Thursday, March 17, 2016

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Over the last year I've enjoyed reading aloud with my sisters for the first time in years. Mostly I'm trying to introduce them to good books they haven't read previously, and which I haven't read myself in a number of years. Three Men in a Boat, which Wikipedia informs me came in second on Esquire's list of The 50 Funniest Books Ever, was the perfect candidate.

Revisiting this book was a real delight, but leaves me with the dilemma of trying to categorise it. Is it a novel? I thought so when I first read it, but it has no discernible plot, and is actually based on a two-week boating trip taken by the author and two friends up the Thames. Is it a guide-book? Well, that was the original intention, and no doubt you'll learn a fair bit about the Thames between London and Oxford from this book, but even if you've never stepped inside a boat in your life and don't ever want to go to England, you'll still find this book a perfect hoot. Is it a memoir? Not really; several of the characters and no doubt a number of the anecdotes are a little too tall and ridiculous for that.
It always does seem to me 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. 
What it is is a comedic classic that tends to reduce the readers to suffocating shrieks of laughter. There's the medical situation of the narrator, who has everything except housemaid's knee. There is Harris's encounter with the swans. There is the description of the special pain experienced by those trying to do anything in a house occupied by a courting couple. There is a photograph gone terribly wrong. There is the supreme, never-to-be-forgotten incident of the tinned pineapple.

Or really--just read it and find out.
It must have been much like this when that foolish boy Henry VIII. was courting his little Anne. People in Buckinghamshire would have come upon them unexpectedly when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, “Oh! you here!” and Henry would have blushed and said, “Yes; he’d just come over to see a man;” and Anne would have said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! Isn’t it funny? I’ve just met Mr. Henry VIII. in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.”
I was surprised, on this re-read, to see how fresh and up-to-date the book seems. You wouldn't think that a book published in 1889 would still be so much of a scream, given the changing cultural context, but the humour in Three Men in a Boat is evergreen and will keep on convulsing readers, I hope, in 3249 AD. Which is not to say that parts of the book don't seem a little naff. Jerome's original intent to write a guidebook peeks out every now and then, in serious passages which almost seem funny because they are written in such garishly purple prose. But none of these go on for very long, and Jerome gets us right back into the jokes, which mostly consist of preposterous anecdotes and side-splitting meditations upon everything from small dogs to blackmail.
We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” After a cup of tea (two spoonsful for each cup, and don’t let it stand more than three minutes), it says to the brain, “Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye, into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”
Three Men in a Boat has been outrageously popular ever since it was first published more than a hundred years ago. If you love English humour at all (and if you don't, you must not have a pulse), you should definitely read this.

Find Three Men in a Boat on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


Joseph J said...

This book is one of my most serendipitous literary discoveries. It is so delightful. I like the combination of humour and guide-book history. I even enjoyed the purple prose. And you're right, it really doesn't feel like an 1880's book. It seems the Victorian era had more Wodehousian levity and wit than one would imagine, at least near the end.

I see a continuity of humour that extends from this book, to Wodhouse, to Douglas Adams writing in the 1980's. A hundred years of British wit and fun. I don't know if anyone alive is still carrying the torch, at least in the realm of fiction.

Anonymous said...

Adding to me to-read list!

Mac n' Janet said...

This is one of my husband's favorite books, but I've not read it. What I have read is Connie Willis's take on it, "To Say Nothing of the Dog".

Alina said...

The boating trip was actually based on the author's honeymoon, but he substituted his friends for his wife in the book.

Alina said...

Ugh, I mean the other way around obviously.

Suzannah said...

Joseph - yes, they got Eoin Colfer to finish off the HITCHIKER'S GUIDE books, didn't they? Not so sure about him :/

Janet - I have read the Connie Willis book, actually, and that was the one that made me hanker to re-read the Jerome book, incidentally. I do encourage you to read Three Men in a Boat - I'm sure you'll love it as much as your husband does!

Alina - I hadn't heard that; thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree!

When Clive Tolley and I were looking after the Kilns and started reading this, we were quite baffled for a while by "To Say Nothing of the Dog" - which I suppose was very much as JKJ intended it! - which mysterious remark I hope will only help to tantalize and attract those who have not read it, yet.

It's got me to go on reading JKJ - and/or listening to audiobook versions (where I see there are several I have not caught up with, yet!). I don't think any so far are as good as this, but I've enjoyed them all.

So far as I can discover, you don't seem to have posted on the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody, yet, among your classics of Victorian humour - let me encourage you to do so, someday: it would be good to read your response to it! (LibriVox has a good reader for it, by the way!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David, yes, the dog part in the first chapter or two was lots of fun--my sisters kept on saying, "But who is--?"

Now I've heard of DIARY OF A NOBODY but I've never read it. Now I shall have to!

Cindy B said...

I didn't read this one until after I read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. I laughed so hard I almost cried. Love it so much!

Suzannah said...

Cindy, it's such a classic. I really enjoyed the references to it in TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG (among other books!).

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