RogerBW's Blog

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome 12 February 2014

A classic, of course. But one I hadn't read until now.

The basics are well enough known: the narrator, his dog, and two friends go for a holiday up the Thames in a skiff, gradually making their way to Oxford and then returning. This was something that had only just become possible at the time of writing, as commercial river traffic had largely been replaced by rail transport. The book was originally planned as a serious guide to the river, but the comic elements rather took over, to the extent that it is regarded as a comic novel.

The elements sometimes sit a little uneasily together: a moment of low farce is followed by a purple discourse on the beauty of the river or a historical vignette. For me the lowest point is the pair of anecdotes on comic songs in chapter 8, both of which smack rather too much of cruelty in their humour and outstay their welcome. This isn't in general one of Jerome's flaws: he doesn't mess about with drawing out the tension, but gives you the setup, gets on with the incident, and goes on to the next thing. He's never short of ideas, and most of the time if one fails he can simply carry on with the next.

I'm well known to have no sense of humour, but I enjoyed the book and even chuckled occasionally.

Even by the standards of people who care about datedness in books, this one seems pretty fresh: the occasional reference to a "steam-launch" can surely be ignored or mentally rewritten. All the pubs are still open (though one has been completely rebuilt), and rowing boats are still available.

In fact I find the idea of recreating the trip vaguely appealing...

I read the lovely ePub version I found here.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:41am on 12 February 2014

    It is fun isn't it?

    I like to quote the bit about the girls who have lovers and don't want them and the boy who loved being in school and declining French irregular verbs but was off sick all the time. It does as a substitute for philosophy.

    Jerome can overdo things: there's a review of his play THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK (by G.B.Shaw if memory serves) which lists all the tedious 'comic business' in a play about Christ putting in a personal appearance at a London boarding house. It ends: "Ah, well. I suppose blasphemy pays..."

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:44am on 12 February 2014

    I suspect Jerome was very annoyed that his major fame was for this slight thing rather than the stuff he cared about.

    (I've read Bummel too; it has its moments, but it doesn't recapture the spark.)

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