John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
Jerome K Jerome
Three Men In a Boat
At heart it is a diary of a two-week trip by rowing boat up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford, taken by three friends and a dog. However, it is much more than that, because, apart from descriptions of the places they visit along the way, there is a whole host of interpolated stories and incidents, many of which have little to do with rowing a skiff along a river. There are also tales of triumphs and disasters along the way and a good deal of inner reflection as well.
It is not the account of a real trip, but an amalgam of recollections of days on the river, of which the author was extremely fond. The three men are real enough, comprising the author (Jerome K Jerome, a journalist, actor and playwright) who appears in the book as “J”, George Wingrave (a bank clerk who shared lodgings with Jerome), and Carl Hentschel (who appears as “Harris”). However, Montmorency the dog was an invention.
Reality and Invention
The places along the Thames are certainly real enough, whether historical buildings such as Hampton Court Palace or the riverside inns that are still there to this day. Also true to life are the human foibles and failings that can certainly be recognised in people today.
The author’s delight in telling stories and veering off at various tangents is apparent from the fact that is only in chapter six, some 75 pages into the book, that the friends actually start their journey. In the meantime we have been entertained to various diversions, including an account of how “Uncle Podger” would hang a picture on the wall and a dissertation on what can happen if you try to travel in the company of over-ripe cheese.
It is clear in places that Jerome’s original intention had been to write a travelogue, as there are many historical facts given about such things as the signing of Magna Carta, and the incidents that happened in the places along the route, However, Jerome cannot keep the humour out for long, such as when a mention of the various places in which Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn turns into a story illustrating how difficult it must have been for other people not to keep bumping into the two of them wherever they went.
One reason for the abiding appeal of the book is Jerome’s use of what today we would call “situation comedy”. One example is an account of trying to open a tin of pineapple without a tin-opener, which gets increasingly bizarre as the tin refuses to be opened. At another point, the three of them admire a stuffed trout in a glass case in a pub. Every local who joins them throughout the evening claims to have been the fisherman who caught it, although eventually the landlord scotches all their stories by announcing that it was he who was responsible for the catch. However, when George climbs up to have a closer look and knocks the case to the floor, where it smashes, the truth is revealed, as the trout turns out to have been made from plaster of Paris!
At one point the comedy takes a back seat when several pages are devoted to the finding of a dead body in the water. This is of a young woman who has drowned herself, and Jerome gives us her whole story, in typical Victorian sentimental style. The account is offered with every sympathy for her plight, as Jerome understood poverty and the human condition very well, but to us today this incident strikes a discordant note.
Anyone who knows the River Thames, or who has ever gone boating or camping, will recognise so much from “Three Men” that they will be amazed to learn just how old this book is. Apart from that, the writing style is also lively, fresh and surprisingly modern in tone. The fact that many literary contemporaries considered it “vulgar” should be an indication that later generations would find it highly acceptable.
It has been a best-seller since the day it was first published, and with good reason. A fresh audience for the book was guaranteed when, in 2005, the BBC filmed a re-run of the trip with three well-known actor/comedians, who found that so much of what Jerome described was still there to be seen. Three Men in a Boat will doubtless continue to be read and give pleasure for many years to come.
The River Thames at Windsor
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 08, 2019:
Informative article. I've never read "Three Men in a Boat", but my curiosity about it was aroused when I read Robert Heinlein's "Have Spacesuit Will Travel" as a teen. In that book the hero's father talks about the scene in which the trio try to open the can without a can opener, and I've never forgotten it. Now that you've reminded me of JKJ's book, maybe I'll finally get around to reading it for myself.