Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
By Jerome K Jerome
Dover Publications Inc., 2006 (1st published 1889).
GUFFAWING! Now, there’s a word I rarely use when describing my reaction to a book but that was exactly what I ended up doing when I read Three Men in a Boat. Who would have thought that a fortnight’s boating along the Thames River could be so hilarious?
A semi-autobiographical novel, Three Men in a Boat, is about the author (known in the book as simply “J”) and his two friends, Harris and George who, seeking some rest and rehabilitation from myriad invented illnesses they suffer, decide to row a stretch of the Thames. Here is a photo of the three:
As is apparent from this pic, but something I actually only realised halfway through the book, Three Men in a Boat was written in 1889. Apart from the rather quaint language at times and some of the descriptions of clothing and customs, the humour and pace of the book would have you believe it was written today and probably by someone like Nick Hornby.
Originally, Jerome intended the book to be a serious travelogue detailing important historical and contemporary facts about the towns, environment, and other attractions the trio encounter during their journey along the Thames, as well as about the people involved in, and the practice of, boating more generally. The book achieves this purpose but instead of being serious it is humorous with each fact presented in J’s wry, sometimes cynical tone. For example:
|“Caesar, of course, had a little place at Walton – a camp of entrenchment or something of that sort. Caesar was a regular up- river man. Also, Queen Elizabeth, she was there too. You never could get away from that woman, go where you will…”|
J also frequently uses certain sights or historical references to digress into amusing anecdotes about previous on-land escapades involving himself, Harris and George. These digressions flow elegantly out of and back into the main story, rather like little streams and inlets forming out of, and feeding back into the Thames itself. J’s description of an attempt to go sailing, for example, is one of my favourite parts of the book and nothing short of Monty-Pythonesque.
Apart from the boat journey itself, the book addresses many of the trials and tribulations that are universal to anyone involved in travelling. The book begins, for example, by addressing two of the biggest issues any traveller has to face: where to go and what to pack . I could completely sympathise with J’s comment that the thing that “haunts him the most” when travelling is his toothbrush:
|“My tooth-brush is a thing that haunts me when I’m travelling, and it makes my life a misery. I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it. And, in the morning, I pack it before I’ve used it, and have to unpack again to get it and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket handkerchief”.|
I have only recently returned from a trip during which, having carefully wrapped my toothbrush head in alfoil and tucking it into a pocket of my wetpack, I arrived at my destination to find it had somehow slipped out of the pocket, and lodged itself between the soles of my shoes, the foil having slipped off in the process and sitting mockingly at the bottom of my bag. I am sure that every reader will find they have had at least one of the same experiences J, George and Harris go through just to get ready to leave for their trip. Other parts of the book discuss the particular nightmares associated with camping; trying to find accommodation when you haven’t booked; dealing with other tourists and the rather odorous problem of maintaining personal hygiene when away from home.
But of course, the crux of the novel is the boating journey itself along the Thames.The trio row from Kingston to Pangbourne (see Itinerary below) passing through numerous towns, locks and weirs. J provides interesting facts about all of these places. We learn, for example, that Kingston was originally called “Kyningestun” and was where the Saxon kings used to be crowned. It is also where “Queen Bess” stayed at a public house, J wryly observing that:
|“She was nuts on public houses…(t)here is scarcely a pub of any attractions within ten miles of London that she does not seem to have looked in at, stopped at, or slept at, some time or another”.|
We also learn that Henry VIII waited to meet Anne Boleyn in the grounds of Anerweycke House near Picnic Point; that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was married in Shiplake Church in the town of Shiplake; that Charles I used to play bowls a little further on from Mapledurham Lock and that the town of Dorchester – a city from ancient British times – used to be called Caer Doren meaning “the city on the water”.
To my delight, I also discovered that many of the attractions listed in the book still exist today. J talks about a famously grand oak staircase in a house in Kingston, for example, which had been scandalously papered over by one owner who felt it was too gloomy-looking. I was bemused to find out that not only does this staircase still exist but that fittingly it is now part of a Borders bookstore in Kingston!
J also remarks on a special graveyard the Duchess of York had made for her dogs in the township of Oatlands Park, J’s typically non-pc comment that: “(I) dare say (the dogs) deserve it as much as the average Christian does”. If you head to this website you can see a picture of the graveyard today: http://www.flickr.com/groups/gtc/discuss/72157622398990677/
J, Harris and George also stay in, frequent or have previously caused mayhem in a number of pubs and hotels along the Thames. Again, most of these still exist including the George and Dragon in Wargrave, the Bull in Sonning and the Barley Mow (pictured left below) in Clifton Hampden and The Bull (pictured right) in Sonning:
Another star of the book – and probably any film version as well – is Montmerency, the fox terrier who grudgingly accompanies the trio on their journey:
“He never did care for the river, did Montmerency. ‘It’s all very well for you fellows,’ he says, ‘you like it but I don’t. There’s nothing for me to do. Scenery is not in my line and I don’t smoke…(I) f you ask me I call the whole thing bally foolishness”.
Montmerency is absent from the pic featured at the beginning of this post and this is because, much to my disappointment, he never really existed. According to the Jerome K Jerome Society (http://www.jeromekjerome.com/), Jerome admitted: “Montmerency evolved out of my inner consciousness. Dog friends who I came to know later told me it was true to life”. This is a shame as it was the scenes involving Montmerency that most often produced those guffaws I enjoyed but I will not ruin the experience for other readers by providing any examples – trust me, if you are in need of a laugh, Montmerency alone will not fail to disappoint. Here is a photo of Jerome K Jerome and a dog that may have been the inspiration for Montmerency:
Three Men in a Boat – the Film
Three Men in a Boat has been made into a film several times. The most successful of these starred Tim Curry as J., Michael Palin as Harris and Stephen Moore as George. Check out a clip from the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyXQ1imxjLM I was thinking about who could play the roles if the film was made today and found myself surprised to discover that I struggled to come up with anyone. J, Harris and George were all in the mid-30s which makes Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Rhys Ifans etc. who are the obvious ones who come to mind probably too old. Where are Generation X and Y’s funny British men? All we seem to have are waifish, tortured souls like Ben Wishaw and Rupert Friend although maybe Martin Freeman from The Office could play one of the roles?
Anyway, I have probably prattled on enough about Three Men in a Boat. Not only did I learn a huge amount about the history of England, so far as it involved the Thames and the towns along it, and the practice of boating along a river, I also enjoyed J’s many insightful and astute observations on travel generally.
ITINERARY (Towns only)
London – Kingston – Walton – Shepperton – Staines – Maidenhead – Reading – Wallingford Abingdon – Oxford
General reading value: 5/5
Armchair travel value: 5/5
The Literary Nomad xx
Baccy – tobacco
Bally – an informal intensifier like “bloody” as in “you bally fool”
Penny nap – a type of card game
More on England…
Currency: pound sterling
Delay your stay…
Fiction: There are many books set in England but these are some of my favourites:
The Lambs of London (Peter Ackroyd and many other books by this author); A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell); Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh), Money (Martin Amis); Downriver (Iain Sinclair); Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons); The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro); The Iron Age (Margaret Drabble); Great Expectations (Charles Dickens).
Non-fiction: Imagined London – A Tour of the World’s Most Famous Fictional City (Anna Qunindlan); The Tudors – The Complete Story of England’s Most Famous Dynasty (G.J. Meyer); What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew – The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth Century England (Daniel Pool); The Annals of London – A Year by Year History Record of 1000 Years of History (John Richardson); Eminent Victorians (Lytton Strachey).