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Authors: Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat

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was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1859, and educated at Marylebone Grammar School. He left school aged fourteen to become a railway clerk, the first of a long line of jobs which included acting, teaching and journalism. He spent some time touring with various theatrical companies and lodged for a while in Tavistock Place in London with his friend George Wingrave, who later became the model for George in
Three Men in A Boat
. His first book,
On Stage and Off
, a collection of humorous pieces about the theatre, was published in 1885, and was followed in 1886 with a collection of sketches entitled
The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
. After the commercial success of this volume Jerome took up writing and journalism as a profession. He married in 1888 and settled in the following year in Chelsea Gardens in London, where he wrote his most famous work,
Three Men in a Boat
. Its sequel,
Three Men on the Bummel
, appeared in 1900 and describes a hilarious cycling tour through Germany’s Black Forest.

In 1892 Jerome had, with some friends, founded
The Idler
, an illustrated monthly magazine which published humorous work by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. When the magazine folded, Jerome turned to the theatre again and became well-known as a playwright:
The Passing of the Third Floor Back
(1908), a sentimental moral fable set in Bloomsbury, enjoyed a long and successful run in London’s theatres. During the First World War he served as an ambulance driver in France. His eventful life is recorded in his autobiography
My Life and Times
, published in 1926. He died in 1927.

worked in publishing for much of his life after leaving Trinity College, Dublin, in 1965, and was a director of Chatto & Windus for ten years. He was Deputy Editor of the
London Magazine
from 1991 to 1994, and is now the Commissioning Editor of the
. He has written two volumes of autobiography,
Playing for Time
Kindred Spirits
, and edited
The Vintage Book of Office Life
. His authorized biography of Cyril Connolly was published by
Jonathan Cape in 1997 and his biography of Tobias Smollett was published in 2003. He is currently working on a biography of Allen Lane for Penguin. The Secretary of the R. S. Surtees Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he is married with two daughters, and lives near Richmond Park.


Three Men in a Boat

To say nothing of the Dog

With an Introduction and Notes by




Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
, England
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
, England

Three Men in a Boat
first published 1889
Published in Penguin Books 1957
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2004

Introduction and notes copyright © Jeremy Lewis, 1999, 2004
All rights reserved

The moral right of the editor has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

EISBN: 978–0–141–90739–0


‘I did not intend to write a funny book, at first,’
Jerome K. Jerome wrote of the novel by which he is best remembered – further evidence, if such were needed, that books once embarked upon acquire a life of their own, and that famous books, like famous rivers, may well have obscure or modest origins. Just turned thirty in 1889, and beginning to make his mark as an essayist and playwright, Jerome had recently returned from his honeymoon, and was living in a top-floor flat on Chelsea Embankment, the circular drawing-room of which afforded views up and down the Thames and across to Battersea Park, and the Surrey Hills beyond. Boating on the Thames had become a popular pastime in recent years, and publishers did brisk business with guidebooks-cum-histories of the river, in which topographical details were interwoven with easily digested snippets of English history; inspired by the outlook, perhaps, Jerome planned to write just such a book, the facts and figures of which would be lightened by occasional flurries of ‘humorous relief’. He decided to write these first, drawing on his own experiences of boating on the river with his friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel, but before long the anecdotes had elbowed aside the sober slabs of history and topography, and were threatening to take over altogether. The editor of
Home Chimes
, where Jerome’s work was being serialized, had no time for the factual passages, and hurled most of them overboard; and when, the following year,
Three Men in a Boat
published in book form, little remained of the author’s original intentions. Though cold-shouldered by the critics, the book was an instant success, making Jerome a household name and casting a long shadow over his attempts, in later life, to establish himself as a serious, even portentous, writer; and the misadventures of George, Harris, J. the narrator and the dog Montmorency remain one of the best-loved books in the language, endlessly reprinted, and filmed three times.

Some ten years later, Jerome resurrected George, Harris and J. and sent them on a bicycling tour of Germany, the results of which were published as
Three Men on the Bummel
– a ‘bummel’ being defined, in the last paragraph of the book, as a ‘journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started’.
Asanaccount of Jerome’s rambling, conversational technique, this could hardly be bettered; and, quite apart from their entertainment value, both novels are wonderfully redolent of the late-Victorian and Edwardian England of Mr Pooter, the ground-down hero of the Grossmiths’
The Diary of a Nobody
and W. S. Gilbert’s ‘The Bab Ballads’
and the early novels of H. G. Wells and P. G. Wodehouse’s
Psmith in the City
of jocular clerks on the spree in plus-fours and fluorescent blazers, and men with heavy handlebar moustaches and mild suburban voices thoughtfully refilling their pipes before embarking on another yarn from the depths of a leather armchair.

‘I did not know I was a humorist,’ Jerome went on to admit – nor, indeed, had the first twenty-odd years of his life provided many occasions for mirth. His father, Jerome Clapp Jerome, was born in 1807, educated at Merchant’s Taylors School, and trained as an architect. Of ‘Puritan stock’, he soon displayed a passion for preaching, honing his technique at the Rothwell Nonconformist Academy in Northamptonshire; though never ordained, he spent a good deal of time preaching in Congregationalist chapels, several of which he also designed. In 1838 he married the daughter of a Swansea solicitor. She had been left some money, so they moved to Appledore in Devon, where Mr Clapp – as he was known to his congregation – bought a farm and preached in the local chapel, publishing a hymn
book for its special use. Misled into believing that silver could be mined on his land, he spent part of his wife’s inheritance on vain attempts to bring it to the surface.

In 1855 the Jeromes moved to Walsall, in the West Midlands, where fortunes were being made from coal. Mr Jerome became a partner in an iron works instead, as well as building and designing the town’s Congregational chapel. When he eventually decided to try his luck with coal, and sank two pits on Cannock Chase, his efforts were thwarted by sand and underground streams; only after he had sold out did the ‘Jerome Pits’ come good, but by then his wife’s money had disappeared. Reduced to penury, they moved to Poplar, in the East End of London, where Mr Jerome tried, without success, to set up shop as an ironmonger. Despite the shortage of funds, Mrs Jerome worked hard to keep up appearances, employing a maid, just as the Pooters did, insisting that her two daughters wore gloves in public, and Mr Jerome his silk hat, and keeping her own lace and silk dresses for best. Young Jerome remembered that their house was the biggest in the street, replete with ‘china and fine pictures and a semi-grand piano by Collard & Collard, and damask curtains in the windows’. It was, no doubt, a very English kind of ‘shabby gentility’.

The fourth child of the marriage, Jerome K. Jerome was born in Walsall in 1859: the ‘K’ stood for Klapka, the surname of an improbable-sounding 28-year-old Hungarian general who had lodged with the family while writing his memoirs. Jerome’s siblings were christened Milton Melanchton, Paulina and Blandina, and to distinguish him from his father he was referred to as ‘Luther’. This seemed apposite enough since, like many young Victorians, he was brought up on Foxe’s
Book of Martyrs
in which the roastings and disembowellings endured by heroic Protestant clergymen at the hands of Queen Mary and her diabolical Catholic henchmen were itemized in gruesome detail. Terrified by visions of Hell and Damnation, he came to regard organized religion with grave suspicion, and God Himself with a certain wariness.

Equally alarming was the East End itself. Populated, in part, by impoverished Russian and Polish Jews who had fled from tsarist
pogroms, the haunt of Jack the Ripper and – according to Sherlock Holmes – dastardly Lascars and unreliable Chinese, the interminable terraces that stretched east for mile after mile from the City of London occupied, until the 1950s at least, a place in popular mythology similar to that now claimed by the most terrifying and rundown stretches of New York. ‘There is a menace, a haunting terror, that is to be found nowhere else,’ Jerome recalled. ‘The awful silence of its weary streets. The ashen faces, with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost. It was these surroundings in which I passed my childhood that gave me, I suppose, my melancholy, brooding disposition.’ Although Jerome liked to think that he mixed with ‘a bad set, which included the Wesleyan minister’s two sons, also the only child of the church organist’, he was persecuted by the local urchins, who let out a great cry when they saw him coming. ‘It was not so much the blows as the jeers and taunts I fled from, spurted by mad terror,’ he remembered in
My Life and Times
: ‘My mother explained to me that it was because I was a gentleman.’ Looking back on his childhood in his autobiographical novel,
Paul Kelver
, Jerome recalled ‘hurrying through noisy, crowded thoroughfares, where flaring naptha lamps illumine fierce, patient, leadencoloured faces; through dim-lit empty streets, where monstrous shadows come and go upon the close-drawn blinds; through narrow, noisesome streets, where the gutters swarm with children, and each ever-open doorway vomits riot…’ It was a world far more akin to such grim masterpieces of late-Victorian and Edwardian social realism as Arthur Morrison’s
A Child of the Jago
and Robert Tressell’s
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
than to the benign escapism of
Three Men in a Boat
: it may help to explain why, though never committed to any political movement or party, Jerome instinctively sided with the underdog, and always remained uneasily aware of how thin a line separates civilized behaviour from brutality and degradation. The dead dog and the dead woman whom the three happy oarsmen encounter floating down the river shock us with their apparent incongruity, and remind us that Jerome’s view of the universe was nothing like as carefree or as cheerful as his novels might have us think.

A beneficiary of W. E. Forster’s 1870 Education Act, as a result of which some form of primary education was made available to all children for the first time, Jerome attended the Philological School in Lisson Grove, later upgraded to Marylebone Grammar School. During school holidays he visited the surrounding countryside, and years later he remembered the corn fields round Swiss Cottage, a stag hunt in Highgate, and cattle grazing in Walthamstow. For all the horrors of the East End, ‘London was a cosier place to dwell in, when I was a young man. For one thing, it was less crowded. Life was not one everlasting scrimmage.’

BOOK: Three Men in a Boat
7.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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