BOOK (1889)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 January, 2009, 12:00am

Three Men in a Boat

by Jerome K. Jerome


Jerome K. Jerome's whimsical account of a leisurely boating trip along the River Thames is, by modern benchmarks, a gentle tale. It is difficult to comprehend that, in its day, Three Men in a Boat was slammed for its use of 'vulgar' colloquialisms, and panned as having been written for 'Arrys and Arriets' - the patronising Victorian-era term for Britain's h-dropping working class. Jerome recalled, in his 1926 memoir, the critics' disgust at his comic masterpiece. 'One might have imagined,' he wrote, 'that the British Empire was in danger.'

The tale begins with the protagonists gathered in narrator J's London lodgings to smoke, to discuss their various ailments and to decide together that they are in imperative need of a holiday. J is Jerome himself, then a 30-year-old solicitor's clerk. The characters George (who 'goes to sleep at a bank from 10 to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two') and Harris are based upon George Wingrave, then a banker with Barclays on London's Strand, and Carl Hentschel, founder of a successful printing firm. They set off on the following Saturday to row from Kingston to Oxford.

With commercial boat traffic on the upper Thames having died out during the mid-19th century, the three real-life friends regularly indulged in the 1880s craze for recreational boating. In the preface to Three Men, therefore, Jerome insisted their adventures along the waterway actually happened, and that, 'All that has been done is to colour them; and, for this, no extra charge has been made.' There is no reason to doubt Jerome's claim of authenticity. (Only the dog Montmorency is fictional.)

There are no explosions or melodramatic intrigue in Three Men, just hilarious mishaps with tent poles and camping stoves, extended visits to rural inns (many of which still exist) and the discovery that barometers are unreliable in forecasting weather. All are told with a wit that seems as fresh 120 years later as a rod-caught rainbow trout.

According to Jeremy Nicholas, president of The Jerome K. Jerome Society, this was the secret of Three Men's allure: 'His story was not of some fantastical adventure in a far-off land, peopled by larger-than-life heroes and villains, but of three very ordinary blokes having a high old time just down the road.'

Readers still adore Three Men to this day. The book has never been out of print, and has been translated into every widely read language. In 2003, Britain's Guardian newspaper placed it at No33 in its 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. 'I pay Jerome so much in royalties,' Three Men's publisher told a friend, 'I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.'