A few weeks ago I wrote a short blog associated with my 2017 reading project discussing some of the books that will be forthcoming over the next few months. A friend commented and gave me several suggestions of what to read, and ended her list with the line “And one can never read Three Men in a Boat too many times”. And I realised that she was absolutely right!
Three Men in a Boat was the first novel by Jerome K Jerome. First published in 1889 it immediately became a success, despite some critical reviews. The success continues to this day because the book has never been out of print.
It is usually described as a comic novel, and tells of a fictional rowing trip along The Thames from London to Oxford in a skiff. The participants are Jerome himself (referred to as J throughout the book), his friends Harris and George and Montmorency, Jerome’s fox terrier. The latter is an essential part of the story, to the extent that the subtitle is “To Say Nothing of the Dog!” But the author originally intended it to be a travel guide for rowers attempting the journey, though his wit and imagination gradually got in the way. What we have ended up with is one of the finest gems of English comic fiction, that interweaves historic facts, descriptive and almost purple prose, reflections on life and brilliant sparkling wit.
Witty comments such as this, as J watches his friends doing the packing:
“When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world;”
Or (and did you know that Jerome coined this phase?):
“I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”
The humour, to my mind, is reflected down the years in Wodehouse and Pratchett, with the asides and anecdotes. In fact Wodehouse actually mentions one of the anecdotes in Psmith in the City.
But it’s the entirety of the book that makes it such a rewarding read. There’s a wonderful meditation on being in the village of Runnymede on the day of the signing of the Magna Carta; and the story of the trout in the glass case; and the complete volte face on the subject of steam launches. And so on and so on.
It’s a wonderfully entertaining, informative and witty book that also gives a good insight into late Victorian England. It has pride of place on my bookshelves, though my 1982 Penguin edition is finally falling apart – another trip to Toppings is in order!