Somewhere, somewhen, I have seen or heard Three Men in a Boat described as “the funniest book in the English language”, and I am not inclined to disagree. Very, very few books can actually make me laugh out loud — but here, I found something new to giggle at on almost every single page. It’s quite incredible, actually.
The premise is simple: three men (and one dog) hire a boat to take a holiday along the Thames, and have, in the course of their holiday, many amusing adventures peppered with even longer, more amusing, anecdotes and narrative digressions. It is all utterly charming. Here’s the back text:
“We agree that we are overworked, and need a rest — A week on the rolling deep? — George suggests the river –“
And with the co-operation of several hampers of food and a covered boat, the three men (not forgetting the dog) set out on a hilarious voyage of mishaps up the Thames. When not falling in the river and getting lost in Hampton Court Maze, Jerome K. Jerome finds time to express his ideas on the world around — many of which have acquired a deeper fascination since the day at the end of the last century when this excursion was so lightly undertaken.
Of course, it’s now two centuries that have come to an end since this was written and published in 1889, but the rest still stands. Occasionally Jerome comes out with a passage that seems particularly foreknowing:
Why, all our art treasures of today are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is any real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The ‘old blue’ that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all out friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.
Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimney-pieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house? (pp. 53-4)
Yes! Yes, they will. I know: I have an uncle who collects tea cups and carnival glass custard bowls and the like, and though they would surely have been cheerfully tossed about when new, I tell you that this is no longer the case.
As mentioned, much of the narrative is not strictly concerned with the actual boating voyage. Jerome’s narrator (who seems to be he himself) spends considerable time relating anecdotes, and thinking about life, and the like. In a favourite passage of mine, he has been thinking about the awkwardness of sharing a home with a courting couple, and then relates that to a certain historical pair:
It must have been much like this when that foolish boy Henry VIII was courting his little Anne. People in Buckinghamshire would have come upon them unexpectedly when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, ‘Oh! you here!’ and Henry would have blushed and said, Yes, he’d just come over to see a man; and Anne would have said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to see you! Isn’t it funny? I’ve just met Mr Henry VIII in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.’
Then those people would have gone away and said to themselves: ‘Oh! we’d better get out of here while this billing and cooing is on. We’ll go down to Kent.’
And they would go down to Kent, and the first thing they would see in Kent, when they got there, would be Henry and Anne fooling round Hever Castle.
‘Oh, drat this!’ they would have said. ‘Here, let’s go away. I can’t stand any more of it. Let’s go to St Albans — nice quiet place, St Albans.’
And when they reached St Albans, there would be that wretched couple, kissing under the Abbey walls. Then these folks would go and be pirates until the marriage was over. (p. 110)
Pirates indeed! I am wholly delighted.