People don’t often think of theVictorian era as a heyday of comic writing. Instead we commonly picture beardedpatriarchs and their stiffly unsmiling helpmeets, remember the morally seriousnovels of George Eliot and the uplifting essays of Matthew Arnold, and hear,ringing in our mind’s ear, Queen Victoria’s dour comment: “We are notamused.”
Nonetheless,the Victorians don’t deserve their grim reputation. After all, the 19thcentury in England produced Dickens’s PickwickPapers, the operettas of Gilbert andSullivan, and the wittiest comic drama in the English language—“TheImportance of Being Earnest“—by the quickest wit of alltime, Oscar Wilde. Somehow, too, we tend to forget such “children’s”classics as Edward Lear’s nonsense verse and Lewis Carroll’s ever-fresh Alice in Wonderland. Less well known today, at leastin the United States, are such beguiling period pieces as F. Anstey’s Vice-Versa (1882), the original “FreakyFriday” tale of a businessman father and his schoolboy son who exchangeminds, and The Diary of a Nobody (1892), by George and WeedonGrossmith, the very English comic masterpiece about the bumbling suburbaniteMr. Pooter and his family. It’s never been out of print.
Nor haswhat is perhaps the greatest of all Victorian comic novels: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), by Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927). First published in 1889,this serenely silly account of a summer boating holiday on the Thames is justthe book for the winter doldrums. Its admirers are legion and include suchunexpected folk as the science fiction eminences Robert A. Heinlein (who citesthe book throughout Have Spacesuit, Will Travel) and Connie Willis, whose comictime-travel novel To Say Nothing of theDog pays homage to Jerome’s youthfulmasterpiece.
Three Men in a Boat opens with George, Harris and Jtalking about how seedy they’ve all been feeling. J admits that he isfrequently out of sorts:
“Itis a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisementwithout being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from theparticular disease therein dealt with, in its most virulent form. The diagnosisseems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I haveever felt.”
Justrecently, a liver-pill circular has convinced him that there’s something wrongwith his liver, especially since one of the symptoms is “a generaldisinclination to work of any kind.” His own disinclination to work, Jexplains, has been a lifelong affliction:
“WhatI suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been amartyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did notknow, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advancedstate than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.”
Before long, the three young men—to saynothing of the dog Montmorency—have decided they need a holiday. What could bebetter than to rent a boat and row merrily up the Thames toward Oxford! Theyduly provide themselves with a tent roof for the skiff, camping gear, andbaskets of provisions. And from the first, they suffer one light-hearted comicdisaster after another. Meals, for example, prove to be uncommonly difficult: whenthe trio land on Monkey Island for a picnic of cold beef, they realize thatthey have failed to pack any mustard:
“Itcast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard. We ate our beef in silence.Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting. We thought of the happy days ofchildhood, and sighed. We brightened up a bit, however, over the apple-tart,and, when George drew out a tin of pineapple from the bottom of the hamper, androlled it into the middle of the boat, we felt that life was worth living afterall.”
Needlessto say, they have forgotten to bring a can opener. Their vain attempts to openthe tin of pineapple nearly result in George’s death, while Harris gets offwith just a flesh wound.
It doesn’ttake the reader long to sense the distinctive narrative rhythm of Three Men in a Boat. In each chapter Jerome describesthe progress of the holiday thus far, repeatedly soaring into exuberanttongue-in-cheek paeans to the wonders of Nature or the glories of the river,before noting some oddity or detail that inevitably calls to mind an incidentfrom the past, such as Uncle Podger’s attempt to hang a picture or George’sefforts to gain proficiency on the bagpipes. “There is, it must beconfessed, something very sad about the early efforts of an amateur inbagpipes.”
Suchunderstatement, at once wry and deadpan, characterizes much of the book’shumor. For instance, J recalls one young man out punting, who was poling alonggrandly:
”And it would all have gone onbeing grand if he had not unfortunately, while looking round to enjoy thescenery, taken just one step more than there was any necessity for, and walkedoff the punt altogether. The pole was firmly fixed in the mud, and he was leftclinging to it while the punt drifted away. . . His expression as the poleslowly sank with him I shall never forget; there was so much thought in it.”
Periodically,however, one or other of the three friends reflects more seriously about life. Workis a recurrent theme: “It always does seem to me,” complains J, “thatI am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work,mind you; I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”Later he qualifies this somewhat: “I can’t sit still and see another manslaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with myhands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’thelp it.”
Not everypage of Three Men in a Boat remainsfunny, and the discovery of a young woman’s body floating in the river comes asa shock. Now and again, too, a hint of melancholy creeps into the book. Onenight J reflects on ghosts and revenants, before ending with this whistle inthe dark: “Let us gather together in the great cities, and light hugebonfires of a million gas-jets, and shout and sing together and feel brave.”
As ithappens, Jerome himself went on to write many ghost stories and weird tales.(The fullest collection of these is the Ash-Tree Press compilation, City of the Sea and Other Ghost Stories,edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson.) Those in Told after Supper (1891) are wryly humorous, with delightfullymacabre illustrations by Kenneth M. Skeaping, but others are much darker.Perhaps Jerome’s most famous are “The Dancing Master”—about alifesized automaton that is taught to waltz—and the eerie psychologicalchiller, “The Woman of the Saeter,” about a young couple spending a holidayin a lonely cabin in Norway. The locals shun the place, and speak only withfear of “the woman of the saeter.” As in many of the best ghost stories, this one leaves its interpretation troublingly uncertain: is this an account of delusion and madness, or has the past actually reached out and enveloped the living?
Jerome’swide-ranging career included far more than short fiction: he was, in fact, aman of letters, an important literary editor, a popular dramatist (especiallyfor the religious melodrama “The Passing of the Third Floor Back”)and an exceptionally winning autobiographer. His low-keyed wit leaps forth fromhis very first book, On the Stage—and Off(1885): “There comes a time in every one’s life when he feels he was bornto be an actor. . . . I was at the theatre one evening seeing Romeo and Julietplayed, when it suddenly flashed across me that that was my vocation. I thoughtall acting was making love in tights to pretty women, and I determined todevote my life to it.” Jerome’s next book, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886), collects some of his bestessays. At one point in “On Idleness” he imagines himself taking aseaside rest cure:
I shouldget up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and adressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock, and readsentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the book would fall from mylistless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blueof the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds, floating like white-sailed ships,across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds, and the lowrustling of the trees. Or, when I became too weak to go out of doors, I shouldsit propped up with pillows, at the open window of the ground floor front, andlook wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as theypassed by.
After the success of Three Men in a Boat, Jerome waseventually led to write a sequel, in which he depicted his three friends inlater life. Two are married, one is a confirmed bachelor, but all of them feela need to escape from their regular routines. Three Men on the Bummel (1900)—retitled Three Men onWheels in America—relates theirbicycle trip through Germany. The first half is especially amusing. But Jerome’ssecond great masterpiece is really his last book, My Life and Times (1926). It is one of the most entrancing memoirsI know.
Jeromedidn’t come from a privileged background. His father had been a clergymen whoinvested wildly and badly, such that Jerome was forced to leave school as ateenager and grow up in the roughest parts of East London. As he writes, “Itwas these surroundings in which I passed my childhood that gave to me, Isuppose, my melancholy, brooding disposition. I can see the humorous side ofthings and enjoy the fun when it comes; but look where I will, there seems tome always more sadness than joy in life.”
Afterleaving school at 14, Jerome obtained a clerkship in the London &Northwestern Railway in Euston. “It was during this period,” he tellsus, that “I set myself to learn the vices. My study of literature hadimpressed it upon me that without them one was a milksop, to be despised of alltrue men, and more especially of all fair women.” Before too long, Jeromehad sunk even further and was on the stage: “I have played every part in Hamlet except Ophelia.” One day,though, he met a friend who had taken to journalism and soon he, too, wascontributing articles to the papers. By inserting humor into his stories hediscovered that “sub-editors would give to mine a preference over moresober, and possibly more truthful records.” Meanwhile, he was writingstories, plays, essays. “But it was years before anything came of it.”
When hedid publish his first books, some of the critics were shocked by his supposedvulgarity. On the Stage—and Off wasdenounced as rubbish, but three years later the same critics, “reviewingmy next book, The Idle Thoughts of anIdle Fellow, regretted that an author who had written such an excellentfirst book should have followed it up by so unworthy a successor.” Duringthis time Jerome began to work for several magazines and gradually came to knowall the popular writers of his time, including Swinburne, Bret Harte (who wasthen living in England) and J. M. Barrie, as well as Israel Zwangwill “whodiscovered that Shakespeare’s plays had all been written by another gentlemenof the same name,” and W. W. Jacobs, author of “The Monkey’s Paw.”He tells us that H. G. Wells “was a shy, diffident young man in thosedays; Rider Haggard a somewhat solemn gentleman, taking himself always veryseriously.” In contrast, Arthur Conan Doyle “would sit at a smalldesk in a corner of his own drawing-room, writing a story, while a dozen peopleround about him were talking and laughing. He preferred it to being alone inhis study. Sometimes, without looking up from his work, he would make a remark,showing he must have been listening to our conversation; but his pen had neverceased moving.”
After hebecame the editor of the satirical magazine TheIdler and later of To-Day, Jeromelearned that he could tell within twenty lines if a manuscript were any good.At one point he owned an old farmhouse in the country: “I remember readingthere one night the manuscript of Wells’s Islandof Doctor Moreau. It had come into the office justas I was leaving; and I had slipped it into my bag. I wished I had not begun it;but I could not put it down. The wind was howling like the seven furies; butabove it I could hear the shrieking of the tortured beasts. I was glad when thedawn came.” In looking back, he judges Eden Phillpotts to be the greatestnovelist of the era, after Thomas Hardy. (Who now reads Phillpotts? Are wemissing out?)
Jerome wasn’t just an admirable writer,he was—a far rarer thing—an admirable man. While on a lecture tour of theUnited States, he stopped in Chattanooga for a talk and ended it by assailing racialprejudice, insisting that the treatment of Negroes “calls to Heaven forredress. . . . Shunned, hated, despised, they have not the rights of a dog.From no white man dare they even defend the honour of their women. I have seenthem waiting at the ticket offices, the gibe and butt of the crowd, notventuring to approach till the last white man was served. I have known a womanin the pains of childbirth made to travel in the cattle wagon. For no injury atthe hands of any white man is there any redress. American justice is not colourblind. Will the wrong never end?”
At theage of 55, too old to serve in the British Army during the First World War,Jerome joined the French ambulance service. His life there makes the experienceof the truck drivers in “The Wages of Fear” seem like a Sunday drivein the park. At Verdun, almost flattened by artillery, he passes a shop inwhich “were two canaries in their cage, starved to death, a little heap offeathers that fell to pieces when I touched them.” He ends this chapter byrecommending that “Those who talk about war being a game ought to be madeto go out and play it.” He himself carried away no illusions about the warto end all wars. “The one thing certain is that mankind remains a race oflow intelligence and evil instincts.”
The lastchapter of My Life and Timesdescribes Jerome’s religious faith as a child, followed by its loss when stilla youngster: after recalling the story of mankind’s exile from Eden over theeating of an apple, he writes: “To me it seemed that Adam, and with himthe entire human race, had been treated with undue severity, to say the veryleast of it.” In the end, though, he concludes with a statement ofcautious faith. “It is not our sins that will drag us down, but our wantof will to fight against them. It is from the struggle, not the victory, thatwe gain strength.” Still, whatever one’s belief, it’s hard to disagreewith Jerome when he says, “I have noticed that trouble invariably followswhen God appears to be interesting Himself in foreign politics.”
Jerome K.Jerome died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1927. Today he is remembered almostsolely for Three Men in a Boat, consistentlyand deservedly judged one of the most amusing novels of all time. But once you’veread or reread it, be sure to try some of Jerome’s other books, in particular My Life and Times. You’re in for atreat.