Connie Willis’s “Oxford Time Travel” series


Connie Willis has written several stories in the same universe dealing with time-travelling historians. As far as I know, no official name has been given to this series, but it is referred to as the Oxford Time Travel series on the Oxford Time Travel Guide on Connie Willis’s blog. I’ve also found other reviewers on the Internet using that name for the series.

The series consists of:

  • Fire watch (novelette)
  • Doomsday Book
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog
  • Blackout
  • All Clear

The series is set in the 2050’s and 2060’s. Time travel has been invented. But since it is apparently impossible to bring objects back from the past, commercial organisations lost interest, and time travel is now the domain of the history departments of universities. Historians travel back in time, to engage in research of the periods they are studying.

The characters vary from story to story, but one constant is Mr James Dunworthy, who is on the teaching staff of Balliol College, Oxford University. Mr Dunworthy provides tutoring and advice to the historians before their travel, and often is quite concerned about the travellers’ welfare while they are in the past.

Time travel is controlled by an operator of machinery in the historian’s own time, so in order to return, the historian must return to the location where they were sent (referred to as the “drop”) and wait to be picked up.

The time travel portal is referred to as the “net”.

According to time travel theory, the space-time continuum tends to preserve itself. For this reason, a historian may be shifted to a slightly different location or time (“slippage”) from where they intended to go, in order to prevent a conflict. Or the net might fail to open, for example, if someone tried to bring an object back from the past.

Time travel theory is still being worked out, and when things go wrong (being stranded in the past, or events occurring which are in contradiction to known history), the characters are constantly questioning the theory. They ask questions such as:

Is it possible to change history? Why did I land in this location and time? Have I messed up the timeline? Why did the net open to let me do this? Am I stranded? Will I ever get home?

Sometimes there are difficulties getting back to their drop: for example not knowing where it was exactly, or they’ve travelled a long way from the drop, or someone’s built something on it in the meantime. Also because the historian has built up a life in the past, there may be difficulties getting away from their job to get to the drop. And the net won’t open if one of the contemporary people (“contemps”) is watching.

The author includes quite a few elements of Christianity in the series: cathedrals and churches, clergy and church officials. And the stranded time-travellers often derive a special meaning relevant to themselves from sermons and prayers spoken in the churches. This is also true of the recurring reference to the painting “The Light of the World”, depicting Jesus Christ, in “Blackout”/”All Clear”.

Fire watch (1982)
(First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Feb 1982. Reprinted in the collection “Fire watch” (1985), as well as other collections.)
[Online copy of the story:]

John Bartholomew is a history student at Oxford. [His first name is not given in this story, but it is in “All Clear”.] He had requested to travel with St Paul (the apostle), and finds to his dismay that this has got changed in the computer to St Paul’s (cathedral) during World War 2. All his preparations are useless, and he has only two days to prepare for wartime England. He uses a technique of implanting information into his long term memory, to help him learn everything he needs to know.

Arriving at St Paul’s of 1940, he presents himself as a volunteer. His main duty is as part of the fire watch team – putting out the fires from incendiary bombs which land on the cathedral roof. He sleeps in the crypt – but doesn’t get much sleep, with the bombs falling on London each night. He starts to suspect that Langby, the verger, who is his supervisor in the fire watch, is a Nazi spy, who wants to burn down the cathedral. This makes him determined to keep a constant watch on Langby, which adds to his fatigue. Bartholomew also meets a young woman, Enola, who is in the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service), and becomes concerned for her welfare. He also has trouble recalling the information implanted in his long term memory, which adds to his distress.

At one point, gazing down from the roof on the sunlit cathedral, he becomes overwhelmed by the sight, and we learn that by Bartholomew’s time, the cathedral has been destroyed.

This story has quite a serious and somewhat miserable tone throughout. It comes as a bit of a surprise when on his return, at the end of the story, Bartholomew says to Mr Dunworthy that he had loved St Paul’s.

The exact date of his own time is not given, but his roommate is Kivrin, from “Doomsday Book”, and she has already experienced the adventure described in that book, so it must be after 2054. [The characters in “All Clear” describe his trip as occurring 6 years in the past, and given that they had departed from April 2060, this suggests a date of about 2054. Possibly their elapsed time in the past also needs to be taken into account.]

Doomsday Book (1992)

This story swaps between Oxford University, around the Christmas/New Year period of 2054/5, and Kivrin’s trip to the 14th Century (the Middle Ages), at a location near Oxford.

Kivrin Engel is a student in the Mediaeval History department at Brasenose College at Oxford University, and wants to travel to the Middle Ages. Her department head, Mr Gilchrist, has agreed, as this will be the maiden time-travel trip for Mediaeval, and will bring prestige to the department.

Kivrin did not have a lot of confidence in her own tutor, Mr Latimer, so had gone to Mr Dunworthy for some unofficial tutoring. (Dunworthy actually works in the Twentieth Century History department at Balliol College.) Dunworthy believed the trip to be too dangerous, and tried to dissuade her, but becoming convinced she would go anyway, agreed to tutor her.

Dr Mary Ahrens, a friend of Dunworthy’s, is one of the doctors at the University Infirmary. She has provided Kivrin with all the necessary inoculations for 14th Century England, and has also implanted components of a recording system in Kivrin’s wrists, so she can record her experiences. (Kivrin will appear to be praying when she makes the recordings.) Kivrin has decided to call the recording the “Domesday Book” (pronounced the same as “Doomsday Book”) after the survey by William the Conqueror, but also to reflect Dunworthy’s pessimistic view of the trip – although Kivrin believes she will be all right.

But now that Kivrin is about to go, Dunworthy wonders whether perhaps he shouldn’t have tutored her. And he considers that Gilchrist is incompetent, and has not taken the necessary precautions. Since there is no experienced time-travel technician at Brasenose, Dunworthy has brought in his own tech, Badri Chaudhuri. Gilchrist is currently acting History Faculty head while the usual occupant of the position is on holidays, and overrides Dunworthy’s objections. The drop goes ahead: Kivrin has gone to the 14th Century.

Badri has to do a fix – a determination that Kivrin has gone to the right time and location, but before he can do this, he falls ill with a severe form of influenza, and is taken to the Infirmary. The influenza is contagious, and soon people from all over Oxford are falling sick and coming into the Infirmary. Oxford is placed under quarantine.

Badri had seemed worried about the fix, and Dunworthy tries to question him, but Badri is either unconscious or delirious all the time, and isn’t making much sense. Dunworthy tries to assist Mary by trying to track the source of the virus – questioning the patients, or people they have been with. He is also trying to get hold of other time-travel technicians, to read the fix, and trying to locate the History Faculty head, to override Gilchrist’s objections. [He gets people to stay by the phone to take messages – apparently in this version of reality, mobile phones have not come into use by 2054.]

Mary’s great-nephew, Colin Templer, turns up, to visit her for Christmas. Dunworthy finds himself looking after Colin, although Colin also proves a useful assistant to Dunworthy.

Kivrin arrives in the woods near Oxford in the 14th Century. She is supposed to be in 1320, shortly before Christmas. Her cover story is that she was travelling with her servants, when robbers attacked, the servants all fled, and she was left injured among the remains of her wagon and possessions. However she falls ill soon after arriving. She wonders if this is a result of the time travel, or whether she has caught some disease present in the 14th Century (although she has had inoculations). (We eventually find out she had caught the influenza in 2054 before her time travel.) She becomes delirious and disoriented. She is found and brought to the manor house in the local village. Eventually she recovers, and assists the family she is staying with, by looking after their two children Rosemund and Agnes. Initially Kivrin has trouble understanding the people’s language, despite having an interpreter in her head (this is presumably some mental conditioning, rather than a machine), but it just takes a while for the interpreter to adjust to the language, which was a bit different from expected.

Kivrin had apparently been brought from the woods to the house by a young man called Gawyn, a servant of the lord of the manor, who had been assisted, somewhere along the way, by the local priest, Father Roche. Kivrin needs to return to the drop in order to return to her own time, when the rendezvous date arrives. But she doesn’t know where the drop is. So she needs to talk to Gawyn, to find out where he had found her, but Gawyn seems always to be away running errands.

Then a visiting priest falls ill, and Kivrin recognises the symptoms as the Black Death. She has arrived in 1348, the year the Black Death came to England, instead of 1320! Kivrin had been inoculated against the Black Death, so hopefully she will not catch it. But one by one, all the villagers fall victim to the plague, with Kivrin and Father Roche trying to treat them, hoping that some will survive. (The contemporary people come to believe that it is in fact Doomsday.)

In 2054, Mr Dunworthy himself succumbs to the influenza virus, and by the time he recovers, Kivrin’s rendezvous date has passed. Since they had not done the fix, Dunworthy believes they have lost Kivrin. But Colin persuades him not to give up, and with the help of a recovered Badri, and other friends, they work out something that might enable them to find Kivrin and bring her back.

This story is rather heavy-going and depressing, with horrific descriptions of the symptoms of the Black Death, and with both Mr Dunworthy and Kivrin constantly worried about what is going on. Some of the characters, that we get to know and like, die, in both parts of the timeline.

To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)

This story is set in 2057. A woman called Lady Schrapnell is funding Oxford University for time travel research, but in return she is insisting on research into the old Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in World War 2. With this information, she is organising the cathedral to be rebuilt in Oxford. But in order to get authentic details of the cathedral, she is sending all the historians back in time to research these details.

Ned Henry is one of a group sent back to 1940, to determine whether the “bishop’s bird stump” was present in the cathedral at the time it was bombed. (This object turns out to be an ornate but ugly wrought-iron vase.) However, the slippage results in them arriving the day after the bombing, and they have to comb through the rubble to try to find this object. But Ned has made too many trips through time recently, and is suffering from time-lag, whose symptoms include: disorientation, difficulty distinguishing sounds, and tendency to sentimentalise. Ned’s colleague brings him back to his own time, where the nurse prescribes two weeks rest.

Ned returns to Mr Dunworthy’s office, where there seems to be a crisis. A young female historian, Verity Kindle, has returned from the past, bringing something with her – which should not be possible. (Ned, with his “difficulty distinguishing sounds”, can’t make out what she has brought back.) And what effect would this have on the timeline?

Discovering Ned’s condition, Mr Dunworthy decides to send Ned on a mission to 1888, which will keep him out of Lady Schrapnell’s clutches, and where he can spend some time relaxing, to recover from his time-lag.

Arriving in Victorian England of 1888, Ned realises that with his disorientation and difficulty distinguishing sounds – plus the fact that his orientation tape was playing in his ears at the same time Mr Dunworthy was giving him his instructions, he does not know what his mission is. He has arrived, with a pile of luggage, near the Oxford railway station. He meets a young man called Terence St Trewes. Thinking that this is his contact (this turns out to be false), Ned agrees to go on a boat trip on the River Thames with him, to Muchings End, which Ned has managed to remember was his destination.

They set off for the boat-hire place, where Terence had left his dog Cyril. They hire a boat, load their luggage, and Ned, Terence and Cyril board the boat and set off along the Thames River. Along the river they find Terence’s tutor, Professor Peddick, floundering in the river; they rescue him and take him on board. Thus the title of the book becomes clear: Connie Willis is paying tribute to Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” (published 1889), the second line of that book’s title being “To Say Nothing of the Dog”. And here we have three men and a dog in boat, travelling on the River Thames, just as in Jerome’s book. Ned makes several references to events in “Three Men in a Boat”, and in fact they encounter Jerome K Jerome’s group along the way.

Ned and his companions spend the night at an island in the Thames, where Ned discovers a cat in his luggage – and realises that this is the thing Verity had brought back from the past, and he was meant to return it.

They arrive at Muching’s End the next day, at the house where Tocelyn “Tossie” Mering, the owner of the cat, lives with her parents. Verity is there, posing as Tossie’s cousin, but her actual mission is to try to get hold of Tossie’s diary, to try to find clues about the bishop’s bird stump. Tossie is Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor. The diary had been found in Ned and Verity’s time, but it was water-damaged, and could not be read. But later diaries written by Tossie state that she had made a trip to Coventry in the summer of 1888, and had seen the bird stump at St Michael’s Church (later to become the cathedral), and the experience had changed her life. And that she had met the man who became her husband, whose name started with the letter C. (The rest of the name was illegible.) It was this description in Tossie’s diary that had inspired Lady Schrapnell to rebuild the cathedral.

Ned’s group stays at the Merings’ place for some days. However, Ned and Verity become afraid they have disrupted the timeline. Should Verity have taken the cat? (She had rescued the cat from drowning when the butler, Baine, had thrown it into the river.) Should Ned have returned it? Tossie and Terence have become engaged. But Tossie is supposed to marry Mr C, and Terence is supposed to marry Maud, Professor Peddick’s niece. And there is no sign of the Mering household going to Coventry, or of Mr C. Ned and Verity organise a seance, to present a message from the spirits that the household should visit Coventry. And with lots of effort, they organise the train trip to Coventry.

In the meantime a romance has been developing between Ned and Verity. But is this a side effect of their time-lag, and their “tendency to sentimentalise”?

There are quite a few surprises in the resolution of the story, including a rather complex time-loop.

I found this an interesting and fascinating story, with lots of humour.

Blackout (2010)

The two books “Blackout” and “All Clear” form a continuous story. As the author explains in the Acknowledgements of each of the two books, “it morphed from one book into two”, as the story grew while being written. The story is not resolved at the end of “Blackout”, and after reading it, you will want to get hold of a copy of “All Clear” to find out the rest of the story.

The story is quite complex, with the viewpoint moving from character to character, and to different points in the timeline. It is also very detailed, giving the characters’ thoughts and feelings, as well as details of the historical settings. The author is also concealing certain things until the appropriate points of the story – although there are hints hidden in the detail. On a second reading (after reading both books), you realise the significance of a lot of things, such as the characters’ interrupted sentences.

Three historians meet in Oxford in April 2060, before heading off to their assignments in 1940, in World War 2 England.

(Note: historians often use assumed names when they travel to the past.)

Eileen O’Reilly (real name Merope Ward) is actually partway through her assignment, and had returned to 2060 to learn to drive a 1940’s car. Her assignment is to work as a maid in a manor house in Backbury, Warwickshire, in order to observe the children evacuated from London.

Mike Davis (real name Michael Davies) was intending to go to Pearl Harbor, and has had an implant which gives him an American accent, but Mr Dunworthy has reordered a lot of the historians’ assignments. So Mike is now going to Dover, to observe the evacuation of servicemen from Dunkirk. Mike is not very pleased with this change of assignment. Because of his accent, he must now pose as an American reporter.

Polly Sebastien (real name Polly Churchill) intends to work as a shopgirl in London during the Blitz.

Also present is Colin Templer, who previously appeared in “Doomsday Book”. He has been helping Polly in her preparations, because he has a crush on her (although he is 17, and still at high school, whereas Polly is 25). Colin is also keen to do some time travelling himself, but Mr Dunworthy won’t let him until he has done the university course.

When sent to his assignment (in May 1940), Mike finds himself at Saltram-on-Sea, 30 miles south of Dover, a few days later than intended. After hunting around for transport to Dover, he ends up in the boat “Lady Jane”, captained by Commander Harold. But the boat is headed for Dunkirk, which Mike had intended to stay clear of, because of its critical role in the war. Mike helps with the rescue of soldiers, but is worried all the time that he is affecting history. But Mike receives a severe injury to his foot, and ends up in hospital in Orpington. When he is eventually released, he makes his way back to Saltram-on-Sea, but finds an artillery gun emplacement has been built on top of his drop, making it inaccessible.

Eileen returns to Warwickshire (February 1940), and continues her work as a maid, which to a large extent involves looking after the evacuated children. Among others, there are two quite mischievous children, a brother and sister, Alf and Binnie Hodbin, and a boy called Theodore Willett, who always wants to go home. When the period of her assignment is over, she finds that her duties at the manor prevent her getting away to her drop in the woods. And then all the children come down with measles, and the manor is placed under quarantine. Eileen keeps expecting a retrieval team from 2060 to turn up, but they don’t. Finally, when the quarantine is over, she goes to the drop, but it doesn’t open. So she continues working at the manor. In September 1940, the manor is to be turned into a riflery training school. Eileen decides to take the train to London, to meet Polly and use her drop. She is given the job of taking the three remaining children, Alf, Binnie and Theodore, back to their homes in London.

Polly arrives in London in September 1940, during the Blitz. It is night, and a warden escorts her to a bomb shelter, at the Church of St George, Kensington. She gets to know her fellow shelterers. She gets rooms at the boarding house run by Mrs Rickett, one of her fellow shelterers. And she gets a job at a department store, Townsend Brothers. The bombing is coming each night, so the shelter at St George’s becomes a regular occurrence. One of the shelter occupants is a Shakespearean actor, Sir Godfrey Kingsman, who performs for them, and he gets Polly to perform with him.

Polly returns to her drop to check in, and to get a regulation shopgirl’s skirt, but finds the net won’t open. This scares her. Her previous assignment was only a few years in the future. (Apparently if you arrive in a time you are already present, you die. Or, as “All Clear” seems to imply, the continuum might arrange an accident, to kill you off before you arrive at the time you are already present. Having bombs falling all the time might be a convenient mechanism for this to occur.) She returns to St George’s to find it bombed, and is afraid that all her shelter companions have been killed. But a couple of days later, she finds all her companions relocated to the Notting Hill Gate tube station (since tube stations are also used as bomb shelters). Led by Sir Godfrey, the group decide to put on plays in the tube station (and are generally referred to from now on as “the troupe”).

Polly takes the train to Warwickshire, intending to make use of Eileen’s drop. But she finds the manor has been converted to a riflery training school, and all the staff have left. She presumes that Eileen has returned to 2060. Polly returns to London. Marjorie, her fellow worker at Townsend Brothers, tells her that Eileen came looking for her, and is working at another department store, Padgett’s.

Polly realises (from the information she has memorised) that Padgett’s will be bombed that night, and goes off to rescue Eileen. She meets Mike at Padgett’s. Mike has come to make use of Polly’s drop, but didn’t know which store she was working at. They find Eileen, and leave the building before it is bombed, and take refuge in the tube station.

Polly, Mike and Eileen are all together now in London, and all realise that none of their drops work. (It is October, 1940.) Mike is concerned he has changed history, and keeps checking for discrepancies with historical record. Polly is concerned with her deadline, but doesn’t want to worry the others.

Eileen moves in with Polly at Mrs Rickett’s, and Mike stays at a nearby boarding house.

Trying to think of other time-travelling historians, in order to use their drops, they remember one called Gerald Phipps. Eileen had overheard him mention his destination, probably an airfield, but can’t remember the name.

Besides Polly, Eileen and Mike, a few other characters are mentioned, with the story told from their points of view.

Mary Kent (also a time-traveller) is in Dulwich, Surrey, in June 1944, working at a First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) post. She, and the other girls at the post, drive ambulances, pick up injured people, and transport them to hospitals. They also drive military officers to meetings. Mary’s assignment is to observe the reactions of people when the V1 flying bombs start falling.

A girl called Douglas (also a time-traveller) is in London on 7 May 1945, the eve of VE-day. (I initially assumed Douglas must be her surname, but it turns out in “All Clear” to be a nickname given to her.) The crowds are gathering in the city to celebrate the end of the war. Douglas is about to return to her own time.

Ernest Worthing is in Kent, in April 1944. (As a point of view character, one imagines he is a time-traveller, but this is not stated in this book.) He is working for Fortitude South and the Special Means unit, writing newspaper articles, intended to mislead the enemy about the locations of troops. He is also writing something secret, which he doesn’t even tell his colleagues (and we don’t know at this stage). With his colleague Cess, he places inflatable dummy tanks in fields to mislead the enemy.

At the end of “Blackout”, Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in past. It is unclear exactly what the roles of the other point of view characters are: Mary Kent, Douglas and Ernest Worthing. Presumably all will become clear in “All Clear”.

All Clear (2010)

Polly, Mike and Eileen all look up names of airfields to prompt Eileen’s memory of where Gerald Phipps was coming to. Also, they wonder what has happened to the retrieval team that should be coming to get them. They start putting cryptic messages in the personal columns of the newspapers, specifying meeting places, hoping the retrieval team will see them.

Finally, Eileen sees a place on the map that she remembers as Gerald’s destination: Bletchley Park. But Bletchley Park is not an airfield, it is the location of Ultra, the top-secret facility where people were working out the German Enigma code. Mike now has a job with an English newspaper, which allows him to move around the country, so he travels to Bletchley (the local town near Bletchley Park) to try to find Gerald. After a few days hunting around the town, and frequenting the pubs, he discovers that Gerald was supposed to stay at the same boarding house he is at, but he never turned up.

In Oxford in 2060, Mr Dunworthy is reviewing the historians’ assignments. He had been concerned about the recent increase in slippage, and for this reason had rearranged each historian’s assignments to occur in chronological order, to prevent them running into their deadlines. But he hadn’t told the technicians what he was doing, and they had allowed Polly to do her assignments out of order. Discovering this, Mr Dunworthy decides to go to 1940 himself, to bring her back. Arriving at his drop in St Paul’s cathedral in 1940, he discovers to his dismay that there has been slippage of 3 months: from September to December. But then he gets caught in the blast from a parachute mine, and disoriented, wanders off towards the Oxford of 1940.

Mike returns to London, and meets Polly and Eileen. Eileen has figured out that Polly has a deadline, and asks when it is. Polly confesses that she was driving an ambulance during the V1 and V2 rocket attacks of 1944, and that she had also seen Eileen in Trafalgar Square on the eve of VE-day 1945. This is a bit of a puzzle, since Eileen has not been to 1945. Does this mean she will remain in the past until 1945, or is this a later assignment?

Mike receives a letter from Daphne, the barmaid at the hotel at Saltram-on-Sea. Two men have come looking for him. This must be the retrieval team. It takes some time for Mike to get to Saltram-on-Sea, and then he discovers that Daphne had got married and moved to Manchester. No one else at the hotel knows about the two men. So Mike has to travel to Manchester, and hunt around to find Daphne’s place. She gives him an address in Edgebourne for the two men.

Mike finally arrives back in London, but tells Polly the two men hadn’t been the retrieval team. One of them had been a fellow-patient from Orpington hospital who was looking him up.

But Mike has realised that John Bartholomew (from the story “Fire Watch”) must still be in 1940. It is 29 December, and Bartholomew is due to return to his own time the next day. Mike and Polly collect Eileen (she had taken young Theodore to a pantomime), and they take the train to Blackfriars station, and it is a 10 minute walk to St Paul’s. It is dark by this time, and there is an air raid in progress. An air raid warden tries to stop them entering the cathedral. (29 December 1940 was one of the worst air raids in the war, with bombs falling and fires breaking out, all around St Paul’s Cathedral.)

Polly makes it into the cathedral, and wanders around in the dark, and climbs the stairs to the roof. The fire watch find her, and escort her out, telling her that John Bartholomew had taken an injured fellow-worker to St Bart’s Hospital. She heads off to St Bart’s.

The air raid warden escorts Eileen to Blackfriars station. But then she sees John Bartholomew, racing to get to St Paul’s. But when she tries to follow, she encounters Alf and Binnie Hodbin. And then the station guard prevents her leaving the station because of the air raid. But she makes it out, just to be coerced into driving an ambulance with patients to the hospital, with Alf and Binnie along to help. And then she finds herself forced to keep driving to pick up patients and take them to the hospital. Finally, back at the hospital, she meets Polly, and with Alf and Binnie, search for John Bartholomew. But he has already left.

Mike had managed to get away from the air raid warden, but had been obliged to help firemen put out fires. But then a wall falls on him, and he ends up in St Bart’s Hospital.

The next morning, Polly, Eileen and Mike return to St Paul’s, but they have all missed John Bartholomew.

They return to their daily lives. Eileen is now working with Polly at Townsend Brothers. Mike’s job as a journalist takes him all over London. Each night they shelter at the tube station, and the troupe performs plays. Their next hope is when another historian, Denys Atherton, arrives in 1944. But under pressure from Mike, Polly admits that her deadline is 19 December 1943, so Denys’s arrival will be too late for her. Mike proposes putting messages in the newspapers, intended to be read by their people in Oxford in 2060.

But one day after this, Mike is missing from the shelter. Then an air raid warden turns up with the news that Mike has been killed! But is he really dead? They had found his identity card, ration book, reporter’s notebook, and scarf. There was no body, but this was to be expected; with a thousand-pounder bomb and incendiaries, there would most likely be nothing left. But Eileen doesn’t believe it, and keeps looking for him. Maybe he had been injured, and wandered off.

But finally Eileen accepts that Mike is dead. The rector (one of their shelter group) proposes a memorial service for Mike, and Mr Humphreys, the verger at St Paul’s, agrees to have it in a chapel at the cathedral. To cheer Eileen up, Polly has managed to contact the vicar (Mr Goode) from Backbury (where Eileen had worked as a maid), and Alf and Binnie, who all attend the memorial service.

Eileen realises that Alf and Binnie’s mother had died some months before, and they have been living and scavenging in the tube stations. She asks Mr Goode to help her to be named as their legal guardian. And the children move into Mrs Rickett’s boarding house with Eileen and Polly. But after Mrs Rickett hears the children’s parrot making rude remarks, the 4 of them (and the parrot) have to leave. They take a position as live-in caretakers of a house.

Eileen and Polly are required to perform National Service. Eileen gets a position with the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), driving military officers. Polly wants a job with a rescue squad, but the woman at the Works Board, having seen her performing a play in the tube station, assigns her to ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), which puts on shows (musical revues) for soldiers, which isn’t really what Polly wanted.

Polly goes to Mr Humphreys at St Paul’s, to see if he can get her a Civil Defence job. But Mr Humphreys wants her to meet a Mr Hobbe, who is there at the cathedral. And this turns out to be Mr Dunworthy! But Mr Dunworthy has been in hospital, and seems unhappy and ill, and he is stranded in this time as well. His drop is in St Paul’s, but it will not open. (He also has a deadline, 1 May 1941.)

Mr Dunworthy tells Polly that he believes they are stranded for good. He now believes the theory of Dr Ishiwaka (not generally accepted by other time-travel theorists), that time travellers have been doing more and more damage to the continuum, which would lead to catastrophe. And it has now shut down access to the future. They may have altered the timeline sufficiently to lose the war! Polly takes him back to their home, and gets a doctor to see him.

Later, Mr Dunworthy provides additional information. He believes the continuum will attempt to correct itself by arranging the death of all of them, the time-travellers, and possibly a lot of the people they have come in contact with. Polly resolves that from now on she will have as little contact with other people as possible. But Eileen is more optimistic, finding it hard to believe that doing good deeds can have a bad effect.

Polly, not having managed to get a job with a rescue squad, takes up her job with ENSA, at the Alhambra theatre. One day, Sir Godfrey Kingsman (the Shakespearean actor from their shelter group troupe) visits her in the dressing room, and asks her to join him in a pantomime of Sleeping Beauty. Being afraid contact with him will result in his death, she declines. Sir Godfrey says that if she changes her mind, he will be in the nearby Phoenix theatre.

But that night, after her performance, she hears that the Phoenix has been bombed. Still in her costume, she races off to the Phoenix to rescue Sir Godfrey. Has her contact with him already resulted in his death? However during the events that follow, Polly starts to rethink her ideas about the continuum, and believes there is reason for hope.

In 1944, Ernest Worthing continues with his schemes to mislead the Germans. The Fortitude South personnel set up a fake military hospital, posing as patients, and are visited by the Queen. They pose as American soldiers at a reception at the Savoy, spreading the rumour that the planned invasion will be at Calais. Ernest must take a parcel to a sea captain at Dover, hitchhiking from Kent to Dover, in order to spread the Calais rumour in the pubs. Next he has to drag lights along a fake airfield runway.

And then Ernest and his colleague Cess must drive a sick German prisoner-of-war to London, so the Red Cross can return him to Germany. They drive through areas with army camps, but falsify the route, so the German officer will think they are in a different location from where they really are.

And next they have to provide articles to the papers, providing false information about where the V1 and V2 rockets have landed, including falsified photos as evidence. That way, the Germans will shorten the trajectories, and hopefully the rockets will land in less-populated areas.

In 1944, Mary Kent continues to drive ambulances, and to transport military officers. She gets into an uncomfortable situation when an officer, Stephen Lang, takes an interest in her, when one of the other girls at the unit wants Stephen to be interested in her instead. And when Mary and a fellow-worker try to rescue an injured man at Croydon, after a V1 hits, a V2 hits as well, injuring the two girls, and destroying the ambulance.

After Polly, Eileen, Mike and Mr Dunworthy fail to return to 2060, and access to 1940 from the future is cut off, Colin Templer gets involved in trying to rescue them. Colin manages to get through to 1941, but all the time-travellers have moved from their expected locations, and he doesn’t know where to find them. He must know exactly when and where to find them, and every day he spends in the past is a day he can’t revisit. He spends years searching through records and newspaper articles for clues. He’s not even sure whether any of them survived. Finally he decides to attend the various 50th anniversary commemorative activities (in 1995), hoping that someone who knew one of the time-travellers will turn up. Will he be successful?

And yes, there are connections between Ernest, Mary and Douglas and the three main characters Polly, Eileen and Mike. And there are complex interactions between the various parts of the timeline. But I can’t tell you very much about them without giving too much away.



One thought on “Connie Willis’s “Oxford Time Travel” series

  1. Harold Wood

    Just a small vote of thanks for your engaging commentaries. Connie Willis has a knack of making touching but realistic characters, e.g Kivrin and Mr Dunworthy. I can also certainly recommend ‘Bellwether’, ‘Lincoln’s Dreams’ and ‘Passages’.
    Thanks again,
    Harold Wood


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