Book: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) – Jerome K. Jerome
By Pamela Douglas Webster
How does a travelogue first published in 1889 remain continuously in print to the present day? By being gut-bustingly funny.
Victorian author Jerome K. Jerome meant his now-classic tale, Three Men in a Boat, to be a travel guide describing a journey on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. But while people continue to duplicate the journey themselves—many of the pubs depicted in the book still exist—most of us read it as comic literature.
The story opens with Jerome recounting his many ailments. His self-diagnosis came from consulting a medical encyclopedia. With each reading of a new set of symptoms, Jerome discovers another disease he’s suffering from. In fact, he finds himself suffering from every malady—typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria—everything except for housemaid’s knee.
When he talks to his friends, Harris and George, the author finds they also suffer from lethargy and an extreme reluctance to work.
As far as I could tell from the book, George is the only one of the three men with a job. Or, as Jerome explains,
“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 as for Montmorency, the dog of the title, he lives at the expense of the author.
The three humans decide to take a wooden skiff up the Thames to escape the stress of 19th century life. Despite making his displeasure unknown, the fox terrier is outvoted three to one and the trip is on.
The three men are on a lark and continually afflicted with misadventures. As the book progresses, I found it hard to imagine any three characters less equipped for an adventure that involved rowing, towing, and sailing. (Jerome’s description of the three getting tangled in the sails had me relieved that they spent most of their time at the sculls.)
But they are just aiming to have fun, which they do between misadventures. Montmorency has greater aspirations.
“Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere he particularly is 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.”
The dog somehow ends up being the most rational character in the book.
Jerome alternates comic stories with descriptions of the burial places of famous people, historic events, and scenic views. His description of his friend Harris becoming lost in the Hampton Court maze was one of his funniest stories.
But some of his historic descriptions are purple and overwrought. I found myself skimming his discussion of King John’s face-off with the barons at Magna Carta island. But frankly, the book is so funny overall that one might be grateful for relief from laughing.
To this day, Three Men in a Boat is read by British school students. It has been made into three different films, including one that was adapted by Tom Stoppard and starred Tim Curry and Michael Palin in 1975. And many people read it over and over.
I laughed out loud throughout the book. At his best, Jerome K. Jerome could be the love child of P.G. Wodehouse and David Sedaris. The humor has aged well.
And at the time of year when we’re approaching the darkest days of the Northern hemisphere, Three Men in a Boat, is a charming escape. You might even find yourself rereading it every solstice.
Disclosures and Photo Credits: The Thames Skiff is by Hackworth on Flickr. The Hampton Court maze is by bobgjohnson on Flickr. Both are used under a Creative Commons license. The book link takes you to Amazon. If you buy a book after using that link, I will earn a few cents but your book will not cost you more. Thanks for your support.