect leading to Hitler taking over the world (if the world survives the breach in the space-time continuum, that is).
To say nothing of our hero — Ned Henry is certainly no Indiana Jones. And when it comes to tracking down lost artifacts (or missing cats), he’s no Sherlock Holmes, either. But wearing his straw boater at a jaunty angle, Ned and his partner-in-historical-crime Verity Kindle (perfect name for a historian, right?) are ready to play croquet, host séances and, of course, save the world.
Hold onto your petticoats, ladies and gentlemen, and pay attention to your Western Civ professors — because some day the fate of the universe may depend upon you knowing your groats from your tuppence.
This here ends the book review.
But Now… More Victorian Cats! (or, the tangential stuff I didn’t put in the newspaper column)
Recently I purchased an item of clothing that unites two of my loves: cats and the long 19th century (yes, I am absolutely going to be a spinster historian animal hoarder when I grow up). After seeing it, my eldest sister (who you may know from long ago posts as Kate the Lostie), who has already grown up to be something of a cat lady, sent me an article that reveals something Connie Willis must have known–Victorians really, and I mean really, did love their cats.