Jerome K Jerome was thirty years old when he wrote Three Men in a Boat in 1889. At two years old, when the family business collapsed, along with their middle class aspirations, the Jerome family found themselves moving to Poplar in the East End of London, living in relative poverty. Jerome left school at fourteen and had various jobs from hack journalist to clerk and as a touring actor. So no Oxford or Cambridge for this man whose novel (which remember I hadn't then read!) represented to me the very ethos of the middle-classes. Messing around in boats? How dare they!
So to the book itself. Well first I must say that Three Men in a Boat has some of the funniest, wittiest scenes I have read in any book. As Jerome K Jerome was two years old when his family's business collapsed, so PG Wodehouse was two years old when Three Men in a Boat was published. Jeeves and Wooster, to my mind, would never have seen the light of day were it not for Jerome K Jerome! The jokes, the asides, the set-pieces, none would be out of place today. I struggle at times to find the humour in some fifties shows/films and I certainly have difficulty with alot of the modern day sit-coms, yet I found myself laughing aloud at the antics of Jerome, George and Harris. The descriptions of Harris and what he has got up to in his life are wonderful but for me it is the observations on life of the author that carry the greatest humour. Again, bear in mind that Oscar Wilde didn't write any of his famous comic plays, beginning with Lady Windermere's Fan, until 1892, three years after the publication of Three Men in a Boat.
Here are few examples of lines from Three Men in a Boat which could easily be ascribed to Oscar Wilde:
- Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.
- People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.
- It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
So what could the forty-something me have said to the twenty-something me to have led me to have read this wonderful book sooner than I did?
"You'd like it. You love Oscar Wilde so it might be right up your street..."
"It won't be anything like Oscar Wilde. He is the greatest! Did Jerome K Jerome go to prison? Did he try and usurp the upper middle classes with his wit? Did he die a pauper's death in Paris? No! Well how can he be anything like Oscar Wilde?"
"I'll come back in a few years time, you may feel differently then...
I guess that's the beauty of great books. They are there for you your whole life just waiting for you to be ready for them.