British Travel Books : Number 7
Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog!
We don’t think of it as a travel book. We think of it is a comedy classic, an encapsulation of a quieter, slower time, a national treasure. And it is all of these. It is the book that has made me laugh more than any other (though I have read it in the wrong mood and not found it funny at all), a book that has inspired several attempts to capture it in film (much the funniest is Stephen Frears 1975 version with Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore as the heroes), a spectacular popular success panned by critics and several stage shows. But it wasn’t planned as such. “I did not intend to write a funny book, at first.” wrote Jerome K Jerome.
It was meant to be a guide book, a history of the river interspersed with the occasional personal anecdote. Jerome was an aspiring writer with an eye to a book that would sell. Boating on the river had become a popular pastime. He thought a factual travel guide full of a retelling of history, geographical, topographical and navigational detail, recommendations for accommodation and refreshment would find a market. To keep it fresh and original he lightened it with moments of “humorous relief”. He’d rowed the river often in the company of his friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel. Like many a travel writer since he cobbled their various jaunts into one trip from London to Oxford. The journey described is essentially fiction but that’s ok. You’ll find the book in the fiction section. The editor of the serialising magazine (Home Chimes) liked the story better than the travel detail. The book became a novel. The guide book stuff was largely blue pencilled and one of the best loved books of the late Victorian period was born; more by accident than design.
Jerome becomes J, George remains George and Karl Henschel takes on the persona of William Samuel Harris and enters the canon of English literature as one of the great comic characters. And of course, there is also a dog, Montmorency. I’ll leave an exploration of Three Men in a Boat as a comic novel for another place.
Yet it remains a book whose main attraction is travel. Very few travel books have inspired so many to follow in its plash marks. Take a couple of friends in a boat anywhere between Teddington and Oxford and someone will shout from the bank “Are you doing a three men in a boat?” It does what all good travel books aim to do. It takes you there, allows you to picture the scene, smell the dew, soak in the sun and shiver in the breeze and, above all else, makes you want to get out on the river.
The prose is heavy in stylised Romanticism, faux melancholia and deliberately over-wrought description, yet it paints a lovely picture. Despite editorial demands the author’s love of the Thames shines through in its lyricism.
“One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked and I drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene – the grey old church with its clustering ivy and its quaint wooden porch, the white lane winding down the hill between tall rows of elms, the thatched-roof cottages peeping above their trim-kept hedges, the silver river in the hollow, the wooded hills beyond.” The scene is close to Thomas Gray’s Country churchyard both geographically and poetically.At other times he can be found giving practical advice. “We reached Sunbury lock at half past three. The river is sweetly pretty just before you come to the gates, and the backwater is charming: but don’t attempt to row up it.”
As ever the explanation is given in the form of a delightful and very funny anecdote.
Sometimes he gets very close to the practical guide to the river he originally intended.
“We sculled up to Walton, a rather large place for a riverside town. As with all riverside places, only the tiniest corner of it comes down to the water, so that from the boat you might fancy it was a village of some half-dozen houses all told. Windsor and Abingdon are the only towns between London and Oxford that you can really see anything of from the stream. All the others hide round corners and merely peep at the river down one street; my thanks to them for being so considerate, and leaving the river banks to woods and fields and waterworks.”
At still other times we get Jerome the light historian:
“From Marlow up to Sonning is even fairer yet. Grand old Bisham Abbey, whose stone walls have rung to the shouts of Knights Templars, and which, at one time, was the home of Anne of Cleeves and at another of Queen Elizabeth, is passed on the right bank just half a mile above Marlow Bridge. Bisham Abbey is rich in melodramatic properties. It contains a tapestry bed-chamber, and a secret room hid high up in the thick walls.The ghost of the Lady Hoby, who beat her little boy to death, still walks there at night, trying to wash its ghostly hands clean in a ghostly basin.”
And so it continues capturing time and place in a narrative as rich and varied and flowing as the Thames itself. And it feels different each time it is read. With Heraclitus we cannot enter it twice. The book changes according to the age you read it, who you read it with (it is one of the very best books for reading aloud), what mood you are in or what the weather is like outside. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.
The real pleasure in Three Men in a Boat is in the comic presentation, the wonderful cast, the selection and telling of the most delightful anecdotes, in the laugh-yourself-inside-out comic timing. But the wonder of the book is the journey and the description of the journey. It should be firmly filed under fiction in any respectable library, but I am more than happy to include it in this series of travel books.
Quite simply one of my favourite books of any genre.