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Backwaters

To Say Nothing of the Dog — The Curious Story of Three Men in a Boat

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

April 9, 2013

A note to the reader: This is the third in a series of columns exploring some of the landmarks in paddlesport's literary backwaters. Links to the earlier articles can be found below.

A Three-Pipe Evening

A confession first: This is not a book about paddling. It is not, at any rate, about paddling in the strictest sense. An oar is not a paddle, and Three Men in a Boat is about a fortnight's holiday in a double sculling skiff, a small, clinker‑built craft that can be rowed — well, sculled, if we're going to insist on strict accuracy — by two people, while a third person lounges in the stern sheets and steers. So it's also the case that the boat in the title isn't a canoe, however you choose to define that protean craft. And it's certainly not a kayak.

Of course, an Adirondack guideboat is usually rowed, and most paddlers would recognize a guideboat as a close cousin of the canoe. For that matter, it's not hard to design a rowing rig for a "proper" canoe — or even a kayak. There are often good reasons for doing this, too. Which brings a story about a trip in a double sculling skiff a little closer to home waters for readers of In the Same Boat. Am I making too much of these semantic quibbles? Quite possibly. Still, I wanted to avoid disappointing anyone who was looking forward to a tale about a canoe trip. And while we're on the subject of finding the right word for everything, I should make it clear that Three Men in a Boat is about … er … three men in a boat. Women have only walk‑on parts in the narrative, and I must also confess that on the rare occasions when they do appear on stage, it's usually as foils in some humorous anecdote. (That's two confessions in two paragraphs; I hope there won't be any need for more.) Then again, the aforementioned three men are themselves the butt of most of the book's many jokes, so perhaps any women who read this will be indulgent.

Or perhaps not. Time will tell.

To begin… 1889 was a momentous year. The firm that was to become the Coca‑Cola Company was incorporated in Georgia. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria committed suicide in a hunting lodge in Mayerling. His mistress's body was found alongside his own. North Dakota became a state. The Eiffel Tower was opened to the public. The first issue of the Wall Street Journal went to press. The Nintendo Company began making playing cards. And pizza was invented. (Or not. Accounts differ.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. 1889. That was also the year when Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) first appeared in shop windows. The author was Jerome K. Jerome, and his book described a boating holiday on the Thames. Jerome had originally intended to write a river guide. Boating was the latest new big thing, and his editor hoped to capitalize on the fad by luring readers with an account of the scenery and sights along England's great river. It was to be an "improving" work, incorporating suitably uplifting asides about historic places and famous people. But Thames guidebooks were already two a penny, so Jerome's editor also asked him to liven up the text with a few comic interludes. (Jerome had tried his hand at acting, school‑teaching, and clerking for a lawyer. He soon found he had no liking for any of these occupations, but he did have a gift for comic writing, and his first book, On the Stage — And Off, had already achieved a modest success.)

Jerome was happy to have the job. Newly married, he had a wife and daughter to support. It's no surprise, therefore, that he set to work with a will. Before long, however, his burning enthusiasm for the task had cooled. He knew the river intimately — he and his wife had honeymooned on a small boat on the Thames — but he soon found that composing a guidebook was a rather tedious business. Then and there he decided that the dry tabulation of notable ruins, picturesque weirs, and cozy camping places could wait. Instead, he set about writing up the humorous interludes that his editor had requested. Needing a narrative framework for these comic set pieces, he invented a river trip with two friends, Carl Hentschel and George Wingrave, thinly disguised as "Harris" and "George," along with a wholly imaginary dog, who rejoiced in the name Montmorency. We'll meet Harris and George again in a minute or two, but I shall heed Jerome's admonition and say nothing further of the dog.

Anyway, once Jerome was freed from the burden of thinking up original things to say about well‑known castles and familiar landscapes, comic scene after comic scene flowed effortlessly from his pen. In the end, these added up to a book in their own right. Now Jerome approached his editor with a question: Would he accept a humorous tale rather than a river guide? He would, though he demanded that Jerome retain some guidebook fare in the text as a form of insurance, just in case the comic turns fell flat. The result was Three Men in a Boat.

It was serialized in the monthly magazine Home Chimes, with the last installment appearing in June 1889, by which time Jerome was approaching book publishers. J. W. Arrowsmith took the bait, and he had every reason to congratulate himself on his commercial acumen. Three Men was a great success, selling 200,000 copies in its first 20 years in print. (Arrowsmith joked that he had no idea why so many copies were sold. "I often think that the public must eat them," he quipped.) And the book proved even more popular across the Pond, though since the United States had refused to sign the Berne Convention establishing transnational copyright, Jerome never realized a penny from his American sales.

Despite the unwillingness of American publishers to pay him for his work, however, Three Men made Jerome's fortune, and the book remains popular to this day. In fact, it's still in print. Why is this? Well, the simplest answer is probably the best. It's very, very funny. That said, Victorian humor isn't to everyone's taste, and maybe you're not sure if it's your cup of tea. To settle the question to your own satisfaction, consider the following scene, in which George, Harris, and J (that's Jerome's alter ego in the novel) weigh the pleasures of camping out against the comforts of "inning it":

George and I were for camping out. We said it would be so wild and free, so patriarchal like.

Slowly the golden memory of the dead sun fades from the hearts of the cold, sad clouds. Silent, like sorrowing children, the birds have ceased their song, and only the moorhen's plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters, where the dying day breathes out her last. …

Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child's song that it has sung so many thousand years….

Harris said: "How about when it rained?"

You can never rouse Harris. There is no poetry about Harris — no wild yearning for the unattainable. … In the present instance, however, as regarded the camping out, his practical view of the matter came as a very timely hint. Camping out in rainy weather is not pleasant.

It is evening. You are wet through, and there is a good two inches of water in the boat, and all the things are damp. You find a place on the banks that is not quite so puddly as other places you have seen, and you land and lug out the tent, and two of you proceed to fix it. …

Rainwater is the chief article of diet at supper. The bread is two‑thirds rainwater, the beefsteak pie is exceedingly rich in it, and the jam, and the butter, and the salt, and the coffee have all combined with it to make soup.

After supper, you find your tobacco is damp, and you cannot smoke. Luckily you have a bottle of the stuff that cheers and inebriates, if taken in proper quantity, and this restores to you sufficient interest in life to induce you to go to bed. …

In the morning you are all three speechless, owing to having caught severe colds in the night; you also feel very quarrelsome, and you swear at each other in hoarse whispers during the whole of breakfast time.

We therefore decided that we would sleep out on fine nights; and hotel it, and inn it, and pub it, like respectable folks, when it was wet, or when we felt inclined for a change.

This is only a sample of Jerome's comic style, and it's probably not the best sample, at that, but it's a fair introduction, nonetheless. You'll either find it hilarious — a pretty good bet if you've ever spent a night camping in a bog after a day of constant, penetrating rain — or you won't. It's not likely to appeal to folks whose attention span is limited to 140 characters, of course. As you've probably gathered from the frequent appearance of the three little conjoined dots (…) in the quote above, Jerome's humor is a far cry from the contemporary shock and guffaw approach to comedy. The set‑piece scenes in Three Men evolve slowly, often over many pages, relying on cumulation and contrast. You read along, wondering if you've stumbled on another patch of stereotypical Victorian purple prose — there are more than a few of these to be found in the book, remnants, no doubt, of the original "improving" river guide — until, by some sort of textual alchemy, you begin to laugh uncontrollably and uproariously, snorting and choking and generally making a fool of yourself.

A cautionary word is in order here. If you do this is in some places — a doctor's waiting room, say — you may even be accused of creating a disturbance, especially if you prevent the people sitting on either side of you from hearing the television pitchman's spiel for the latest fashion in bariatric surgery. It's a risk you should bear in mind. I wish I had.
 

OK. Three Men is a funny book. (If you find it funny, at any rate.) But is that enough? And if it isn't, is there any other reason to read it? Indeed there is. Woven throughout the text, worked in alongside the comic scenes and the occasional outbreaks of uplifting purple prose, are some singularly acute insights into the practical problems confronting river campers today. Choosing a stove, for instance — a subject on which I've had second thoughts, myself. Or deciding just what to take and what to leave behind. Or packing. Or coping with the loss of a tin‑opener. Or selecting a campsite for the night. Or even dealing with angry people who accuse you of trespassing. Moreover, almost all of Jerome's advice is still good, notwithstanding the fact that it was penned around the time your great‑grandparents were born.

Is there anything else for me to say about this book? Yes. But it would be better by far if you discovered Three Men in a Boat for yourself, so I'll leave you to it, though I'll give you a bit more of the text to send you off:

Our boat was waiting for us at Kingston just below the bridge, and to it we wended our way, and round it we stored our luggage, and into it we stepped.

"Are you all right, sir?" said the man.

"Right it is," we answered; and with Harris at the sculls and I at the tiller‑lines, and Montmorency, unhappy and deeply suspicious, in the prow, out we shot on to the waters which, for a fortnight, were to be our home.

Hmm… I see I've gone and said something more about the blasted dog after all, even if it did take the form of a quote. Oh, well…

Upriver

One hundred and twenty‑five years ago, a young man sat down to write a guide to the River Thames. But the book he wrote turned out to be a great comic novel, instead. It's still in print, too. Do you feel seedy? Are you suffering from a general disinclination to work of any kind? Then what you need is rest and a complete change. A trip up the river, perhaps. And you won't find better company than Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome's story of the adventures and misadventures that befell him and two friends (to say nothing of the dog) during two weeks on the Thames in a double sculling skiff.

So come along. Step aboard. Tamia and I will row. You can steer. And together we'll go up the river to see what we can see.

A Warning to Those About to Venture Into the Backwaters: Times change, and we change with them. The popular literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries abounds in offensive stereotypes, and racial and religious slurs are commonplace. You can, of course, pass over these grating notes, treating them as cultural artifacts grounded in a particular time and place. Or you can choose not to open the books at all. The decision is yours.
 



The Latest Book From the Backwaters

A note on the illustrations in the article: Both are reproduced from the 1890 Henry Holt and Company (New York) edition of Three Men in a Boat, where they were credited to A. Frederics. They appear identical to those in the 1889 J. W. Arrowsmith (Bristol) edition. The American publishers of Jerome's day may have been pirates, but at least they were conscientious pirates. When they stole something, they stole it complete and unaltered, and gave credit where credit was due.
 

And the Earlier Articles in the Series

Copyright © 2013 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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