(Spoilers ahead, if you’ve not read Blackout and All Clear.)

Clio’s Disciple quite rightly points out, in a comment on my last post, that Colin Templer (now there’s a name for a medievalist) does engage in serious archival work. He really gets a twofer, since in order to do it, he has to time-travel to a past where the archives still exist; or maybe a threefer, since he also makes carefully calibrated visits to WWII. In short, by the time All Clear is over, he has all the background necessary to be THE World War II historian of his generation: hands-on experience and archival research in more than one decade (let’s hope he wrote things down and didn’t rely on memory).

But the decade of research Colin undertakes is glossed over in a few sentences; clearly it was tedious, dusty, worrisome work, punctuated by occasional depressing discoveries and only briefly enlivened by a drink with an attractive fellow-researcher. A. S. Byatt does a better job of conveying the romance of the archives, but perhaps for Willis’s purposes, the archives need to be boring, because Colin isn’t doing the work for its own sake but so he can find Polly. The romance has to be front and center; archival work is the test-quest the fairy-tale prince undergoes to win the princess.

While I’m being critical, though, let’s think about who Colin is, why he can do this, and what the results are likely to be. White male, check. Privileged background, check: educated at Eton and Oxford. Connections, check: his dead great-aunt was a close friend of Jim Dunworthy, who supervises the time-travel lab in 2050’s Oxford; Colin has grown up in and out of the lab, and knows the technicians and other useful dramatis personae. Supposing the boy in love with Polly had been almost anyone else? A townie, her hometown sweetheart, an immigrant, a person of color? Supposing the lover had been a girl? Would anyone but someone with Colin’s privileges be able to spend so much time badgering the techs to recompute possible drop sites? Wouldn’t anyone else get kicked out of the lab?

If the job situation in 2060 is rosier than it is now, then Colin and Polly might turn into the academic power couple of the decade: she has over a year of actual lived experience of WWII, while Colin has done all the research I listed earlier. Polly, of course, will still have to do the writing-up part, while Colin . . . hang on . . . thanks to time-travel, Colin has had ten years to do research and, conceivably, write up a spin-off article or several, while Polly has been stuck in 1941 expecting to die in the Blitz. Can you say “post-traumatic stress syndrome”? How about “patriarchal equilibrium”? I’m afraid that I foresee not a relationship between academic equals, but Colin waltzing into a high-profile position and negotiating some sort of trailing-spouse job for Polly. Or maybe she’ll become a faculty wife.

I hope not. I hope I’m being too gloomy and early-twenty-first-century about this. And I want to make it clear that I like Colin, and was glad to see him back, and I love Willis’s books. One of the things I like about them is how much food for thought they generate.

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5 thoughts on “More about Colin

  1. Wow. I so don't see a trailing spouse thing happening. But I just realized one of the reasons why I think we're reading these books differently – I've always thought of all the time travelers as undergrads, who aren't necessarily going to become historians professionally (after all, Oxford undergrads specialize). I think I've always seen them as doing undergrad theses rather than dissertations and entering the profession. (Not saying I'm correct in that, that's just what's I assumed. I think this might hold more true for Doomsday Book than the latest two, though. For instance, I'm pretty sure the guy in Doomsday Book who works his way through all the girls he encounters is directly described as an undergrad, and I think Kivrin is too. I'll grant that Polly and Eileen and Mike read more like grad students, though.)

  2. Polly's 25, and I think Mike's about the same age; Eileen is explicitly a little younger than they are. Colin's 17 at the beginning, but 27 by the end, so he can't still be an undergrad. I was never sure whether Kivrin was an advanced undergrad or an MA student, but the more recent books cover the requirements for going into the past: one is being at least 20, which doesn't rule out undergrads, but I think Polly and Mike, at least, have to be MA or PhD students. The characters in the more comedic _To Say Nothing of the Dog_ seem more like undergraduates, though a lot of that is attitude rather than anything specific I can point to right now (I looked over the book before the first post, but I wouldn't say I'd re-read it in detail).

  3. Yeah, it makes sense that Mike and Polly are grad students. I just didn't think about it much, because of the previous books. And I guess this reveals I really do have different expectations for undergrads and grad students.

  4. Yeah, it makes sense that Mike and Polly are grad students. I just didn't think about it much, because of the previous books. And I guess this reveals I really do have different expectations for undergrads and grad students.

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