Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome – a classically funny book

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This is a classic in all senses. It is the classic English, gently comic, novel. It is a classic piece of late Victorian writing, originally published in 1889. It is descriptive of a way of life and the countryside around the river, but also the misadventures of three young men and some of their reflections on life. Even the dog, Montmorency, has his standards and indeed experiences of meeting other dogs, fine fights and meals. Life is simple, but inanimate objects, the scenery and the whole process of getting the boat along the river can be difficult, and our hero, George and Harris, have to take on many difficulties and indeed each other on occasions. Legend have just reissued this classic in a most readable and enjoyable format, and I was pleased to receive a review copy to enjoy reading again.

The unnamed narrator of the book, being a convinced hypochondriac, has been working his way through a medical dictionary and is therefore convinced he needs a holiday. Being a victim of advertising, he, George and Harris decide that their combined seediness means they ought to have a holiday, and the river is agreed on as preferable to a sea trip, with all its attendant dangers of sea sickness which the narrator expounds on at length. Packing all the food, clothes, basic cooking equipment and other items judged to be essential is quite a performance, amidst much reflection and high jinks. Taking the boat up the river until they meet with George who has had to visit his place of employment has its challenges. There are many well known incidents which he describes in this short but discursive book; the dangers of towing a boat, the attractions or otherwise of churches alongside the river, the problems of finding a way of Hampton Court maze. This is an all male book, but there are passages which reflect on girls on the river getting distracted by chatting or being profoundly upset at the experience of getting their clothes dirty. Cooking, rowing, finding accommodation in villages, trying to sleep on the boat all have their humourous side, and taken in the right way this is a very funny book.

Many Victorian novels are known to be socially or morally based, and can often be quite dour if not depressing. This, like “Diary of a Nobody”, features an unreliable narrator, no big dramas, and is a relaxing read. Full of funny incidents, passages of exaggeration and local colour, there is only one incident which is seen as a familiar story of a desperate unmarried mother. Otherwise, there are self-consciously purple passages of history and natural lore, dogs winning fights and a stupendous irish stew. This is a lovely clear edition of a novel which can genuinely be enjoyed by most people, well set out and good to handle. The author states, ironically, “The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style…as its simple truthfulness”.

So another type of book reviewed, and a refreshingly cheerful one at that. Sometimes it is good to find a book that is funny and cheerful in the midst of many that are far from happy. It does not take long to read, but it is a definitely different sort of book, and quite possibly an acquired taste!