The preface of Jerome Klapka Jerome’s delightful little book begins with ‘The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style…as in its simple truthfulness…George and Harris and Montmorency are…things of flesh and blood – especially George, who weighs about twelve stone.’ These lines not only describe the book perfectly, but also outline what a reader can expect from it.
Published for the first time in 1889, it is indeed a short, sweet and simple story about three men (George, Harris and “J” the author himself), and their adorable dog Montmorency sailing down the river Thames from Kingston to Oxford over the course of two weeks. Their original intention is to sail all the way back as well, but due to the hilarious, interesting and sometimes sobering experiences they have on the way, they ultimately “abandon ship” as it were, in Oxford and take a train back to the city to enjoy “…the odour of Burgundy, and the smell of French sauces, and the sight of clean napkins and long loaves…”
Speaking of long loaves, food is a constant presence throughout the book. References to eggs, bacon, cold meat, tea, bread and butter, jam, apple pie, German sausage, strawberries and cream are aplenty. One of the funniest anecdotes in the book is about a pack of cheese that has a strong odour – so strong that it makes a horse gallop at top speed, reminds people of a dead baby and forces a lady to move out of her house with her children as they just cannot stand the smell.
Apart from the food (which sometimes sounds delightfully exotic) the language is thoroughly enjoyable. The narrative is peppered with typically British phrases like ‘to be put upon’ (which I think means to be inconvenienced), “potter about” (which means to run around doing things, usually under someone’s supervision or instruction); the boat itself is ‘beautifully cosy’ even though it might also be ‘a trifle stuffy’.
There’s a wonderful, typically British sort of banter and sarcasm throughout the book, and if you like that sort of thing, you’ll be chuckling to yourself much of the time. Take, for instance, George’s observations on whether or not they should pack swimming trunks for their trip –
“Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite…George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all”
or the rib-tickling humor in the passage where the author describes Montmorency’s contribution to their packing for the trip –
“Montmorency was in it all, of course. Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he is particularly not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted…he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose they wanted…he pretended the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan”.
Montmorency is entirely fictional, though. The three men are based on Jerome himself (the narrator Jerome K. Jerome) and two real-life friends, George Wingrave (who would become a senior manager at Barclays Bank, although the author describes George’s career at the bank as “George goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two”) And Carl Hentschel (the founder of a London printing business, called Harris in the book), with whom Jerome often took boating trips.
Funnily, the book received lukewarm to outright negative reviews from critics, but I suppose that didn’t really matter to the author because it sold in huge numbers and became a massive hit with readers – so much so that a publisher commented “I pay Jerome so much in royalties… I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them” The river trip is often re-created by fans to this day – much of the route remains unchanged and all the pubs and inns named in the book are still open. The book has also been made into audiobooks, radio dramas, a musical and movies several times (I’ve seen one on YouTube that stars Tim Curry as Jerome – it was entertaining, but not as much as the book, I thought).
In 1900, Jerome published a sequel, about a cycling tour in Germany, titled Three Men on the Bummel (also known as Three Men on Wheels).
Three Men In A Boat has since never been out of print, it has been translated into many languages and has even become part of standard textbooks in many countries around the world (I know this because that’s how I first came across the book, when I was in high school). The reason for the above has to be the sheer readability of the book and the simple beauty of its language.
This is the perfect sort of book you’d want to read on a short-to-medium flight or on a quiet Sunday afternoon when the world is largely at peace with itself. It is a great book to gift as well, especially to younger readers or to those who are known to run away from lengthy volumes.