Jerome K Jerome: author of “Three Men in a Boat”

Jerome Klapka Jerome was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, on 2nd May 1859. His father, Jerome Clapp Jerome, who owned coalmine, had originally been Jerome Clapp, but he preferred his first name to his surname and so repeated it. Jerome junior had originally had the same name as his father but in later life changed “Clapp” to “Klapka”.

The colliery went bankrupt and the family moved to London where Jerome senior became an ironmonger. However, he died when Jerome junior was only 13. Jerome had been attending what was to become Marylebone Grammar School, but his father’s death meant that he had to earn his own living and support his mother, which he did by becoming a clerk on the London and North-Western Railway until his mother died two years later.

Jerome became a part-time actor (later full-time) and also dabbled in journalism and teaching. He tried his hand at writing and wrote the first of many plays in 1886. He had already published a set of humorous sketches in 1885 based on his acting experiences, entitled “On the Stage — and Off”.

He married Georgina Marris in 1888, shortly after her divorce from her first husband. She already had a five-year-old daughter, and the couple were to have a daughter of their own in 1897.

Three Men in a Boat

In 1889 Jerome’s name was made for life with the publication of “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)”. This was originally intended to be a travelogue of the places to be encountered on River Thames between Kingston and Oxford, with added pieces of history to accompany the scenes. However, Jerome soon found that he could not keep the humour out and it turned into the comic masterpiece that we have today. It is still a very funny book, although there are serious elements in it as well, such as finding the body of a woman who had committed suicide, to which Jerome devoted several pages.

The boat trip as described was fictional, although the three men were real enough (the dog was not) and they had been for frequent trips on the river together and visited many of the places that are described. The book can still be used as a guidebook to the Thames today, and most of the riverside pubs can be visited 120 years later.

(Photo by Simon Harriyott)

So much of the book was true to life that the BBC was able to recreate the trip in 2005 with three well-loved comedians who are themselves great friends (Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath).

Jerome was never able to repeat the success of “Three Men in a Boat”, although he certainly tried. It has been suggested that the bubbling good humour of “Three Men” comes from the fact that he had just returned from his honeymoon when he started writing the book, and that this was therefore the happiest and sunniest period of his life. It might be thought strange that a newly married man would choose to write about pleasurable times spent with his two best male friends and an imaginary dog, but that is what he did.

Other Works

In 1891 he published “Diary of a Pilgrimage”, which describes a journey to southern Germany to see the Oberammergau Passion Play. There is plenty of humour here, but, as he wrote in his preface to the book, “This is a sensible book. I want you to understand that. This is a book to improve your mind”. However, that had also been the intention behind “Three Men”, and we cannot imagine that Jerome’s tongue was not planted in his cheek when he wrote the words quoted above.

One reason why “Pilgrimage” might have been less successful was its title, as there is no promise of fun and games on a pilgrimage, especially for book buyers whose minds turned to Bunyan rather than Chaucer.

Another reason why “Pilgrimage” failed by comparison might have been that the original threesome was not present, Jerome being accompanied by single friend called “B”.

The trio, but minus the dog, reappeared in “Three Men on the Bummel” in 1900. This describes a cycling tour of Germany, which Jerome knew well, having lived there for much of the preceding two years. Again, there is a lot of description of places and people, and a great deal of humour and light-heartedness. However, it is humour about a foreign country, not the England that Jerome’s readers would have recognised. Despite this limitation, and Jerome’s clear intention to make his readers share his love of Germany and Germans, the book was popular at the time, with sales being nearly as good as those of “Three Men in a Boat”.

Needless to say, that success could only be short-lived. Jerome wrote about the German people: “They are a good people, a lovable people, who should help much to make the world better”. That was not a sentiment that was likely to endear the author to his readers as Britain moved inexorably towards war in the years that were to follow.

However, some of Jerome’s insights make fascinating reading in hindsight, given our knowledge of the conflicts of the 20th century. Just after the line quote above, he added: “They consider themselves perfect, which is foolish of them. They even go so far as to think themselves superior to the Anglo-Saxon; this is incomprehensible. One feels they must be pretending”.

An interesting coincidence, when considering Jerome’s output and subsequent events, is that 1889 was the year both of the publication of “Three Men in a Boat” and the birth of Adolf Hitler.

Later Life

As well as being a writer of humorous travelogues, Jerome was also a literary editor. He was co-editor, and later sole editor, of “The Idler”, which published pieces by writers including Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. He founded his own weekly paper, “To-Day”, in 1893 but was forced to close it in 1897 as the result of losing a libel action.

In 1914, despite being aged 55 at the time, he volunteered to be a wartime ambulance driver. He was considered to be too old by the British army but was accepted by the French army. He later recounted his experiences in “My Life and Times”, published in 1926.

He died on 14th June 1927, having suffered a number of strokes, at the age of 68.

Had he not written “Three Men in a Boat” in 1889 there is every chance that few people today would have heard of Jerome K Jerome. He therefore counts as one of literature’s “one hit wonders”. However, that one hit was of such magnitude that his is now a household name, and the book in question is still read and loved by people all over the world.

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