In which we meander along the Thames with Montmorency and his three companions.
Three Men in a Boat is one of the few novels I own with the dubious honour of having been attempted twice and completed once. That’s not to say the tale isn’t an enjoyable and light read, more that it requires a certain mood to succeed. Much like Cold Comfort Farm, it’s a relatively brief diversion that is best read at speed as you surrender to its charms for a few nights.
The first time around I perhaps made the mistake of treating the novel too reverentially and reading too little at a time. Much like many a romantic comedy, it’s an entertaining tale but if you take a break halfway through, you’re liable to guess at the ending rather than return. You’d probably be wrong by the way, as entering the final chapter there seems so much yet to achieve in so few pages.
Thankfully, after several months I returned. I started where all good readers start, from the beginning, and stopped a week later as I read the price on the back cover (50p many, many years ago). I thoroughly enjoyed the journey this time, winding my way as a fourth man in the boat along the gently drifting currents of the Thames from pubs to picnic spots, through devious locks and along meandering towpaths.
It’s the oddest thing, Three Men and a Boat could have been written this year. Three businessmen taking a trip out of London along the river, dropping in on lodging houses and historical sites sounds like a ready-made blog or YouTube series. It’s not just the concept, the jokes land as well today as (I assume) they did in 1889.
Jerome’s writing is crisp and observational, slipping between comic scenes and well-worn truths of life, such as how a kettle must be ignored to boil, and a free morning is bound to lead to an early rise. The three men of the title squabble and argue their way along the Thames, each taking the side of whoever seems in most agreement with them at the time.
As Robert McCrum writes in The Guardian, “like all the finest comic writing, it’s about everything and nothing.”
Originally planned as a travel guide, Jerome expanded the comedic elements of his writing and abandoned the idea. Despite this, the travelogue elements underpin the story and drive it forward – giving the necessary straight-faced backdrop to the farcical tale. This accuracy means that fans of the book can recreate the journey today down to visiting the same pubs – in fact, the BBC filmed exactly that in 2005 with three comedians.
I don’t hesitate to recommend a week with Three Men in a Boat. It is, quite naturally, a perfect choice for a holiday read – perhaps both to divert the reader from the tedium and frustration of modern travel and to reassure them that it has never been possible to get from one place to another without incident. Whether you’re holiday bound or not, the novel is a rare find – comedy writing that makes you laugh. And that’s worth whatever cover price you find.