Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel

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OUP Oxford, Jul 2, 1998 - Literary Criticism - 368 pages
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`Other works may excel this in depth of thought and knowledge of human nature: other books may rival it in originality and size; but, for hopeless and incurable vivacity, nothing yet discovered can surpass it.' (Jerome, Preface to Three Men in a Boat). Three Men in a Boat describes a comic expedition by middle-class Victorians up the Thames to Oxford. It provides brilliant snap-shots of London's playground in the late 1880s, where the fashionable steam-launches of river swells encounter the hired skiffs of city clerks. The medley of social vignettes, farcical incidents, descriptions of river fashions, and reflections on the Thames's history, is interspersed with humorous anecdotes told by a natural raconteur. Three Men on the Bummel records a similar escapade, a break from the claustrophobia of suburban life some ten years later; their cycling tour in the Black Forest, at the height of the new bicycling craze, affords Jerome the opportunity for a light-hearted scrutiny of German social customs at a time of increasing general interest in a country that he loved. This account of middle-aged Englishmen abroad is spiced with typical Jeromian humour. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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When I was in eighth and ninth grades, our Latin teacher, Mrs. Ruth Mackey, wrote a different aphorism on the blackboard every day. One that has always stuck with me is “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours,” attributed to Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927). I was recently surprised to learn that this quote is taken from a book by Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889. Three middle-class Victorian friends, J. the narrator, George, and Harris, all young and single, along with Montmorency the dog set off on a comic expedition up the Thames to Oxford. Their hilarious misadventures along the way provide the author with opportunities to make brilliant social comments about English life in the late 1880s.
About ten years later, Jerome wrote a sequel, Three Men on the Bummel (also known as Three Men on Wheels), in which the three Englishmen, now middle aged, with two of them married and having children, escape from the claustrophobia of suburban life to go on an equally picaresque cycling and hiking tour in the Black Forest of Germany. Again, there is social commentary, not only about Germany but also more about England as well. Instances of smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are found, though when writing about the excessive drinking of beer in Germany, the author seems not to approve of it. And references to swearing and cursing occur. In the first book, aside from the euphemistic “darn,” there is no actual bad language, but in the second, the “d” word is used a few times.
Some people, especially those who do not care for (or understand) the old-style, dry, British type of humor, may not think that the books are really all that funny, but I consider the observations quite witty. And one learns a little about the history and geography of both England and Germany along the way. Admittedly, Jerome chases a lot of rabbit trails in his descriptions of the events, but that is part of what makes them so humorous. The stories are based on real occurrences but are highly fictionalized. Each novel is rather short. Modern combined editions have been published by both Oxford University Press and Penguin Classics (2000). By the way, do you know what a “bummel” is? J. describes it as “a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.”

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About the author (1998)

Geoffrey Harvey is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Reading.

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