Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome is a charming comic novel that tells of three friends (and a dog) who have had enough of their workaday life and decide to spend a fortnight in a boat on the Thames.
The book, first published in 1889, has a timeless humor, mostly because the characters’ foibles, the source of most of the laughs, are the same foibles we see in our friends and acquaintances—and ourselves—today. How often have you struggled to pack your bag for trip only to realize that you’ve left an important item out and simply cannot fit it in? (I once managed to pack one—but only one—of my tennis shoes for a beach vacation. I didn’t discover my mistake until I got to the beach and needed the shoes to go biking!) And then there’s the matter of toothbrushes:
My tooth-brush is a thing that haunts me when I’m traveling, and makes my life a misery. I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it. And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.
Although Jerome uses one particular trip as the driving narrative of the book, he makes many side trips into memories of the past and other river journeys he and his friends have made. He tells of his friend Harris’s misguided confidence that he could guide some lost souls out of the Hampton Court maze. He tells of a friend who, while taking a punt up the river, managed to get himself stuck on the pole as the punt drifted away. Jerome found this quite hilarious—until he realized he was left on a punt without a pole! He also finds many opportunities to make amusing and idiosyncratic observations about life, such as this comment that arose from a visit to the home of a friend who had covered his beautiful carved oak walls with wallpaper because the oak was so gloomy:
What was sad in this case was that he, who didn’t care for carved oak, should have his drawing-room panelled with it, while people who do care for it have to pay enormous prices to get it. It seems the rule of this world. Each person has what he doesn’t want, and other people have what he does want.
Married men have wives, and don’t seem to want them, and young single fellows cry out that the can’t get them. Poor people who can hardly keep themselves have eight hearty children. Rich old couples, with no one to leave their money to, die childless.
Then there are girls with lovers. The girls that have lovers never want them. They say they would rather be without them, that they bother them, and why don’t they go and make love to Miss Smith and Miss Brown, who are plain and elderly and haven’t got any lovers?
He goes on to tell of a sickly schoolmate who used to weep that he couldn’t do his Latin exercises and then muses about whether the commonplace, even cheap ornaments and household items that fill his and his contemporaries’ homes would one day be seen as valuable remnants of a wondrous past. He specifically mentions “willow-pattern dinner plates,” and my mother does in fact consider her willow-pattern plates to be quite precious.
One of my favorite running jokes in the book had to do with the distribution of work and of comforts among the three travelers. Each one of them seems to be brilliant at coming up with a logical reason that the other two should do most of the work, or why the one doing the talking should get some special privilege. They all seem good-natured about it, but it seems to be an ongoing battle. Toward the end of the trip, Jerome muses on the division of labor:
It always seems to me that I am doing more of the work than I should do. It’s not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me; the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.
This was a great, fun read. It’s nice and light and diverting. There were times when my interest flagged; some of the narrative digressions went on a little too long, and a few points in the journey were a little boring and sometimes hard to follow because I’m not a boating person myself, but overall I had a great time reading this book. If the excerpts above made you smile, you should give it a try.