Down to the river in skiffs
By Chris Dodd
Diana Cook, the most-informed scholar and maître-d’ of Henley’s Richard Way Bookshop, specialists in literature, engineering, railways and rowing, is offering her collection of foreign language editions of Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat to the River & Rowing Museum. Chris Dodd intercepted them en voyage to explore a publishing phenomenon.
The summer of ’18 has been perfect for messing about in boats, an activity popularised by Jerome Klapka Jerome in his historical travelogue – or what turned out to be a classic comic adventure – Three Men in a Boat. F W Robinson commissioned Jerome to write a series of monthly episodes for the magazine Home Chimes, described as ‘The Story of the Thames,’ its scenery and history, with some humorous relief thrown in.
Jerome, who was a prolific writer and dramatist and signed himself Jerome K Jerome, wrote the story just after honeymooning with his bride, Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta ‘Ettie’ Stanley Marris, on the river in a small boat. He took to the task under the feeling that all the world’s troubles were over. To write a funny book was not his intention; indeed, he didn’t realize that he could write humour. But as he sat in his and Ettie’s circular drawing room at the top of 97 stairs in their Chelsea Gardens home looking down upon Battersea Park and the river with pen poised, neither the history nor the relief would come.
Jerome decided to tackle the humorous relief first – get it off his chest, so to speak, as he said in his memoirs: ‘After which, in sober frame of mind, I could tackle the scenery and history. I never got there. It seemed to be all “humorous relief”. By grim determination I succeeded, before the end, in writing a dozen or so slabs of history and working them in, one to each chapter.’
On receiving them, editor Robinson had the wit to ‘promptly sling them out, the most of them,’ said Jerome in My Life and Times. ‘From the beginning he had objected to the Story of the Thames title and had insisted upon my thinking of another. And half-way through I hit upon “Three Men in a Boat,” because nothing else seemed right.’
Thus came about the tale of Jerome’s voyage from Kingston-upon-Thames to Oxford and back again in a camping skiff hired from Turks, accompanied by his real-life friends George (George Wingrave), a Barclays banker, and Harris (Carl Hentschel), a printer. And, of course, the Dog. It was serialized in Home Chimes and then published in book form by the Bristol firm of J W Arrowsmith in 1889, with illustrations by A Frederics. It has never been out of print, and has sold by the million.
Jerome introduces his crew thus: ‘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.’ As for Harris, he can never be roused. There is no poetry about him, no wild yearning for the unattainable. ‘Harris never weeps, he knows not why. If Harris’s eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because Harris has been eating raw onions, or has put too much Worcester over his chop.’
Of the dog, said Jerome, ‘There wasn’t any dog. I did not possess a dog in those days. Neither did George. Nor did Harris… Montmorency I evolved out of my inner consciousness. There is something of the dog, I take it, in most Englishmen. Dog friends that I came to know later have told me he was true to life.’
Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at.
― Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
When Jerome came to think of it, he realized that his book really was a history. ‘I did not have to imagine or invent. Boating up and down the Thames had been my favourite sport ever since I could afford it. I just put down the things that happened.’ (To Say Nothing of the Dog).
This is the first part of five about Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat by Chris Dodd. Part 2 “A veritable can of pineapple” will be published tomorrow.