From Michael Dirda's "LIBRARY WITHOUT WALLS" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
People don't often think of the Victorian era as a heyday of comic writing. Instead we commonly picture bearded patriarchs and their stiffly unsmiling helpmeets, remember the morally serious novels 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 not amused."
Nonetheless, the Victorians don't deserve their grim reputation. After all, the 19th century in England produced Dickens's Pickwick Papers, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the wittiest comic drama in the English language -- "The Importance of Being Earnest" -- by the quickest wit of all time, 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 least in the United States, are such beguiling period pieces as F. Anstey's Vice-Versa (1882), the original "Freaky Friday" tale of a businessman father and his schoolboy son who exchange minds, and The Diary of a Nobody (1892), by George and Weedon Grossmith, the very English comic masterpiece about the bumbling suburbanite Mr. Pooter and his family. It's never been out of print.
Nor has what 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 just the book for the winter doldrums. Its admirers are legion and include such unexpected folk as the science fiction eminences Robert A. Heinlein (who cites the book throughout Have Spacesuit, Will Travel) and Connie Willis, whose comic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog pays homage to Jerome's youthful masterpiece.
Three Men in a Boat opens with George, Harris and J talking about how seedy they've all been feeling. J admits that he is frequently out of sorts:
"It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with, in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt."
Just recently, a liver-pill circular has convinced him that there's something wrong with his liver, especially since one of the symptoms is "a general disinclination to work of any kind." His own disinclination to work, J explains, has been a lifelong affliction:
"What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness."
Before long, the three young men -- to say nothing of the dog Montmorency -- have decided they need a holiday. What could be better than to rent a boat and row merrily up the Thames toward Oxford! They duly provide themselves with a tent roof for the skiff, camping gear, and baskets of provisions. And from the first, they suffer one light-hearted comic disaster after another. Meals, for example, prove to be uncommonly difficult: when the trio land on Monkey Island for a picnic of cold beef, they realize that they have failed to pack any mustard:
"It cast 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 of childhood, 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, and rolled it into the middle of the boat, we felt that life was worth living after all."
Needless to say, they have forgotten to bring a can opener. Their vain attempts to open the tin of pineapple nearly result in George's death, while Harris gets off with just a flesh wound.
It doesn't take the reader long to sense the distinctive narrative rhythm of Three Men in a Boat. In each chapter Jerome describes the progress of the holiday thus far, repeatedly soaring into exuberant tongue-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 incident from the past, such as Uncle Podger's attempt to hang a picture or George's efforts to gain proficiency on the bagpipes. "There is, it must be confessed, something very sad about the early efforts of an amateur in bagpipes."
Such understatement, at once wry and deadpan, characterizes much of the book's humor. For instance, J recalls one young man out punting, who was poling along grandly:
"And it would all have gone on being grand if he had not unfortunately, while looking round to enjoy the scenery, taken just one step more than there was any necessity for, and walked off the punt altogether. The pole was firmly fixed in the mud, and he was left clinging to it while the punt drifted away. . . His expression as the pole slowly 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. Work is a recurrent theme: "It always does seem to me," complains J, "that I 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 man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can't help it."
Not every page of Three Men in a Boat remains funny, and the discovery of a young woman's body floating in the river comes as a shock. Now and again, too, a hint of melancholy creeps into the book. One night J reflects on ghosts and revenants, before ending with this whistle in the dark: "Let us gather together in the great cities, and light huge bonfires of a million gas-jets, and shout and sing together and feel brave."
As it happens, 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 delightfully macabre illustrations by Kenneth M. Skeaping, but others are much darker. Perhaps Jerome's most famous are "The Dancing Master" -- about a lifesized automaton that is taught to waltz -- and the eerie psychological chiller, "The Woman of the Saeter," about a young couple spending a holiday in a lonely cabin in Norway. The locals shun the place, and speak only with fear of "the woman of the saeter." The tale becomes a true ghost story: the dead are not really dead and the past reaches out to envelop the living.
Jerome's wide-ranging career included far more than short fiction: he was, in fact, a man of letters, an important literary editor, a popular dramatist (especially for the religious melodrama "The Passing of the Third Floor Back") and an exceptionally winning autobiographer. His low-keyed wit leaps forth from his very first book, On the Stage -- and Off (1885): "There comes a time in every one's life when he feels he was born to be an actor. . . . I was at the theatre one evening seeing Romeo and Juliet played, when it suddenly flashed across me that that was my vocation. I thought all acting was making love in tights to pretty women, and I determined to devote my life to it." Jerome's next book, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886), collects some of his best essays. At one point in "On Idleness" he imagines himself taking a seaside rest cure:
I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock, and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the book would fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of 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 low rustling of the trees. Or, when I became too weak to go out of doors, I should sit propped up with pillows, at the open window of the ground floor front, and look wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as they passed by.
After the success of Three Men in a Boat, Jerome was eventually led to write a sequel, in which he depicted his three friends in later life. Two are married, one is a confirmed bachelor, but all of them feel a need to escape from their regular routines. Three Men on the Bummel (1900) -- retitled Three Men on Wheels in America -- relates their bicycle trip through Germany. The first half is especially amusing. But Jerome's second great masterpiece is really his last book, My Life and Times (1926). It is one of the most entrancing memoirs I know.
Jerome didn't come from a privileged background. His father had been a clergymen who invested wildly and badly, such that Jerome was forced to leave school as a teenager and grow up in the roughest parts of East London. As he writes, "It was these surroundings in which I passed my childhood that gave to me, I suppose, my melancholy, brooding disposition. I can see the humorous side of things and enjoy the fun when it comes; but look where I will, there seems to me always more sadness than joy in life."
After leaving school at 14, Jerome obtained a clerkship in the London & Northwestern Railway in Euston. "It was during this period," he tells us, that "I set myself to learn the vices. My study of literature had impressed it upon me that without them one was a milksop, to be despised of all true men, and more especially of all fair women." Before too long, Jerome had 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, was contributing articles to the papers. By inserting humor into his stories he discovered that "sub-editors would give to mine a preference over more sober, and possibly more truthful records." Meanwhile, he was writing stories, plays, essays. "But it was years before anything came of it."
When he did publish his first books, some of the critics were shocked by his supposed vulgarity. On the Stage -- and Off was denounced as rubbish, but three years later the same critics, "reviewing my next book, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, regretted that an author who had written such an excellent first book should have followed it up by so unworthy a successor." During this time Jerome began to work for several magazines and gradually came to know all the popular writers of his time, including Swinburne, Bret Harte (who was then living in England) and J. M. Barrie, as well as Israel Zwangwill "who discovered that Shakespeare's plays had all been written by another gentlemen of 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 those days; Rider Haggard a somewhat solemn gentleman, taking himself always very seriously." In contrast, Arthur Conan Doyle "would sit at a small desk in a corner of his own drawing-room, writing a story, while a dozen people round about him were talking and laughing. He preferred it to being alone in his 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 never ceased moving."
After he became the editor of the satirical magazine The Idler and later of To-Day, Jerome learned 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 reading there one night the manuscript of Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau. It had come into the office just as 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; but above it I could hear the shrieking of the tortured beasts. I was glad when the dawn came." In looking back, he judges Eden Phillpotts to be the greatest novelist of the era, after Thomas Hardy. (Who now reads Phillpotts? Are we missing out?)
Jerome wasn't just an admirable writer, he was -- a far rarer thing -- an admirable man. While on a lecture tour of the United States, he stopped in Chattanooga for a talk and ended it by assailing racial prejudice, insisting that the treatment of Negroes "calls to Heaven for redress. . . . 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 seen them waiting at the ticket offices, the gibe and butt of the crowd, not venturing to approach till the last white man was served. I have known a woman in the pains of childbirth made to travel in the cattle wagon. For no injury at the hands of any white man is there any redress. American justice is not colour blind. Will the wrong never end?"
At the age 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 experience of the truck drivers in "The Wages of Fear" seem like a Sunday drive in the park. At Verdun, almost flattened by artillery, he passes a shop in which "were two canaries in their cage, starved to death, a little heap of feathers that fell to pieces when I touched them." He ends this chapter by recommending that "Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it." He himself carried away no illusions about the war to end all wars. "The one thing certain is that mankind remains a race of low intelligence and evil instincts."
The last chapter of My Life and Times describes Jerome's religious faith as a child, followed by its loss when still a youngster: after recalling the story of mankind's exile from Eden over the eating of an apple, he writes: "To me it seemed that Adam, and with him the entire human race, had been treated with undue severity, to say the very least of it." In the end, though, he concludes with a statement of cautious faith. "It is not our sins that will drag us down, but our want of will to fight against them. It is from the struggle, not the victory, that we gain strength." Still, whatever one's belief, it's hard to disagree with Jerome when he says, "I have noticed that trouble invariably follows when God appears to be interesting Himself in foreign politics."
Jerome K. Jerome died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1927. Today he is remembered almost solely for Three Men in a Boat, consistently and deservedly judged one of the most amusing novels of all time. But once you've read or reread it, be sure to try some of Jerome's other books, in particular My Life and Times. You're in for a treat.