Review: The Clock that went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell

The more I think about “The Clock that Went Backward” and the more times I reread it, the more frustrated I become with it. And yet at the same time – more impressed!

The Clock That Went Backward. Image used with kind permission from Natalie Kay-Thatcher (2015)

There’s something wrong with The Clock that Went Backward. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Clock That Went Backward
Image used with kind permission from Natalie Kay-Thatcher (2015).

Turn the clock back 135 years to 18 September 1881, and you’ll find the publication of one of the first time travel stories – The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell.

Wikipedia informs us that it has the first instance of a temporal paradox (reference: wikipedia) as well as reminding us of the fact that it was published before H. G. Well’s more famous The Time Machine (1895) and even before Well’s (some consider, prequel ) The Chronic Argonauts (1888).

Curious?

Synopsis

It seems bizarre to give a synposis of a short story, but here it is. And prepare yourself for a whanger of a spoiler: There’s a clock which goes backwards.

Two cousins are puzzled over a grandfather clock which belongs to their Dutch great Aunt Gertrude. It hasn’t worked since it was struck by lightning, and they are met with refusals when they offer to help with getting the clock fixed. One night they find Aunt Gertrude winding up the clock and note that it ran backwards. When it stops moving she falls to the floor and dies.

Later, when college professor Prof. van Stopp winds up the clock, time flows backwards until a ball of fire strikes the clock. The professor and the cousins find themselves in a critical period during Holland’s history in 1574; the siege of Leyden.

At this time, a breach has been made in the wall of Leyden and needs defending whilst most of the inhabitants count on good weather the following day to bring in ships with military help.

One of the cousins, Harry, saves the life of the mayor’s daughter; the other cousin returns back to his own time with Prof. van Stopp where the latter gives a lecture where he considers how the future affects the past.

Let down

On first reading I was so disappointed with The Clock that Went Backward that I had to read it again to see if I had missed anything.

I’m still not sure that I haven’t.

The title of course gives it away, so even before reading we know what’s going to happen. A clock is going to go backwards. There’s no sharing in the brothers’ mystery surrounding the clock.

And the clock’s strange behaviour causes something strange to happen – but what exactly?

No flow

The Clock that Went Backward is a short story so it needs to get the point across fairly quickly. But it doesn’t, and I blame this on the terrible way in which differing themes seem to have been crudely patched together like a dodgy cut and paste job. There’s no flow.

Each of the 5 chapters are almost stand-alone, and where one finishes on a building climax, the next drops us like sloppy jelly. For example, at the end of Chapter 3 the clock hands are spinning backwards, the house is shaking, there’s a ball of fire, dazzling light and…Chapter 4 goes straight on to describe the people of Leyden. It’s not a secondary plot line, there’s no continuity – just a jaw dropping hiatus.

So when the cousins find themselves back in 1574 we’re given a huge explanation over the siege of Leyden. Now, it’s true that I don’t like prolonged confusion of characters when they (unknowingly) travel in time, but here they just carry on and immediately start interacting with locals. It’s as if either they’re different people entirely, or that they’re the same people as in the previous chapter but are too thick to realise that things around them are different. Or that there’s a chapter missing. (Actually I checked: there isn’t).

At this stage then, there seems to be a loss of focus. What happened to the clock? Are we talking about time travel, or being in a new era with new problems?

Burgomaster van der Werf offers sword
Burgomaster van der Werf offers his sword to the people of Leiden, by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree. Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org.

Reasoning aside, we’re now in 1574 during a siege. Two events happen of note – the mayor who offers to sacrifice himself, and the battle / victory itself which hinges on a single person (as cousin Henry notes). There’s a lot of detail written in here; is this the author showcasing his research into real events during this time?

Perhaps I should be more lenient in my judgement of The Clock that Went Backward because after all, it is one of the early advocates of the time travel genre. And the time travel aspects which it incorporates are intriguing!

Time travel philosophy

As is fitting with the general writing style and theme flow of this story, time travel for the most part gets tacked on almost as an afterthought with random paragraphs wedged into the main text. But – they’re very interesting and open up the world of time travel philosophy!

This is made easier seeing as one of the characters, Professor van Stopp, is a professor of philosophy who poses many questions to the brothers.

For example, he asks why shouldn’t a clock go backwards, and goes on to ask why time itself shouldn’t also go backwards. My own question concerns that of the clock itself – is its backward movement symptomatic of time flowing backwards, or does time was flow backwards because of it?

The professor then goes on to suggest that the Earth’s rotation powers time because this is how the day is made (perhaps a precursor to Superman’s apparent ability to turn back time by causing the Earth to spin in the opposite direction?)

One of my favourite lines he gives is:

“Past, present, and future and future are woven together in one inextricable mesh.”

There are many more too, and really shouldn’t be missed!

A connection through time

The idea of bringing the past (or future) into experience as the present is brought here in its simplest form by linking the characters from one era to another. But there’s something not quite right.

It seems that – or we’re lead to believe that – some of the characters in 1574 are the same as some of those in the present; the story unravels to reveal that the heroic defender was the professor, but who was described as being the brother of the town’s mayor’s wife…and a clock maker – the same one who made the grandfather clock owned by Aunt Gertrude.

But it’s unclear, even perhaps inconsistent…

It doesn’t add up.

Professor van Stopp has “…a physical appearance similar to Aunt Gertrude”, and we’re strongly encouraged to consider that they are brother and sister. The prof points out a photo of the mayor who he considers could well be their father.

So do Gertude and van Stopp have a place in history?

Given the similarity of spelling of Gertude and Gertuyd, it seems that we’re being asked to consider that they are one and the same; a fact corroborated if we look at the dates given in Great Aunt Gertrude’s genealogy near the beginning of the novel (and drummed home to the cousins because it might be important).

Van Stopp owns one of the few houses which predates 1574 which already casts a loose net into history. Further, one of the cousins notes, when back in 1574, that the clock maker looks like van Stopp. The clock maker (note: also the maker of the clock that went backwards) is the husband of the mayor’s wife. Are van Stopp and the clock maker the same?

But here’s the problem. Is van Stopp the mayor’s brother-in-law (clock maker) – or his son (as derived from the photo)?

Likewise, is Gertrude the mayor’s daughter (Gertruyd / genealogy) or the mayor’s unnamed wife?

Gertuyd has a romantic interest with Henry (who remains behind in time). Assuming they stay together as a couple, there are more questions…

If Gertude is the mayor’s unnamed wife, then this makes Henry the Mayor (yikes – he married to his own daughter and present in time at 2 ages – sounds like something from Heinlein!). Actually, given the genealogy, he can’t be the father because Gertrude’s father was a Wiscasset shipper.

OK, so this points to Gertrude and Van Stopp not being brother and sister. Were they so in the present? There’s no mention of it.

In hindsight, the prof talking of a coincidence that the mayor looks like his father…if he was, he’d have known and not talked about it as a coincidence (or even pointed out the photo to the cousins.). This again, this is consistent with the idea that people are different in different times.

I can’t see how this hangs together…what have I misunderstood?

Open questions

There are other open questions:

  • Why does Aunt Gertrude die when the clock goes backward, but Prof van Stopp travels back in time (and back to the present again)?
  • Why were the cousins transported back in time only the second time that the clock went backwards, i.e. with the prof, and not with Gertrude?
  • Why didn’t Henry come back to the present?
  • If van Stopp is the clock maker, why didn’t he recognise the clock in the present time?
  • Summary

    The more I think about The Clock that Went Backward and the more times I reread it, the more frustrated I become with it. And yet at the same time – more impressed!

    The attention given over to the philosophical nature of time certainly places The Clock that went Backward firmly into the time travel genre and makes it worth a read to the time travel enthusiast. But I’d suggest that whilst philosophy demands open minds and thoughts, it should not be used as an excuse to not provide answers – and there are plenty of those in need in this short story.

    Indeed, I sense that many of the open questions have not been deliberately placed, but are there through inconsistency or even through error. They’re more “unanswered” than “open”.

    Despite multiple readings, I’ve still not come to understand the point of this short story. Is it the power of the clock, the siege of Leyden, the characters straddling time, or the philosophical nature of time?

    You can read it for yourself here (note: external content) – I’d be interested to know what you make of it!

    For the real version of events at the Siege of Leiden, why not take check out the webpage at Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden? Note that the museum itself it temporarily closed but will reopen in Spring 2019.

    Thanks again to Natalie Kay-Thatcher for the use of her image. Natalie’s work explores the merging of science and imagination with image-making and workshops; you can see more on her website.

    Paul

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    Summary
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    The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell
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    Author: Paul Wandason

    I love astronomy and science fiction, but I love my family more. So I love time travel too!

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