To Say Nothing of the Dog and Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)

Two books — each called (in part) To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Is this a coincidence?

Actually, no. Let’s look at each title in turn:

  • The first of these, which has the full title of To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last, is by Connie Willis and was published in 1997; it’s the second book in her time travel series, following The Doomsday Book, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, where I pointed out that it was the third time I had read that book. This was also my third reading of To Say Nothing of the Dog.
  • The second, which has the full title of Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog) is by Jerome K. Jerome. It actually predates Willis’s novel, which is, in (very small) part based on it; Jerome’s novel was published in 1889, preceding Willis’s by 108 years, if my calculations are correct. So the first book is actually second and the second is actually first. I hope that’s clear.

Both books are basically comic novels, although Willis does include one rather grim scene of the London Blitz. Half of Willis’s story and all of Jerome’s story take place in the late Victorian period on or near the Thames River in England, especially in Oxford. Both books include a lot of literary references. Both books involve three men and a dog traveling up the Thames in a small boat. In both books the trip is supposed to be some sort of rest cure. In both books things go wrong and hilarity ensues. Neither dog talks (thank God). That pretty much exhausts the similarities, unless I missed something.

What about the differences?

The dogs are very different: a fox terrier for Jerome, an English bulldog for Willis. Willis’s first time-travel novel, The Doomsday Book, played a lot with similarities between 1348 and 2045. To Say Nothing of the Dog, in contrast, plays a lot with differences between 1888 and 2050. (These dates are approximate, as Willis isn’t specific.) The pacing of the 1888 chapters is just so much more leisurely than the pacing of the 2050 chapters, reflecting not just the different times but also the specific characters. There is a large number of literary references and allusions, but you can read the story perfectly happily without recognizing them; they include W.S. Gilbert, Lewis Carroll, P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Paine, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, and of course Jerome K. Jerome. I’m sure I’ve left out another dozen. Although it is primarily a romantic comedy mixed with a Victorian class-structure drama, it also touches a bit on politics and a lot on sociology. Although it is officially classified as science fiction, there’s very little science and absolutely no aliens — in fact, nothing that suggests the future other than (obviously) the invention of time travel. Willis does confront the standard sf trope of altering the present through actions in the recently visited past, but there is of necessity a lot of hand-waving in explaining how physics prevents this from happening. Anyway, this novel is great fun and remarkably absorbing.

And what about the story that it is roughly — very roughly —based on? The accepted view seems to be that Jerome’s humor stands up remarkably well today. But I’m not convinced. It is true that I am someone who found Three Men in a Boat very funny, with lots of extremely amusing scenes, but you do need to have a taste for this sort of British humor. I’m a bit surprised that so many Americans seem to like it. Of course a lot of Americans do love BBC comedies on PBS, so maybe it’s not so surprising after all. Anyway, if that’s your cup of tea, give it a try.

Categories: Books