Fangirling with Connie Willis

It’s a very bizarre thing to find yourself squeeing in the middle of a gut-wrenching and upsettingly graphic story about the bubonic plague. And yet. Here we are.

Doomsday Book was published in 1992 and is the first full-length book in Connie Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series. It tells the story of Kivrin Engle, a historian at Oxford University in the year 2054. In this fictional future, time travel is a fact of life, made possible through a shimmering “net,” and historians spend months or years prepping for their assignments by learning the customs, languages, appropriate dress and manner, and relevant facts to keep them safe in whatever era they are observing. Kivrin is young, eager, a touch naïve, and very competent. At the novel’s opening she is headed to 1320 Oxford and she couldn’t be happier.

Her academic advisor Mr. Dunworthy, however, is not happy. He considers the Middle Ages far too dangerous and is reluctant to let Kivrin go. Alas, the decision is out of his hands, and off she shimmers. And wouldn’t you know it—things go wrong.

Original 1992 Bantam edition. Not the edition that I have, but I quite like this cover.

I really fell into this book. It has a pitch-perfect balance between the devastating and the cozy. While Kivrin is stranded in the wrong year (1948, the year the bubonic plague arrived in England), Mr. Dunworthy and his colleagues are contending with an altogether different epidemic—a deadly flu that has struck 2054 and locked Oxford down over the Christmas season.

The themes of plague and pandemic are very timely, and Connie Willis really nailed it with her descriptions of anti-vaxxers, protestors, panic, paranoia, and an overburdened health care system. Mr. Dunworthy races around trying to get a “lock” on Kivrin’s temporal location and bring her back, while around him his colleagues are falling ill, there are American bell ringers causing a fuss, and the imperious mother of one of his students is making everyone’s life a burden to them. Luckily, Colin—the irrepressible grand-nephew of his friend Mary—is along for the ride, bringing some levity and youthful optimism to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Kivrin is stranded, and her experiences are truly harrowing.

Okay, but why the squeeing?

If, like me, you have a love of Dorothy L. Sayers, your eyes might have perked up when you saw the word “Oxford.” Indeed, the pinnacle of DLS’s career (imho) is Gaudy Night, a book that is set in Oxford University and in which Oxford itself has a starring role. Readers of this blog or listeners to my podcast Story Girls will have already heard me go on at length about DLS and Gaudy Night, so I will merely direct you to this blog post and this podcast episode if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Just imagine my delight when I found sly, subtle nods to DLS in Doomsday Book. There are frequent mentions of students being members of Shrewsbury College, which keen readers will know is not really an Oxford college like the others mentioned, such as Balliol or Magdalen. No, Shrewsbury College is the fictional college (modelled after the real-life Somerville College) that DLS created for Gaudy Night. It is Harriet Vane’s alma mater, but it doesn’t really exist. Squee.

And did you catch my mention of bell ringers? Had it not been for the Shrewsbury allusion, I may not have thought anything of it. But in light of that little shout-out, I can only read it as a nod to DLS’s The Nine Tailors.

Willis’s follow up to Doomsday Book is the comedic novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, and here she has thrown subtlety and slyness right out the window and proclaimed her love of DLS loud and clear. This book tells the tale of historians Verity Kindle and Ned Henry as they traipse through the Victorian era trying to repair an incongruity that has occurred in the timeline and looking for “the bishop’s bird stump,” a hideous vase that was lost when Coventry Cathedral burned down.

The book is a fun read, and an intriguing blend of comedy, romance, and chaos theory. But what I loved most about it was that Verity invokes DLS and her characters at every turn—even down to instructing Ned on how to fake a séance:

Miss Climpson did it. In Strong Poison. She had to. Lord Peter was running out of time. And so are we.”

To Say Nothing of the Dog

There is a scene that marvellously parallels the iconic river scene in Gaudy Night. I won’t give spoilers, but the very last sentence made me grin. I 100% fangirled my way through these books. And it’s not just DLS that she nods to, either. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jerome K. Jerome all get their due as well, so the potential for fangirling is high.

I won’t say these books are perfect, however. There is an underlying thread of grand design that makes me a little uneasy, and throughout all of the books in the series that I have read (including the next novel-in-two-parts, Blackout/All Clear) there is a hint of reverence for the church that I just can’t share with the author. There is also some troubling language and a disturbing tendency of the author to display her colonial bias in passages such as this one from Blackout:

“Nebraska,” he said absently, trying to decide whether he should walk north of the village and try to hitch a ride or whether he was better off waiting here.
“That’s in the Wild West, isn’t it?” Daphne asked. “Are there red Indians there?”
Red Indians? “Not anymore,” he said.

Blackout

Um, excusez-moi, but there are most certainly still Indigenous peoples in Nebraska, which is on the ancestral lands of several nations, including the Pawnee, Omaha, Cheyenne, Oglala, and many others. I was thrown out of the story and disheartened by these types of throwaway lines. Thankfully, they are few and far between, but they still need calling out.

Of the series, Doomsday Book was easily my favourite. To be clichéd about it—I laughed, I cried. I fell for Kivrin and Colin and Badri and Mary and Father Roche and little Agnes and, last but not least, Mr. Dunworthy. And as much as I loved the overt DLS love in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I might have actually preferred the subtle allusions in Doomsday Book, which delighted me in their detail.

I’d love to hear thoughts on Connie Willis. I know that she has a ton of books that I haven’t read, and that the internet is very divided about her! What do you think?

‘You must be Miss Kindle. I understand you are a fan of mystery novels, too.’
‘Only those of the Thirties,’ Verity said apologetically.”

To Say Nothing of the Dog

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