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To Say Nothing of the Dog is a 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 Two, 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 could be this site's designated mystery; the two lead characters are extremely Genre Savvy, know their tropes, know when they encounter one, and still manage to wind up blindsided by events.


  • Acceptable Targets: The Victorian conception of what constitutes "restraint" when it comes to art. The fact that even some of the contemps detest the stuff becomes a plot point.
  • Analogy Backfire
  • Baby Talk: Tossie, to her cat Princess Arjumand (aka. "Dearum Dearum Juju").
  • Boy Meets Girl: Ned and Verity
  • Can't Take Anything with You: A major plot point is that you aren't supposed to be able to bring anything forward in time.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Genre Savvy: Verity reads a lot of Victorian 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.
  • Grande Dame: Lady Schrapnell is a direct allusion to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • In Mysterious Ways
  • 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.
  • Humans Are White: Handwaved rather egregiously. See Politically-Correct History
  • 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.
  • In the Past Everyone Will Be Famous: Strongly averted — nobody they meet in the past is even remotely famous, except for the brief appearance of Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).
  • In Which a Trope Is Described
  • 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.
  • Lord Peter Wimsey: Verity spends most of her time in the 1920s, and reads a lot of mystery novels, especially the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. She is, therefore, delighted to find out that she and Ned get to solve the Mystery of the Missing Bird Stump.
  • 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 Shocking Swerve.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Only One Me Allowed Right Now
  • Oxbridge
  • Politically-Correct History: Averted because of No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel. Ned remarks that all of history is considered too dangerous for blacks, some people consider that Willis went a little too far in the other direction.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • Shout-Out: Principally, though far from exclusively, 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), Ned Henry actually recognizes the three men and dog in question as they pass him going upstream.
    • The Real Life boat trip on which Jerome based his book didn't actually have a dog, which leads to several possibilities - mistaken identity (Henry's thoughts become unreliable under the mounting stress of time travel), alternate timeline, or just one of Jerome's other boat trips. Or Jerome was lying in order to take credit for coming up with the idea later.
    • Also, Baine saying "as you wish" multiple times, when ordered around by a spoiled mistress, whom he is in love with.
  • Shown Their Work
  • Slap Slap Kiss: Baine and Tossie.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike
  • 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 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
  • Title Drop: Whenever possible.
  • Upperclass Twit: Lady Schrapnell, Terence, the Merings, the Chattisbournes
  • Undermined by Reality: Terence invokes several couples from literature, comparing them to the "true love" he has for Tossie. Every pairing he named (ex. Romeo and Juliet) ended badly, which seemed lost on him.
  • 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 Already Changed the Past
  • 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.
    • Fridge Brilliance: He wasn't fictional - he was killed when his ship went down with all hands, removing knowledge of his brief command from history... until time-travelling historians went back to Midway and discovered him again.