The often overlooked humourist.
One of my favourite eras is the late Victorian/early Edwardian times. Just beginning to lose the tightly controlled Victorian veneer of stuffiness it still had a charm and a formality but was much more relaxed. I love the fashions and if I could afford to dress the way the men did back then I would (hey I stopped caring what people thought about me ages ago) – although I’ve always thought it might become a little hot.
This love for that era of course affects and is affected by the literature that came out of it and this includes one of my favourite writers of all time. Jerome Klapka Jerome. Most famous for his work Three Men In A Boat, Jerome was a writer and humourist. Born in 1859 his sense of silliness and comedy make his works highly entertaining but are clever enough to give a great insight into his way of life, those of his generation and their way of thinking at the time. But as well as humour he proved adept at writing thoughtful novels such as All Roads Lead to Calvary.
To give it the full title Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a series of accounts of the said three men as they go on a boating holiday up the River Thames getting as far as…, well I won’t spoil that. Published in 1889, the three men discover not to always take the advice given to them by people who should know better (do not drink river water) but they also discuss their past experiences by way of deliberately straight faced anecdotes; everyone knows an Uncle Podger and have experienced laughing at the wrong time. All highly entertaining.
In 1900 it was followed up by, the I think even better but sadly lesser known these days, Three Men On The Bummel (where they go on a cycling holiday in Germany: Bummel said to be a German word for a trip that just happens with no major plans for where to go or how long it takes – turns out I take them a lot). Once more present and past events are discussed in all seriousness, that person who always “knows” how to fix something that doesn’t need fixing and disagreements about directions plus a whole lot more. If you like intelligent silly I’m sure you will love both of these.
“If a man stopped me in the street and demanded of me my watch, I should refuse to give it to him. If he threatened to take it by force, I feel I should, though not a fighting man, do my best to protect it. If, on the other hand, he should assert his intention of trying to obtain it by means of an action in any court of law, I should take it out of my pocket and hand it to him, and think I had got off cheaply.”
― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men On The Bummel
Jerome K Jerome wrote far more than just these two books, and it’s sad that so much of his work is almost forgotten. He wrote humorous essays for magazines and some serious fiction. Both the novels Paul Kelver and All Roads Lead To Calvary highlight the life of the main character trying to make their way in a difficult world, both failing and succeeding at different times.
He himself was born into poverty and a hard life followed including the death of his family at a young age. Then as a young man everything was uncertain and it was only really the sudden success of his writing that upped his standard of living. As much as I say I like the style of those times, they were very difficult to live through. Unless you were very rich everything was always precarious. Paul Kelver is said to be practically autobiographical, you can get a sense of his experiences and just how tough things could be compared to what most of us take for granted now. Although his writing is known as fun when genuinely playing it seriously you get a glimpse of the melancholy.
You poor, pitiful little brat! Popularity? it is a shadow. Turn your eyes towards it, and it shall ever run before you, escaping you. Turn your back upon it, walk joyously towards the living sun, and it shall follow you.
― Jerome K. Jerome, Paul Kelver
They And I is lighter in tone. Written in the first person this also has links with his real life and I hope more is true than is made up; it seems happy. The account is of a father moving to the countryside with his young family and the adjustments that are needed – it’s very amusing.
Jerome did own a farm house near the small village of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, where he and his family are buried, not far from the River Thames.
I genuinely love nearly everything I’ve read from Jerome K Jerome, even his essays are preserved and worth reading. Some are funnier than others but there is always the sharp wit of observation supporting his words. As a nation I think we don’t give him the attention he deserves, we know of Three Men In A Boat and something in it about Hampton Court Maze but on the whole that’s about it; this is a shame.
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