888 Challenge #2
The year is 2057, and the bane of Oxford’s time-travelling history department is Lady Schrapnell. She’s rebuilding Coventry Cathedral and is a big fan of details, which have to be collected by someone - or rather, a lot of someones. A whole history department full of someones. For Ned Henry, this means trying to ascertain whether the bishop’s bird stump was present during the cathedral’s bombing in 1940, but the slippage keeps getting in the way. The result is a bad case of time lag, and since Lady Schrapnell doesn’t believe in time lag, Mr Dunworthy sends him to 1888 to recover.
While he’s there, Ned is meant to correct an incongruity - return a cat that fellow historian Verity Kindle brought forward to 2057. Unfortunately, Oxford then concludes that removing the cat did not create an incongruity, but that taking it back could well alter the course of history. Now Ned and Verity have to make sure that Lady Schrapnell’s airheaded ancestress Tocelyn goes to Coventry on the right day, has her life changed by the experience (and the bird stump), and marries the right man; but with her diary rendered illegible by water damage they have no idea when, or how, or who. Nor do they know how to determine the location of the bishop’s bird stump, either during the air raid or in 2057. Or the other mystery - if the net is supposed to shut down rather than create an incongruity, why did it let Ned (and the cat) through at all?
The drama of the first book in the series is largely left behind here (well, except for the possibility of the collapse of the space-time continuum), but the fun remains from beginning to end. As the title suggests, it does reference Jerome K. Jerome; Ned travels downriver as one of three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog) after hitching a ride with Terence St Trewes and his bulldog Cyril, and helping to rescue Terence’s tutor, the absent-minded, fish-loving Professor Peddick. There are also nods to The Taming of the Shrew and the mystery novels of the 1930s, Verity’s usual province. She and Ned even lift a strategy right out of the pages of a Dorothy L. Sayers novel - happily for me, one I’ve read. The narration was Ned’s, and it was impossible not to feel for the guy; in over his head in a strange time, and caught between the twin horrors of Lady Schrapnell in one century and Mrs. Mering - who in manner greatly resembled her - in another. (And after the Rescuing Rose debacle, Isabel Wolff should have read chapter 1 to see how to do self-delusion well.) The animals had personalities of their own, the humans were all varying degrees of eccentric, and the scientific aspect made for interesting if occasionally mind-bending reading. (Though I’m still not sure how Ned worked out what the consequences would be if the incongruity was left uncorrected.) I frequently broke into giggles while reading, and couldn’t possible choose a favourite part or person.
And now I really want to read Three Men in a Boat.