I thought it was time I revived the old ‘Invisible Ink’ column here with some more of the forgotten authors that failed to make it into the Book of Forgotten Authors.
Some authors vanish in plain sight, recalled by their most successful work, which comes to define an entire career. A friend of mine has written mythologies, Victoriana, crime and magical realism, but publishers are unable to mention her without inserting the title of her greatest success into her name, in the way that pantomime stars are bracketed by their TV shows or hit songs. Typecasting is a problem that afflicts most successful writers.
The tachetastic Jerome K Jerome (that middle name was Klapka, chosen, for no explicable reason I can find, after a Hungarian general) was born in 1859 in Walsall, the son of an ironmonger called Clapp. He began work at 15 after the family was forced into poverty (bad investments), and turned to journalism after failing as an actor.
His honeymoon took place on the Thames, an experience that was to form the backbone of his most celebrated work, ‘Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog)’. Harris, George, Jerome and Montmorency the fox terrier set off along the Thames in what was originally intended to be a travel guide to the upper reaches of the river, but the clash in their characters created a fine comedy, ‘Three Men In A Boat’, which has survived for over 120 years. Actually, it’s done more than just survive – it’s a trope, filmed and performed many times, parodied and updated.
What surprises most is how fresh and modern Jerome’s writing feels. It has none of the tiresome convolutions we associate with many Victorian novels and although it’s a rather uneven read, it does seem to auger the arrival of the modern world. The book was badly received at the time, partly because middle-class critics were offended by the use of working class pronunciation (shades of Rees-Mogg there, I feel).
However it’s easy to forget that Jerome wrote eleven other novels, eleven collections of short stories (including some excellent ghostly tales), nine plays, an autobiography and ‘The Passing Of The Third Floor Back’, about the arrival of an enigmatic Christ-like figure in a boarding house, who teaches the bickering residents humanity. It was twice filmed.
Among the novels was a sequel to Jerome’s most successful work entitled ‘Three Men On The Bummel’, which concerns a chaotic cycling tour through Germany’s Black Forest, a bummel, as one character explains, being a type of journey made with no particular end in sight, only a planned return to the point of embarkation. Wisely, the Americans renamed it ‘Three Men On Wheels’. For my money it’s every bit as er, freewheeling and pleasurable as the original, but sequels are usually compared unfavourably to their parents. The joy, again, is in the brisk, charming language, and this time it tapped into the Victorian passion for cycling.
Jerome often touched on the theme of poverty, and felt it was not a crime but a blunder unfairly punished the world over. His admirers formed their own society, and there was even a small museum dedicated to him, but it closed. There are several attractive editions of ‘Three Men’, one with a cover by Ronald Searle. The other books have pretty much vanished, although I suspect some of you lot have read a few.