Book: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Very funny and charming

Jerome K. Jerome
Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog
Tor, 2001 (originally published in 1889)
ISBN: 0-765-34161-1
250 pages

Three Men in a Boat was on my notional list of books to read for some time. A Victorian comic novel about a boating holiday seemed like something that would be fun to read, but I didn't have any reason to push it to the top of the list in any hurry. Now that I've read it, it has gone on the very short (and also notional) list of books that have made me laugh so hard that I couldn't continue reading.

As the book starts, the narrator (identified only as "J."), his friends George and William Samuel Harris, and his dog Montmorency are gathered in his room in London, all feeling out of sorts. Eventually they resolve to go on a fortnight's boating holiday. They decide to row from Kingston (now pretty much part of London) to Oxford and back on the Thames. That's about 60 miles each way as the crow flies, and probably rather farther as the fish swims. That's pretty much all there is to the plot. A couple of minor things happen, but nothing dramatic.

But the plot of most P. G. Wodehouse novels wouldn't sound like much when summarized either. And that's a pretty apt comparison because in both cases it's the style of the narration that's so funny. For an example from the first pages of the book, J. comes across an advertisement for a patent medicine and says:

    In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill
    circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake,
    the chief among them them being "a general
    disinclination to work of any kind."

    Why I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my
    earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy,
    the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did
    not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science
    was in a far less advanced state than now, and they
    used to put it down to laziness. (p. 5)

It's said, on the basis of what information I don't know, that Mr Jerome started the book as a serious travel guide, but that the funny stuff took over. Having read it, it's easy to believe that. It's not all funny. There are some quite lyrical descriptions of the countryside along the way. And the loudest laughs trail off a bit toward the end. That's not a complaint; the book is funny enough that it should satisfy anyone.

There's a sort of appendix of pretty funny ghost stories under the rubric "Told After Supper". They're entertaining to read, but it's not entirely clear why they're in the book.

I'm pretty sure that the present edition has "necessary" where "unnecessary" is meant (p. 213).

Posted: Sun - February 5, 2006 at 04:41   Main   Category: