Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 24, 2010

Up the Thames in 1889

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome (1889), Penguin, 185 pp.

This is the best sort of weekend book, slow and easy, with scenery flowing by and still moments that provide ample time for the characters to drink a glass of beer and talk nonsense about life and history. Not as serious as that other river classic, Huck Finn, this book is more a sit-com of the picnic-without-the-can-opener variety. There’s a distinct Bertie Wooster flavor here, and I think I remember reading somewhere that Wodehouse was a fan.

The characters decide to leave city life for a while and row up the Thames, camping out on clear nights and finding indoor digs if the weather looks iffish. Their city life seems pretty easy to me (one character “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”), but they feel bored and believe that a river trip is just the thing to perk things up.

Along the way, they get lost in Hampton Court Maze, get wet (from both rain and river), battle lock-keepers and steam launches, and think themselves great adventurers throughout. The narrator carefully reports each event, and then adds layers the way a chef builds a fluffy mille-feuille. For instance, after describing a boat-mate’s efforts with a banjo, the narrator continues with reminiscences of a neighbor practicing his bagpipe, starting with the in-house practice sessions that end badly.

Then they knocked up a little place for him at the bottom of the garden, about a quarter of a mile from the house, and made him take the machine down there when he wanted to work it; and sometimes a visitor would come to the house who knew nothing of the matter, and they would forget to tell him all about it and caution him, and he would go out for a stroll round the garden and suddenly get within earshot of those bagpipes without being prepared for it, or knowing what it was. If he were a man of strong mind, it only gave him fits; but a person of mere average intellect it usually sent mad.

The men face no danger worse than some irate swans, the tension never mounts higher than a slight disagreement about the banjo, and the trip ends with a happy surrender to modern conveniences. Even the hated steam launches begin to look good, when the men need towing.

Plot? none to speak of. Character development? meh. Those aren’t the point here. Jerome is just having fun, and it’s nice to be along for the ride.


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