I've come to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat in a roundabout way. Recently I picked up To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis not realizing it pays homage (at least in part) to Jerome's light hearted story and wanted to be in on all the jokes, so decided to backtrack and give Three Men in a Boat a go first. It's a very quick, gentle sort of read, the sort that will elicit more than a few chuckles, and even an odd guffaw or two at the characters' antics.
Originally Jerome K. Jerome set out to write a travel guide but apparently couldn't quite get things going, so the narrative veered off towards the comical. Three Victorian gentlemen decide a boat trip up the Thames is in order to cure them of the many ills that are ailing them. And pretty much every ill ails them save housemaid's knee! This is not an undertaking to be contemplated lightly and much thought and planning goes into their two week holiday. Where to go, what to take, the question of food and the occasional lodgings are all considered and debated in some detail.
The three gentlemen were based on Jerome himself and two of his friends, but the dog Montmorency is, alas, plucked from his imagination--a sprightly fox terrier that gets into any number of scrapes (including one with a cat--the cat wins). The novel turns out to be part travel guide, part meditation on the joys (or perhaps more the trials and tribulations) of paddling up the river (skiffing?) with a bit of drama thrown in for good measure. J. (Jerome) tells the story, but with a good number of digressions along the way. The story verges on farce as each new situation or the relating of a prior adventure is shared with the reader.
It's a lot of great good fun and much of it is still relevant to the sorts of things travelers go through today. Tea is made out of questionable river water, inns are passed over for their lack of honeysuckle growing over doors, rowers are left floating in the river without their poles, and I can only assume swans are the vicious creatures portrayed in these pages. One of my favorite episodes describes the creation of what I can only say sounds like the most vile stew ever and convinced me there are far worse cooks in the world than myself.
"George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed a half dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. George stirred it all up, and then he said that there seemed to be a lot of room to spare, so we overhauled the hampers, and picked out all the odds and ends and the remnants, and added them to the stew. There were half a pork pie and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put them in. Then George found half a tin of potted salmon, and he emptied that into the pot."
"He said that was the advantage of Irish stew; you got rid of such a lot of things. I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked, and we put those in. George said they would thicken the gravy."
"I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, toward the end, Montmorency, who evinced a great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterward, with a dead water rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner: whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say."
Upon publication in 1889 critics panned the book calling Jerome's use of slang "vulgar", and while I agree that the story is somewhat uneven in the telling and the prose on the sentimental side, Jerome K. Jerome got the last laugh. The book sold extremely well and has never been out of print. It's # 33 on the Observer's 100 Greatest Novels list (I get to line another one off!) and Esquire ranked it #2 on their 50 Funniest Books Ever Written list. The three Victorian gentleman (to say nothing of the dog) may be bumblers but they are well-meaning for all their silly larks. I can only say it's nice to have a good laugh now and then.