Invisible Ink: No 208 - Jerome K Jerome


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The Independent Culture

Some authors vanish in plain sight, recalled by their most successful work, which comes to define an entire career. A friend of mine has written mytho-logies, Victoriana, crime and magical realism, but publishers are unable to mention her without inserting the title of her greatest success into her name, in the way that pantomime stars are bracketed by their TV shows. Typecasting is a problem that afflicts most successful writers.

Jerome K Jerome was born in 1859 in Walsall, the son of an ironmonger called Clapp. He began work at 15, after the family was forced into poverty, and turned to journalism after failing as an actor. His honeymoon took place on the Thames, an experience that was to form the backbone of his most celebrated work.

Harris, George, Jerome, and Montmorency the fox terrier, set off along the Thames in what was originally intended to be a travel guide to the upper reaches of the river, but the clash in their characters created a fine comedy, Three Men in a Boat, which has survived for more than 120 years. What surprises most is how fresh and modern Jerome’s writing seems. It has none of the tiresome convolutions we associate with many Victorian novels.

However, it’s easy to forget that Jerome wrote 11 other novels, 11 collections of short stories (including some excellent strange tales), nine plays, an autobiography; one of his plays, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, was twice filmed.

Among the novels was a sequel to his most successful work entitled Three Men on the Bummel, which concerns a chaotic cycling tour through Germany’s Black Forest; a bummel, as one character explains, being a type of journey made with no particular end in sight, only a planned return to the point of embarkation. Wisely, the Americans renamed it Three Men On Wheels.

For my money it’s every bit as pleasurable as the original, but sequels are usually compared unfavourably to their parents. The joy, again, is in the brisk, charming language, and this time it tapped into the Victorian passion for cycling.

Jerome often touched on the theme of poverty, and felt it was not a crime but a blunder unfairly punished the world over. His admirers formed their own society, and there was even a small museum dedicated to him in Walsall, but it closed. There are several attractive editions of Three Men, one with a cover by Ronald Searle. The other books have vanished.