Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2067. In this era historian isn’t someone who spends 20 years producing a monograph on late Phoenician trading patterns which sells 63 copies, earns a luke-warm review in the Times Literary Supplement and is remaindered within six months. In this era historians are travellers sent back on time trips (or “drops” as they call them) to carry out detailed reconnaisance and research on past historical eras and events. Too many drops, though, can give you time-lag, a euphoric state akin to being high.
The time travel technology is known as “the net,” invented by a couple of chancers who hoped to ransack history for priceless artifacts but then discovered that objects from the past cannot be transported through time, only humans can travel back and forth (or so it’s thought). Ned and his fellow historians are working on a multi-million project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid on 14th November 1940, Oddly it’s not being built in Coventry, but in Oxford. The project is the brain child of Lady Schrapnell, whom I imagine as a cross between Lady Bracknell and Mrs Thatcher. She is not be brooked over the slightest minute detail.
The story begins with Ned poking around the ruins of the Cathedral days after the raid, trying to locate the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian flower ornament which has vanished – and which Lady Schrapnell has insisted must be found. Unable to locate it he returns to Oxford where he meets fellow historian Verity Kindle, who has been infiltrated into the Mering family at Muchings End in Oxfordshire in June 1888.
At this point a cat enters the story, Princess Arjumand, who belongs to Tossie Mering, spoilt daughter of the family with a penchant for babytalk. Somehow the cat returns with Verity to 2067 after she rescues it from drowning. It is imperative that Princess Arjumand must be returned to 1888 to close the incongruity. (Ned has fallen instantly in love with Verity, by the way).
Ned is also sent back to June 1888 and falls in with a Balliol undergraduate Terence St Trewes (who has an annoying habit of quoting Tennyson at every turn), his bulldog Cyril and Professor Peddick. Terence is in love with Tossi Meringe, and thus the three men and the dog set off on a boat trip along the Thames to Muchings End with many mishaps on the way. If you are thinking that this sounds rather familiar, you would be right. Ned and his party actually pass Jerome K Jerome and his party on the journey which becomes the book Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), published the following year.
Arriving at Muchings End, Ned discovers Priness Arnjumand in his luggage, alive and well, and meets Verity again who has returned from Oxford. They now become embroiled in a series of increasingly farcical events which involve returning the cat to Tossie and stopping her marrying Terence, which will cause another incongruity as they know from her diaries that she married a mysterious “Mr C” after meeting him on a visit to Coventry Cathedral. It was Tossie’s diaries, read by her descendant Lady Schrapnell, that inspired the Coventry Cathdral project. A change in history could be catastrophic.
What follows are nightime assignations, deceptions, impersonations, coincidences, manipulations and seances with Madame Iritosky – to say nothing of Cyril and Princess Arjumand. And there is still the question of what happened to the bishop’s bird stump. At one point a drop lands Ned and Verity in the Cathedral on the night of 14th November as it is being bombed; they barely escape with their lives.
It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it with with a blinding white light. I staggered off my knees, and then stopped, staring across the nave. The force had knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish afterlight I could see everything; the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres burning with a queer yellow light; the altar in the Cappers’ Chapel. And the parclose screen in the Smith’s Chapel….
I flung myself through the door and through the tower door and up the firelit stairs, wondering what I was going to say to Lady Schrapnell. In that one bright bomb-lit instant I has seen everything: the brasses on the wall, the polished eagle on the lectern , the blackening pillars. And in the north-side the empty wrought-iron flower stand.
It had been removed for safekeeping after all. Or donated as scrap. Or sold at a jumble sale.
“Ned”! Verity shouted. “Hurry! The net’s opening!”
Lady Schrapnell had been wrong.The bishop’s bird stump was not there.
As the novel’s full title suggests, in the end the mystery is solved.
This is a hugely enjoyable and entertaining novel which frankly came as a welcome relief after some recent science fiction novels I have read, whose plots – involving artificial intelligence and jumps across the universe etc – seemed humourless and gave me a headache. We need more novels like this.