Three Men In a Boat. And, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Three Men in a Boat

December 2014
Recommended for fans of Victorian humor
 ★    ★    ★   

I love To Say Nothing of the Dog. Adore it enough to own two copies, a paperback for reading/ lending, and a hardcover for keepsies. Love it enough, in fact, to write a ridiculous review comparing it to a Beethoven symphony (review). Willis dedicated her book to Heinlein, who “introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.” So when I saw Project Gutenberg offered Three Men in a Boat, I snatched it up.

It is the time of year when I don’t have much time to devote to reading, particularly not long, involved plots with thirty-four funky character names, taking place in imaginary worlds I can’t pronounce (or even in this one, Mr. Jonathan Strange). Three Men seemed perfect for the kind of read I was looking for, and it turned out to be true. But I’m viewing it through the fond lens of a reader of To Say Nothing of the Dog, whose author was clearly amused by Three Men in a Boat, whose own author was riffing on other Victorian tales. So it’s all a bit meta, and I can’t really tell if I love it, or just the spiderweb of connections I feel with the authors.

Let me be honest: there’s virtually no plot. It’s an uneven narrative, flagrantly digressive, in which Bertie, I mean, Jerome, George, William Harris–to say nothing of the dog,  Montmorency–are interacting in an Abbott and Costello sort of way as they plan, travel and conclude an idyllic boat ride down the Thames. Narrated by Jerome, the details of the trip are frequently interrupted with humorous asides, commentary on the sights of the Thames and musing on historical sites they are passing. Characterization is about all that holds it together– detail on historical events near the Thames, is frankly, rather yawners, as I am indifferent student of historical events (signing of the Magna what?). 

And yet Three Men in a Boat amused me. It could have been the beginning, in which

We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were–bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course. … With me, it was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all. It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medical advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form.

Though written in 1889, it indirectly emphasized to me, a nurse, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that’s why the characterization appeals so much. The three men bear a strong resemblance to people we all know; in fact, I was rather reminded of Jerry, George and Kramer, whose own self-absorbed behavior provided so many laughs. For instance, after Jerome tells a story about another man watching him work, he comments:

Now, I’m not like that. I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.

As a dog person, I couldn’t get enough of the sassy, spirited Montmorency:

We went downstairs to breakfast. Montmorency had invited two other dogs to come and see him off, and they were whiling away the time by fighting on the doorstep. We calmed them with an umbrella, and sat down to chops and cold beef.

But it wasn’t all irony and laughter, there were moments of quite lyrical, perhaps even indulgent writing (to take a line from Willis: “a tendency to maudlin sentimentality, like… a Victorian poet cold-sober”):

In the sunlight–in the daytime, when Nature is alive and busy all around us, we like the open hillsides and the deep woods well enough: but in the night, when our Mother Earth has gone to sleep, and left us waking, oh! the world seems so lonesome, and we get frightened, like children in a silent house.The we sit and sob, and long for the gas-lit streets, and the sound of human voices, and the answering throb of human life. We feel so helpless and so little in the great stillness, when the dark trees rustle in the night-wind.

Without doubt, it kept me entertained. Read in small doses before bedtime, it perhaps started to feel a little like the three men experiencing the Thames: interesting, humorous, thoughtful, and perhaps just a day or two too long. Hopefully, the above quotes give enough of a flavor to see if it will appeal. For me, I’m looking forward to my next read of To Say Nothing of the Dog; with the insight I’ve gotten from Three Men, I expect it to be even more amusing.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to Three Men In a Boat. And, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

  1. Zanna says:

    Don’t let my mum hear you yawning over Magna Carta!

    • thebookgator says:

      I’ll keep it to myself, Zanna, when I visit England (although once there, I’d likely care a bit more). I’d blame the American school system, but frankly, I’ve always been rather indifferent to history. Biology, on the other hand….

  2. Where’s the conflict? Having had the need for something to keep your readers interested pounded into my head by my writing books – with me nodding along, Of course! – I think this may be too tame and literary for the likes of me. But it was definitely amusing to read your take on it, preceded by the knowledge that you gave a book you love (for various reasons) only three stars.

    I’m an erratic student of history, which means I had lots of it in the past, and seemed to have acquired such facts as the year of the battle of Hastings (1066 – connected to the Magna Carta) (and no, I don’t remember the actual date) while homeschooling my kids if I didn’t already know it.

    My ideal trip down the Thames is more like the one Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey undertake in Gaudy Night, where the romance IS the major conflict of the book, and reaches a resolution properly by the end: writing AROUND the trip, with the trip as the spine of the story to give us an anchor in reality.

    If you don’t mind, since I don’t have the lovely associations you already have, I’ll skip this one.

    And I’m out of your Fiction reviews. Darn. I like them.


    • thebookgator says:

      Well, there isn’t really much conflict. It’s been interesting hearing your thoughts on my reviews–I suspect I am more of a character reader than I thought, particularly in fiction. I certainly don’t mind anyone “skipping” books that I’ve read–I just hope to provide reviews that help people decide whether or not to read. Sometimes I’m undecided, so I’ll read what other people have to say. It’s also fun to open a dialogue about books–my main issue in this one was probably the plot, but reading it with no time expectations helped (much like floating down a river). You are certainly right, the plot is the spine of the story (or at least stories I enjoy), linking it all together and providing a driving force.

      I’m pleased to hear that you’ve been enjoying my reviews. I don’t read pure fiction often, although there are a few I’d like to go back and re-read.

      • I’m curious. What is your reaction to what used to be called simply a novel, or a commercial novel – something like The Thorn Birds, or The Name of the Rose, On the Beach, or even Gone With the Wind – epic novels set in the real world. the had plot and characters, and even themes, but no supernatural elements. The had love stories but were not romances per se. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Pride and Prejudice. Novels. Mainstream fiction. General fiction.

  3. thebookgator says:

    Yes, as I mentioned, I rarely read those sort of books–I’ve been doing this blog for about three years, so you have an idea from my fiction list how often that happens. I work as an oncology nurse, so I tend to feel like I see more than enough of human drama, and historical pieces rarely interest me.

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