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Jerome K. Jerome was a droll late-Victorian humorist

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Jerome K. Jerome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Three Men in a Boat,  picture, image, illustration

A scene from Three Men in a Boat by Paul Rainer

Jerome K. Jerome walked slowly along the dark London street, past Langham church as the clock on its tower showed 1.20 a.m. It was the winter of 1884 and the empty streets were still. Suddenly pulling a battered notebook and pencil out of his pocket, he stopped by a street lamp. Turning towards the dim glow shed by the gas light he started to write quickly.

Jerome was a writer who liked to do his writing out of doors at night. Work on his first book, On the Stage – and Off, was going well and he was eager to finish it. Then, hearing approaching footsteps, Jerome looked up. Over the past few months he had got to know all the policemen who patrolled this beat, and he quickly recognised the inspector walking towards him.

“Evening sir” said the policeman, and Jerome, smiling a greeting, said eagerly.

“Listen to this,” and began to read aloud from his notebook. The policeman listened and then, to Jerome’s relief, began to laugh heartily.

“Very good sir,” he said. “That should make a fine book when it’s finished,” and he nodded towards the notebook in Jerome’s hand.

Jerome smiled again, pleased with his success. It was always more difficult to make the inspector laugh than any of the other men on this beat. After the inspector had gone Jerome stuffed notebook and pencil back into his pocket and walked thoughtfully towards home, a shabby little room off the Tottenham Court Road.

Jerome had always been determined to be a writer. Once, when only a small boy, he had been left behind during the long train journey home to London after a holiday in Cornwall. He had consoled himself then by thinking what a good adventure it would make when he wrote about being lost in his diary.

He was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1859, but, as his parents later became very poor, they moved to Poplar in the East End of London, where Jerome spent most of his childhood. Here he was often chased, and teased for being a “gentleman” by the other boys in the neighbourhood. So in those days his gift for seeing the funny side of life often helped cheer him up when he felt the lack of friends of his own age.

As his family was so poor Jerome started his first job, as a railway clerk, when he was only fourteen. For a few years he worked steadily at it until the monotony overcame him and he suddenly left. From then on his career was constantly changing. First he decided to be a playwright, so to gain experience of the stage, he became an actor. His living then was very precarious, and often he had no food and nowhere to sleep.

Next he turned to journalism, writing up small court cases and being paid one penny per line. Sometimes he earned as much as two or three pounds in a week, which was good pay in the 1870s, but other weeks he would be less fortunate, and as, even in the good weeks, he always spent all he earned, he was still often left wondering where his next meal would come from.

All this time he was busily writing stories, plays and articles in his spare time, but nothing met with much success. Then one day as he was reading some of his favourite poems by Longfellow, it seemed as if the poet were telling him, through the poems, that he should be writing about his own experiences instead of trying to create imaginary situation. So he began On The Stage – and Off drawing from his acting adventures.

This book was to be Jerome’s first success, and after its publication in 1885, his life became much more secure. He made many new friends, including people already famous, or soon to be so, like Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Being a humourist came naturally to Jerome K. Jerome. When he started Three Men in a Boat he didn’t mean to write a funny book; it just happened. What began as a history of the River Thames became a light-hearted tale of the adventures of three friends, not forgetting the dog, taking a holiday on the river.

Jerome had a gift for telling of ordinary things and making them seem funny. He drew on his own experiences, and by then he had a great store of experiences to draw from, for he had an insatiable curiosity and was never afraid to try anything. Even the Great War of 1914-18 was an adventure to him. He was much too old, at fifty-five, to be eligible for call up, but his curiosity to see the war was enormous. So, not deterred by a cool reception from the British Army, he joined the French forces as an ambulance driver. He soon learned of the horrors of that war at first hand, but more important to him than any hardship was the fact of having seen it for himself.

When Jerome K. Jerome died in 1927 he was a famous man amongst literary people. He had been a magazine editor as well as a writer and had a considerable list of books in print. He had successes with several plays as well as with books, but today it is as a humorist and as a writer of the everyday life of his times that he is best remembered.

An extract from Jerome K. Jerome’s most famous work, Three Men In A Boat:

In Three Men in a Boat Jerome’s knack of making the ordinary things he is describing seem larger than life is at its best. So when the three heroes set about packing a hamper of food anything can happen. . . .

“When George is hanged Harris will be the worst packer in this world; and I looked at the piles of plates and cups, and kettles, and bottles, and jars, and pies, and stoves, and cakes, and tomatoes, etc., and felt that the thing would soon become exciting.

It did. They started with breaking a cup. . . . Then Harris packed strawberry jam on top of a tomato and squashed it, and they had to pick out the tomato with a teaspoon.

They upset salt over everything, and as for the butter! I never saw two men do more than one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did. After George had got it off his slipper, they tried to put it in the kettle. It wouldn’t go in, and what was in wouldn’t come out. They did scrape it out at last, and put it down on a chair, and Harris sat on it, and it stuck to him, and they went looking for it all over the room.

Then George got round at the back of Harris and saw it. ‘Why, here it is all the time,’ he exclaimed indignantly. ‘Where?’ cried Harris, spinning round. ‘Stand still, can’t you?’ roared George, flying after him. And they got it off and packed it in the teapot.”

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