From the favourer: "For once, the general public got it right. I first read it over 20 years ago and was amazed (and a little annoyed as I was about 30 by then myself) that someone, somewhere, hadn't told me about it earlier. So, if you haven't read it, delay no more. You can thank me afterwards."
When a comedic novel is first published in 1889, you’d expect by now that the jokes would, well, date a bit. Like the cartoons from Dickensian newspapers and Shakespearean comedies, where you can’t exactly work out what the joke is (although in Shakespeare the joke is usually a man in a dress. Hilarious.)
Perhaps the longevity of the humour in Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) has to do with its honesty about travel (flowing on rather nicely from The Art of Travel) and people. As the author says in his preface, George, Harris and Montmorency (the dog) “are not poetic ideals but things of flesh and blood – especially George, who weighs about twelve stone.” And of course, what we really want to hear about other people’s travels are the bits that went wrong. And preferably involve someone showing off and being shown up.
Upon publication Three Men in a Boat was snatched up lovingly by the general public and derided by the critics as being vulgar and written for the "‘Arrys and ‘Arriets" (kind of the Kath and Kels of the time). Probably a good sign.
The story begins as the author and his two friends George and Harris are sitting around with their pipes, and discussing their general malaise (the author, on perusal of a medical dictionary, has discovered he suffers from every disease known to man, except Housemaid’s Knee: “I felt rather hurt at this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation?”). They conclude that what they need is to get away from it all, and a boating trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford is planned.
What follows is the “record of events that really happened” on this trip; part travelogue, part floridly described reverie (which the author keeps being dragged away from as he’s about to the crash the boat) and part tangential anecdotes about storing cheeses.
Lots of the stories are a smile-out-loud read, such as when the author stops Harris from singing a comic song:
“You have never heard Harris sing a comic song, or you would understand the service I had rendered to mankind. It is one of Harris’s fixed ideas that he can sing a comic song; a fixed idea, on the contrary, among those of Harris’s friends who have heard him try, is that he can’t, and never will be able to, and that he should not be allowed to try.
When Harris is at a party and asked to sing, he replies: ‘Well, I can only sing a comic song, you know’; and he says it in a tone that implies that his singing of that, however, is a thing that you ought to hear once, and then die.
‘Oh, that is nice,’ says the hostess. ‘Do sing one, Mr Harris’; and Harris gets up, and makes for the piano, with the beaming cheeriness of a generous-minded man who is just about to give somebody something.
‘Now, silence, please, everybody,’ says the hostess, turning round, ‘Mr Harris is going to sing a comic song!’
‘Oh, how jolly!’ they murmur; and they hurry in from the conservatory, and come up from the stairs, and go and fetch each other from all over the house, and crowd into the drawing-room, and sit round, all smirking in anticipation.
Then Harris begins.
Well, you don’t look for much of a voice in a comic song. You don’t expect correct phrasing or vocalization. You don’t mind if a man does find out, when in the middle of a note, that he is too high, and comes down with a jerk. You don’t bother about time. You don’t mind a man being two bars in front of the accompaniment, and easing up in the middle of a line to argue it out with the pianist, and then starting the verse afresh. But you do expect the words.
You don’t expect a man to never remember more than the first three lines of the first verse, and to keep on repeating these until it is time to begin the chorus. You don’t expect a man to break off in the middle of a line, and snigger, and say, it’s very funny but he’s blest if he can think of the rest of it, and then try and make it up for himself, and, afterwards, suddenly recollect it, when he has got to an entirely different part of the song, and break off without a word of warning, to go back and let you have it then and there.”
It’s all pretty delightful and unserious, and could probably be prescribed as a good alternative to anti-depressants (much like P.G. Wodehouse, who I always read when I feel sad).
Most of the fun comes from the general wrestling with the realities of travel, in this case, boat travel. When they try to set up the tent-like cover over the boat ready for the night; “it would take quite ten minutes, we thought.
That was an underestimate.
We took up the hoops, and began to drop them into the socket places for them. You would not imagine this to be dangerous work; but, looking back now, the wonder to me is that any of us are alive to tell the tale. They were not hoops, they were demons. First they would not fit into their sockets at all, and we had to jump on them, and kick them, and hammer at them with the boat-hook; and, when they were in, it turned out that they were the wrong hoops for those particular sockets, and they had to come out again.
But they would not come out, until the two of us had gone and struggled with them for five minutes, when they would jump up suddenly, and try and throw us into the water and drown us. They had hinges in the middle, and, when we were not looking, they nipped us with these hinges in the delicate parts of the body; and, while we were wrestling with one side of the hoop, and endeavouring to persuade it to do its duty, the other side would come behind us in a cowardly manner, and hit us over the head…It took us half an hour’s hard labour, after that, before it was properly up, and then we cleared the decks, and got out supper. We put the kettle onto boil, up in the nose of the boat, and went down to the stern and pretended to take no notice of it, but set to work to get the other things out.
That is the only way to get a kettle to boil up the river. If it sees that you are waiting for it and are anxious, it will never even sing. You have to go away and begin your meal, as if you were not going to have any tea at all. You must not even look round at it. Then you will soon hear it sputtering away, mad to be made into tea.
It is a good plan, too, if you are in a great hurry, to talk very loudly to each other about how you don’t need any tea, and are not going to have any. You get near the kettle so that it can overhear you, and then you shout out, ‘I don’t want any tea; do you George?’ to which George shouts back ‘Oh, no, I don’t like tea; we’ll have lemonade instead, tea’s so indigestible.’ Upon which the kettle boils over, and puts the stove out.”
The actual journey of the book is apparently still quite recognizable (and replicable) today, if you know the towns by the river they are traveling through - which I don’t, but it doesn’t matter reading-wise. So, if you’re planning a boating trip up the Thames (aren’t we all), perhaps you could follow their itinerary.
And if it rains, and you can’t take it any more, you can always follow their lead – lie to the boatman that you’re not running away from the rain and the boat is to be ready for you at nine the next morning, but “if anything unforeseen should happen” preventing your return, you will “write to him”. Then bugger off to the pub and home.
I've registered this book on Bookcrossing and will be releasing it into the wild in a week - but if you'd like to have it, email me before then and I'll post it to you instead!