Wednesday, 22 November 2000

Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1993
Review number: 690

Three Men in a Boat may be one of the best known classics of English language humour, but bits of it have dated quite seriously. The novel tells the story of a short holiday taken by three bachelors (and a dog), rowing a boat up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford and is part commentary on the ludicrous misadventures which are part of the trip and part parody of Victorian travelogues. It is the second aspect which has dated; modern travel writers tend not to be as rhapsodic as the mid-Victorians, nor are they so determined to improve the minds of their readers. This makes them less easy targets. A parodic element which has dated better is the way in which "J." (the narrator) continually derives silly lessons about how to live life from their experiences.

Apart from these sections, the story has retained its freshness and humour. Much of it is rather predictable, pretty much what one would expect of a group of bachelors on a camping holiday (though missing the sexual joking which would probably fill much of any modern equivalent). There are problems with camping equipment, an inability to cook, and arguments about the distribution of work. This last inspires what it probably the most famous quotation from the novel: "Work fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours."

The best part of the novel is the beginning, when the three of them are deciding to go for a holiday. One of the main reasons for this decision is "J."'s hypochondria, which convinces him that he is suffering from every complaint in a medical dictionary except for housemaid's knee. (This is typical of the jokes throughout the novel.)

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