In the wake of Jerome
By Chris Dodd
Three Men in a Boat has made a terrific impact on comic writing and messing about in boats in several tongues, writes Chris Dodd. If you have never read it, you have a treat in store. Go to it. Meanwhile, the volumes featured in these HTBS pieces will be offered to the library at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley.
What began as a serial history lesson about the Thames became a light-hearted smash hit for Jerome K Jerome, aided by the editor of Home Chimes who spiked all the boring history bits to let the humour shine through. This was despite some adverse reviews quoted by the author in his autobiography: ‘One might have imagined … that the British Empire was in danger. … The Standard spoke of me as a menace to English letters; and The Morning Post as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders. … I think I may claim to have been, for the first twenty years of my career, the best abused author in England.’
Jerome was truncated, too. In 1953 (according to the British Library), Isaac Pitman published a version in shorthand. Shorthand is, of course, a language that Pitman invented. There is a Pitman rowing connection via the stockbroking Blues, Rowe and Pitman.
In 1989, Pavilion Books celebrated the centenary of Three Men in a Boat by publishing an illustrated edition annotated by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green. They restored Jerome’s slabs of history in footnotes, adding explanations of many obscure references. Very interesting it is, too. While the main text rambles through anecdotes about ailments, bagpipes, fishermen’s catches etc, the footnotes remind you of Hampton Court, Magna Carta, Monkey Island and reveal other incidents on the river.
Apart from making a small fortune for its author, the saga of George, Harris, Jerome and Montmorency fanned a boom in pleasure seeking on the Thames, with accompanying good times for boat builders. Exploring Europe by water, never mind the Thames, became a relatively popular way of spending a Victorian youth’s gap year, as the list of further reading below testifies. Some of these are practical, like Dickens Jr’s guide to the Thames, and some are spectacular, like Stevenson’s Inland Voyage and John MacGregor’s exploits in his Rob Roy canoes.
Jerome followed his boating story with Three Men on a Bummel, also known as Three Men on Wheels, in 1900. He edited The Idler and Today magazine and had a prolific output of stories, novels and plays. He served in the French ambulance service in the First World War, and his latter years were spent at Gould’s Grove farmhouse near Ewelme, Wallingford. He died in 1927 and is buried in Ewelme churchyard.
Small boat adventures
A F Ryder Bird, Boating in Bavaria, Austria, and Bohemia, down the Danube, Moldau and Elbe, 1893
W A Clark and F E Prothero (Eds), A New Oarsman’s Guide to the Rivers and Canals of Great Britain and Ireland, 1896
Martin Cobbett, Sporting Notions of Present Days and Past, 1951
Charles Dickens Jr, Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames, 1885
Christopher Dodd, Boating, 1983
Afzul Khan, Isis, 1935
Constance MacEwan, Three Women in one Boat, 1891
John MacGregor, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, 1866
John MacGregor, The Rob Roy on the Baltic, 1867
John Macgregor, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea & Gennesareth &c, 1869
Robert B Mansfield, The Log of the Water Lily During Three Cruises on the Rhine, Neckar, Maine, Moselle, Danube, Saône and Rhône, 1873
W Warrington Smyth, Henley Log, 1839
Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage, 1878
Neil Wigglesworth, Victorian and Edwardian Boating from Old Photographs, 1987
Howard Williams, The Diary of a Rowing Tour from Oxford to London in 1875
Small boat fantasy
Allan Aldous, McGowan Goes to Henley, 1949
Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson, 1911
Edward Bradley (Cuthbert Bede), Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman, 1900
A P Garland, A Yank at Oxford, 1938
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown at Oxford, 1861
Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 1889
Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, annotated by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green, 1989
Editor’s note: Here ends Chris Dodd’s story about Three Men in a Boat.