To Say Nothing Of The Dog

Reading & Writing

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.

15 comments on “To Say Nothing Of The Dog”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    There weren’t a lot of books in my parents’ home but a favourite was Three Men … I don’t know how often I read it but it was certainly several – more often than I read Lorna Doon, certainly. “He wrenched the arm right out of its socket and thrun it into the lake” or was that thrun something we made up to make it sound more horrible? No, come summer it was three men and that dog heading up the Thames, trying to fish and keep from assaulting each other. I’ve seen mentions of the second book but never laid my hands on a copy.

  2. Kathy Keenan says:

    And Connie Willis wrote a wonderful time travel novel with that as the title and snippets of it all through! One of my alltime favorite books!

  3. Roger says:

    “His honeymoon took place on the Thames, an experience that was to form the backbone of his most celebrated work…”
    Characteristically Victorian: Jerome replaces his wife with two men (not to mention the dog) in the book.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    As a young man not doing much Jerome k Jerome almost got me a bettering from my Father when I quoted from ‘Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’.

    My father accused me of being scared of hard work to which I replied, ‘I’m not scared of hard work, I could sit there all day and watch it.’

    Well I thought it was funny. The book is more musings or essays of the said fellow, it’s available on the Gutenberg free e-book thing. I like the sequel as well.

    There were a couple of films based on his short story, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, I’ve always liked the title it intrigues me still. The tale is quite whimsical, the Conrad Veidt film is very watchable, but then Veidt is one of my favourite actors.


  5. Jo W says:

    I have two copies of Three Men in a Boat on my shelves downstairs,but I have another copy,together with On the Bummel, by my bed.These come in very handy to while away the odd sleepless times in the early hours. I can open them at random and always find an enjoyable chapter or two.
    Idle Thoughts and Third floor Back I used to have (though where they disappeared to I don’t know) so I have downloaded copies from Apple Books. As you can guess,JKJ is another of my favourite authors and not forgotten by me,at least.

  6. DebS says:

    We had and loved both “Boat” and “Bummel” in my (yes incurable middle-class) childhood home. Humour tends to age terribly, but maybe pure simple silly humour survives? Some episodes are unforgettable: J with every malady in the pharmacology aside from housemaid’s knee (a great antidote to hypochondria when one is that way inclined); a stately home boasting a maze immediately conjures up Harris at Hampton Court; whilst the infamous tin of pineapples often springs to mind when rummaging in the kitchen drawer for a tin opener.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Both ‘Boat’ and ‘Bummel’ are gems and probably influenced the young Wodehouse. Certainly on a par with ‘Diary of a Nobody’.

    I’m interested in the supernatural stories – where might they be?

  8. snowy says:

    Roger, distrust everything you read about the primness of the Victorians, esp. on the internet. They were absolutely filthy. [You didn’t get families with 17 surviving children by sitting on warm lavatory seats.]

    …How can I make this explanation not dull? Um… …? Keep it short!

    Most of what people think they know to be true, comes from reading of various works of fiction.

    Books in the period were indirectly censored*, hence lots of works of an ‘improving’ nature, stories of very butch men wandering about foreign lands and endless tales of drippy heroines mooning about various ‘bits of rough’.

    [To get to a real feel for the period, run your eye over some reports from the local assizes.]

    [* Background, only for the very keen.

    The Vagrancy Act 1824 had a provision for the offence of: “…wilfully exposing to view, in any Street, Road, Highway, or public Place, any obscene Print, Picture, or other indecent Exhibition…”, this would include books and would earn one 3 months in prison with hard labour on conviction.

    And then the Obscene Publications Act 1859 arrived, which would made things even more ticklish for over a century.]

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, that is the most universally true statement you have ever made. It was an entire nation determining that if you ignore something it will go away. Who determined who was going to be the determiner of appropriate art, music, and literature? Or was it someone (?) saying that the lower classes should be kept free of debasing influences? The upper cclasses could go abroad and be mentally debased whenever they liked, but they could rise above it. (Not that they bothered to.)

  10. snowy says:

    Peter, I was also struck by the revelation, [at least to me], that JKJ dabbled in the supernatural, [and even found time for a speculative distopia, I was to discover.].

    A complete single collection eludes me, but he was quite frequently included in anthologies, these might serve as an indication of his most popular tales. So in no particular order:

    [Title: Originally Published in:]

    “The Haunted Mill, or the Ruined House” (from Told after Supper).

    “The Skeleton.” (from Novel Notes).

    “A Ghost Story.” (from Novel Notes).

    “The Cost of Kindness.” (from The Passing of the Third Floor Back, and Other Stories)

    “The Man of Science.” (from Novel Notes).

    “Our Ghost Party” (Introduction to Told After Supper).

    “The Snake” (from Novel Notes)

    “The Dancing Partner” (from Told after Supper).

    “Johnson and Emily, or the Faithful Ghost,” (from Told After Supper).

    “The Woman of the Saeter” (John Ingerfield, and Other Stories).

    Told After Supper and Novel Notes, have framing devices of the sort seen in ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horror’ but with Jerome-ian humour.

    [Visit the Jerome page on Wikipedia for a list of links to copies of various printed books [Guttenburg, Faded Page etc.], and audiobooks, [AudioVox], for the Traffic-ally challanged.]

  11. snowy says:

    Helen, it is an enormously complex period, modern popular descriptions focus only on the most sensational aspects.

    Just trying to think about, how I could possibly begin to describe just how much was changing, makes my brain go all squishy.

    Thankfully, Charlie Dickens rescues me:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

    [Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities]

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    One way to think of the Victorian era is to compare it to Elizabeth II’s reign. Think of the 50’s & think of it now and that’s the sort change you have with the Victorians, plus the governments that ran it could be very different. At the end of the C19th body piercing was very popular in middle class and upper class circles for women in much the same way it became popular at the end of the C20th, which surprises many. What goes around comes around.

    As for censorship Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton had a title change as a working class character was not seen as a fit title, especially a chartist.

    I’ve come across JKJ’s supernatural stories before. Hugh Lamb did some splendid collections about Forgotten Victorian Tales and Gaslit Nightmare which contains some splendid tales, I’ve always had a soft spot for his collections ever since I got a number of them out from the library as a youngster.


  13. Helen Martin says:

    My favourite Charles Dickens quote. I had it memorized at one time.

  14. Roger says:

    Snowy: the Dickens quote is actually about pre-Revolutionary France, though, though you could apply it to just about any time.
    I wasn’t thinking of primness when I said Jerome replacing his wife with a couple of chaps and the dog was “characteristically Victorian”, but of Victorian emotional life. For a lot of Victorians – male and female – marriage and family were duty, friendship was pleasure.

  15. RDaggle says:

    And to bring this full circle to crime fiction, one of Peter Lovesey’s Sgt.Cribb novels references ‘Three Men In A Boat’.

    The crime and investigation in “Swing Swing Together” keeps turning up parallels to the Jerome story — which was a bestseller in the era the Cribb story is set.

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