1889 edition cover
|Author||Jerome Klapka Jerome|
|Publisher||J. W. Arrowsmith|
|Followed by||Three Men on the Bummel|
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),[Note 1] published in 1889, is a humorous account by English writer Jerome K. Jerome of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back to Kingston. The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel. One of the most praised things about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to modern readers - the jokes have been praised as fresh and witty.
The three men are based on Jerome himself (the narrator Jerome K. Jerome) and two real-life friends, George Wingrave (who would become a senior manager at Barclays Bank) and Carl Hentschel (the founder of a London printing business, called Harris in the book), with whom Jerome often took boating trips. The dog, Montmorency, is entirely fictional but, "as Jerome admits, developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog". The trip is a typical boating holiday of the time in a Thames camping skiff.[Note 2] This was just after commercial boat traffic on the Upper Thames had died out, replaced by the 1880s craze for boating as a leisure activity.
Following the overwhelming success of Three Men in a Boat, Jerome later published a sequel, about a cycling tour in Germany, titled Three Men on the Bummel (also known as Three Men on Wheels, 1900).
The story begins by introducing George, Harris, Jerome (always referred to as "J."), and Jerome's dog, named Montmorency. The men are spending an evening in J.'s room, smoking and discussing illnesses from which they fancy they suffer. They conclude that they are all suffering from "overwork", and need a holiday. A stay in the country and a sea trip are both considered. The country stay is rejected because Harris claims that it would be dull, the sea-trip after J. describes bad experiences of his brother-in-law and a friend on sea trips. The three eventually decide on a boating holiday up the River Thames, from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford, during which they will camp, notwithstanding more of J.'s anecdotes about previous mishaps with tents and camping stoves.
They set off the following Saturday. George must go to work that day, so J. and Harris make their way to Kingston by train. They cannot find the right train at Waterloo station (the station's confusing layout was a well-known theme of Victorian comedy) so they bribe a train driver to take his train to Kingston, where they collect the hired boat and start the journey. They meet George further up river at Weybridge.
The remainder of the story describes their river journey and the incidents that occur. The book's original purpose as a guidebook is apparent as J., the narrator, describes passing landmarks and villages such as Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Church, Magna Carta Island and Monkey Island, and muses on historical associations of these places. However, he frequently digresses into humorous anecdotes that range from the unreliability of barometers for weather forecasting to the difficulties encountered when learning to play the Scottish bagpipes. The most frequent topics of J.'s anecdotes are river pastimes such as fishing and boating and the difficulties they present to the inexperienced and unwary and to the three men on previous boating trips.
I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.-- Chapter 16
One might have imagined ... that the British Empire was in danger. ... The Standard spoke of me as a menace to English letters; and The Morning Post as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders. ... I think I may claim to have been, for the first twenty years of my career, the best abused author in England.-- Jerome K. Jerome, My Life and Times (1926)
The reception by critics varied between lukewarm and hostile. The use of slang was condemned as "vulgar" and the book was derided as written to appeal to "'Arrys and 'Arriets" - then common sneering terms for working-class Londoners who dropped their Hs when speaking. Punch magazine dubbed Jerome "'Arry K. 'Arry". Modern commentators have praised the humour, but criticised the book's unevenness, as the humorous sections are interspersed with more serious passages written in a sentimental, sometimes purple, style.
Yet the book sold in huge numbers. "I pay Jerome so much in royalties", the publisher told a friend, "I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them." The first edition was published in August 1889 and serialised in the magazine Home Chimes in the same year.[Note 3] The first edition remained in print from 1889 until March 1909, when the second edition was issued. During that time, 202,000 copies were sold. In his introduction to the 1909 second edition, Jerome states that he'd been told another million copies had been sold in America by pirate printers. The book was translated into many languages. The Russian edition was particularly successful and became a standard school textbook. Jerome later complained in a letter to The Times of Russian books not written by him, published under his name to benefit from his success. Since its publication, Three Men in a Boat has never been out of print. It continues to be popular, with The Guardian ranking it No. 33 of The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time in 2003, and no. 25 in 2015 and Esquire ranking it No. 2 in the 50 Funniest Books Ever in 2009. In 2003, the book was listed on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The river trip is easy to recreate, following the detailed description, and this is sometimes done by fans of the book. Much of the route remains unchanged. For example, all the pubs and inns named are still open.[Note 4]
Audiobooks of the book have been released many times, with different narrators, including Sir Timothy Ackroyd (2013), Hugh Laurie (1999), Nigel Planer (1999), Martin Jarvis (2005) and Steven Crossley (2011).
The BBC has broadcast on radio a number of dramatisations of the story, including a musical version in 1962 starring Kenneth Horne, Leslie Phillips and Hubert Gregg, a three-episode version in 1984 with Jeremy Nicholas playing all of the characters and a two-part adaptation for Classic Serial in 2013 with Hugh Dennis, Steve Punt and Julian Rhind-Tutt.
In 2005 the comedians Griff Rhys Jones, Dara Ó Briain, and Rory McGrath embarked on a recreation of the novel for what was to become a regular yearly BBC TV series, Three Men in a Boat. Their first expedition was along the Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford, recreating the original novel. After this, the trio embarked on a trip from London to the Isle of Wight in Jones's yacht where they would race her against her sister yacht. The following year, Three Men in More Than One Boat saw the three borrowing, stealing, and hitchhiking on numerous vessels to make their way from Plymouth to the Isles of Scilly. For their 2009 adventure, the trio take to the waterways of Ireland, making their way from Dublin to Limerick with Dara's greyhound Snip Nua, and the first episode of Three Men Go to Scotland was broadcast at the end of 2010.
A sculpture of a stylised boat was created in 1999 to commemorate Three Men in a Boat on the Millennium Green in New Southgate, London, where the author lived as a child. In 2012 a mosaic of a dog's head was put onto the same Green to commemorate Montmorency.
In 1891, Three Women in One Boat: A River Sketch by Constance MacEwen was published. This book relates the journey of three young university women who set out to emulate the river trip in Three Men in a Boat in an effort to raise the spirits of one of them, who is about to be expelled from university. To take the place of Montmorency, they bring a cat called Tintoretto.
Three Men in a Boat is referenced in the 1956 parody novel on mountaineering, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, where the head porter Bing is said to spend "much of his leisure immersed in a Yogistani translation of it." In Have Space Suit--Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein (1958), the main character's father is an obsessive fan of the book, and spends much of his spare time repeatedly re-reading it.
Science-fiction author Connie Willis paid tribute to Jerome's novel in her own 1997 Hugo Award-winning book To Say Nothing of the Dog. Her time-travelling protagonist also takes an ill-fated voyage on the Thames with two humans and a dog as companions, and encounters George, Harris, 'J' and Montmorency. The title of Willis' novel refers to the full title of the original book.
Fantasy author Harry Turtledove has written a set of stories where Jerome's characters encounter supernatural creatures: "Three Men and a Vampire" and "Three Men and a Werewolf," announced to be published in Some Time Later: Fantastic Voyages in Alternate Worlds, by A.J. Sikes, B.J. Sikes, and Dover Whitecliff (2017). A preview audio version of the first story was made available online.