Jerome k Jerome is of course as synonymous with "Three Men in a Boat" as Joseph Heller is with "Catch 22” or Slade are for "Merry Christmas". He can too easily be taken as a one hit wonder.
For the fan of the spell binding cameo of quintissential English middle class leisure that 'three men' " is, I wuld recommend not first and foremost going on to Three Men on the Bummel. Rather take a necessary detour through his wonderful autobiography.
He is far from the typical english gentleman if we consider the child being the father of the man. He spent much of his childhood in relative poverty in a famly where financial peril was always at the door, or trampoing right in over the threshold. Far from just being a humourist as he was once labeled, he is a marevllous writer on contemporary history and debunking cynic on politics and the nature of man. His life spans the late Victorian and Edwardian period, and experienced perhaps the second large wave of 'metropolitisation' of London as its collection of villages and minor townships conurbated with the loss of pastures, parks and stables and much of the remaining ancienne housing and 'cottages' was swept aside in the rush to modernism and the rebirth of the city as the banking capital of much of the empire and hence world. From horse to horse power, and the expansion of the underground London was conjoined with arteries of traffic for the speed and pace of a 20th century power house. With this too, many of the old quaint customs and foibles of coach travel died away, many of which had been in place since 'Good Queen Bess' donned Crown.
If we talk of the "gig' economy today, then we need only read back to Jerome's own experiences of very loose connected work as a young school leaver to realise how tenuous life with no labour safety rules was. His career we may interpret as strangely modern from thus outset through his 'struggling' writer phase, his theatrical flirtation and his enterprises in publishing and media. A true portfolio career with his books , hunorist novels as th may be, not only being major milestones but also punctuating the flow of real living history which ran through his life. His works are largely autobiographical on the oine hand, and on the other they are steeped in clever observation of his fellow human kind, and witty social and political comment. In driving for a few-more-bob, and living often a little hand to mouth in his formative years, having been born into a financially naive and misadventurous houshold, it seems he let his quick wit get the better of him perhaps in pursuit of next month's rent payment?
His writing life times span a transitionary period which had great uncertainties, impirical arrogances and social exploitation which culminated in WWI in western Europe, and the revolution in Russia. The pre war Edwardian period gets little mention in the history books without this very after context. He manages to capture a sense of what was actually happening in the various strata of English society in the upheaval of modernity which came in the wake of the wealth created by the industrial revolution. He also is very pro German as is clear in his Autobiography and "..On the Bummel" which is set in Germany.
The sequel to Three Men in a Boat, is a pale cousin in structure and althougnh the content is rich and often delightful, it dwells too much on the minutia of the Germany of the 1880s. The first book has strwgnths in havng a natural structure and literal sense of direction in being a journey both well known and in the mundane Thames, while of course revealing the hidden nature of river life and idiosyncrasies which only the itinerant floating traveller truly experiences. Also he has three equally bumptious, pig headed and clowning fools to develop in character and test in mettle by the trials of a Thames holiday. Not forgettting Montmorency as a foil and distraction which gains our instant affections and shines through as the only one in t party with a grain of sense. In '..on the Bummel' Jerome fails to advance the characters and their friendships, over familiarness and petty rivalries. This and the rather disjointed and unaquainted route they choose mean to me at least, that the whole book lacks cohesion and becomes a series of witty essays, observatiin of the then teutonic and character cameo inserts.
I have had time on my hands to re-read "...in a Boat" , many notes upon its route along the Thames, his autobiography and "...on the Bummel" yet being somewhat idle, have not come to "idle chap" or his other novels. I find Jerome to be very much like myself. Interested in the truth of matters, and prone to a self opinionated view of the world, witty and crass and a little disorganised. "Three Men in a Boat" gave him what I too need in life, a hand rail to feel his way forward in a new modern style, and perhaps a scaffold to build his architecture. When lacking this machinery of a well ken't and easily parceled journey, his narrative wanders off into self indulgent journalistic commentary or these character cameos which just last too long in ' on the Bummel"
I feel he could easily have been the English Joyce if only he had written more on the passing plights and social moires of his times, and produced perhaps a "Londoners" or his own great greek framed divine comedy of a Ulyssian tome. I am sure James Joyce was indeed influenced by Jerome when I consider the charactures, the dialogue, the wit and the pathos we find in "Three Men..." . Scholars of course point how clevery-clever Joyce was to quote and follow the Greek meta structure which they so care to extrapolate to and pontificate on. Ulysses is titled though out of Irony as our anti hero, our mundane king of Dublin, is really better understood by those of us who have spent time on the lower banks of the Liffy amongst the Irish and their stream of wonderful collective consciousness. What irony that the imposition of a foreign, conquering g Imperial tongue upon the people's of the emerald Isle would then bestow upon them the possibility to extort the same language to heights of expressiveness in the every day street banter and the literary genius. Some consider Ulysses to eclipse all of Joyce's other work, but for Jerome it is true that his Thamesian excursionary tale is by far the author's greatest novel.