One of the greatest benefits of working at Knebworth House is the sheer variety of people, tasks, and events I am exposed to over the course of the Season. No two days are the same and every summer brings something entirely different. I have watched David Suchet strut his stuff as Poirot and get to see knights joust on a bi-annual basis (no lie). But one of my favourite tasks is any kind of involvement with the various plays and performances we host through the year. This Season will be no exception to a fantastic track record (a track record that includes a truly remarkable Garden staging of James and the Giant Peach) with outdoor performances of Pride and Prejudice and Wind in the Willows (I have already bought my tickets, obviously). On top of this, Knebworth House is playing host to another event for which I am hugely excited – a reading of Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog! by Jerome K Jerome, to be given by the actor Keith Baldwin in the Banqueting Hall. This is a book that I have been meaning to read for some time. So when I saw that there was an upcoming performance at Knebworth House, combined with my real desperation for some light-hearted escapism from exams, I decided to finally give the book a go.
Three Men in a Boat is the truly hilarious story of, what must be, the most disastrous trip depicted in fiction. Set in the 1880s and told from the perspective of the narrator, J, the book opens with J and his two friends, George and Harris, deciding to embark upon a boating holiday on the Thames. Largely provoked by a fear that they are suffering from every documented medical illness, the trip is envisioned as an opportunity to recover and reconnect:
“I sat for a while frozen with horror; and then in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too…Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years…I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee. I felt rather hurt at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaids knee.”
The friends set out, with J’s dog Montmorency, following the river from Kingston-upon-Thames to Oxford. From the moment of embarkation, it is clear that this journey will not be a smooth one. The book follows the three as they face a series of remarkable and laugh-out-loud calamities – from the perils associated with English weather to an ill-advised experimentation with rat-based Irish Stew. Without falling into the realm of ‘spoilers’, I will simply say that the fact that the three making it through the trip alive, with friendship intact, is a truly epic feat.
I could not have come to Three Men in a Boat at a better time – it is a book offering some fantastic opportunities to forget life’s stresses and laugh without effort. This is a book that engages from the very first pages. Not only is J’s narration perfectly consistent in its ease and honesty, but the novel sells on its insights into the peculiarities that we all manifest. In the same way that the world’s most successful comedians have a knack for picking out those habits that somehow connect people everywhere, Three Men in a Boat provides an uncanny and comedic reflection on human nature. That it manages this through a story embedded in the lifestyle of Victorian gentlemen is a magnificent achievement.
“I rather pride myself on packing. Packing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living. (It surprises me myself, sometimes, how many of these subjects there are). I impressed the fact upon George and Harris and told them that they had better leave the whole matter entirely to me. They fell into the suggestion with a readiness that had something uncanny about it. George put on a pipe and spread himself over the easy-chair, and Harris cocked his legs on the table and lit a cigar. This was hardly what I intended. What I had meant, of course, was, that I should boss the job, and that Harris and George should potter about under my directions…Their taking it in the way they did irritated me. There is nothing does irritate me more than seeing other people siting doing nothing when I’m working.”
Three Men in a Boat was actually intended as a guidebook, something of a tour of England’s best river-side destinations. And Jerome K. Jerome’s descriptions of the various villages and landmarks, from Hampton Court Palace to Magna Carta Island, are all wonderfully constructed. I was, in fact, truly surprised by the preponderance of fantastic descriptions that the book has to offer – surprised because such articulate, detailed, and insightful narrative was something that I did not expect from a book hailed as the comedic predecessor to P.G. Wodehouse’s works. It was a pleasure to read a novel that exercised expertise on so many levels, none of which felt misplaced or inappropriate to the plot or narration.
This book reads with ease, carrying the reader along with the gentle flow of the river that it depicts. And I honestly could not imagine a novel more suited to one-man performance. Three Men in a Boat comes alive through is narrator, the hilarity of its anecdotes, and the friendship that carries J, Harris, and George through the calamities that they encounter. This is a book that I would absolutely recommend – one of the few that I think all readers will enjoy. It is no surprise to me that Three Men in a Boat is consistently ranked one of the Funniest Books of All Time. The perfect antidote to all of life’s worries!
“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.”