Feb 22, 2010

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

If the plot of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is hard to summarise, that’s because there isn’t much of one at all. But fortunately, it doesn’t actually need a plot to be a hilarious and completely delightful read. The narrator, J, his friends Harris and George, and his dog Montmorency decide to go on a boating holiday on the Thames. What follows is a series of descriptions of comical events, not only ones from the holiday itself, but also from situations J happens to remember as he’s telling his story.

What Three Men in a Boat is is a sequence of anecdotes, many of which could begin with the sentence, “Remember that one time when we—”. But unlike what tends to happen when people begin a story with that sentence, you actually want to listen. If this sounds like the description of one of very chaotic book, that’s because it is, structure-wise. But that’s like saying Monty Python is chaotic—maybe so, but that's part of its charm.

It’s not often that I find a book every bit as funny as advertised. Maybe I lack a sense of humour, or maybe it’s just that expecting something to be funny can ruin the experience for me. But happily, Three Men in a Boat was an exception. J and his friends gave me flashbacks of the wizards of Unseen University—the type of humour is not entirely unlike Terry Pratchett's (who, if I’m not mistaken, has cited Jerome as an influence), and that’s definitely the kind of humour that works for me.

Also, an extra reason to love this book: it has chapter summaries! Hilarious ones! Maybe they don’t work quite as well out of context, but here are a few examples anyway:
The Food Question – Objections to Paraffin Oil as an Atmosphere – Advantages of Cheese as a Travelling Companion – A Married Woman Deserts her Home – Further Provisions for Getting Upset – I Pack – Cussedness of Toothbrushes – George and Harris Pack – Awful Behaviour of Montmorency – We Retire to Rest

Blackmailing – The Proper Course to Pursue – Selfish Boorishness of River-side Landowner – ‘Notice’ Boards – Unchristianlike Feelings of Harris – How Harris Sings a Comic Song – A High-Class Party—Shameful Conduct of Two Abandoned Young Men – Some Useless Information – George Buys a Banjo
I know I’m not saying much beyond “It’s funny! It’s as funny as they say!”, but that’s because I don’t actually have all that much more to say. Sometimes humour is enough, thought, isn’t it? I’ve never really adhered to the school of thought that considers humorous books less valuable or worthy than sad, reflective ones. I don’t even think the two are mutually exclusive. In this case, I’m sure there are lots of interesting sociological aspects about England in 1899 that one could comment on, but I confess I mostly missed them because I was too busy laughing.

Three Men in a Boat was actually initially meant as a real travel guide to the Thames and surrounding towns and villages, so there are some contemplative passages about nature and history and whatnot. They aren’t meant to be funny, but it’s like the humour of the rest of then book rubs off on them. Either that or they seem absurd because they’re so out of place. Anyway, I don’t want to sound overly critical, because even those were a lot of fun to read.

A few of my favourite passages (if this is so long, it's because nothing I can say could possibly persuade you as well as a sample of the real thing):
To go back to the carved-oak question, they must have had very fair notions of the artistic and the beautiful, our great-great-grandfathers. Why, all our art treasures of to-day are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The "old blue" that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all our friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.
Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of to-day always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow- pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimneypieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house?
(This first one isn’t one of the funniest bits, but it made me smile because it’s so true. Hello from 2010, O Victorian artefacts.)
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.

George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. George stirred it all up, and then he said that there seemed to be a lot of room to spare, so we overhauled both the hampers, and picked out all the odds and ends and the remnants, and added them to the stew. There were half a pork pie and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put them in. Then George found half a tin of potted salmon, and he emptied that into the pot.
He said that was the advantage of Irish stew: you got rid of such a lot of things. I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked, and put those in. George said they would thicken the gravy.
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.
We had a discussion as to whether the rat should go in or not. Harris said that he thought it would be all right, mixed up with the other things, and that every little helped; but George stood up for precedent. He said he had never heard of water-rats in Irish stew, and he would rather be on the safe side, and not try experiments.
Harris said:
"If you never try a new thing, how can you tell what it's like? It's men such as you that hamper the world's progress. Think of the man who first tried German sausage!"
Reviewed at:
Becky’s Book Reviews
She Reads Books
Shelf Love
Farm Lane Books
Beth Fish Reads

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. This isabsolutely hilarious. I must re-read it. Have you read Diary of a nobody which is somewhat similar?

  2. I must get this! Looks like something I'd love :)

  3. Humor on the printed page is a tricky thing. I don't often find myself laughing out loud when I read. I get a few more laughs when I'm listening to an audio book with a good narrator. I'm the same way with movies. I don't know what this says about me! Maybe I'm just not reading the right books. I'll trust you on this one. Nice review!

  4. "Sometimes humour is enough, thought, isn’t it?"
    Absolutely! Three Men in a Boat is a book I've been meaning to read for ages... you've convinced me to make time for it. Great review.

  5. Eurgh! The stew is making me queezy - rat and pork pie!

    I have never heard of this one, but is sounds hilarious. Another major find for you.

  6. I agree that sometimes it's enough for a book to be really funny! That's how I feel about the Jeeves & Wooster novels and stories - it's not so much about the plot as it is the wit and the playful language (though of course the plots are ridiculous and entertaining in their own rights). I actually have this one on the shelf but was shying away because I was worried that I might be the one person who didn't find it funny! I'm glad I won't have that to worry about!

  7. Yay, I'm so glad you loved this book too! It's so much fun! And yes, definitely hilarious. :p

  8. I enjoyed reading this book. I think it was special for me as I live near the Thames, so most of the places mentioned are familiar to me. I loved reading about some places that are no longer there and learnt quite a bit about the history of my local towns. I don't think I found it as funny as you, but it did make me smile!

    It is good to know that you enjoyed it.

  9. I definitely agree that humor can be enough! The book sounds wonderful, and oh, what a cover!

  10. I've never heard of this one. I'll have to check it out.

  11. My husband loves this and I've never appreciated it as he does--but your excerpts are fun. Maybe I need to try reading it in smaller bits!

  12. Have you read To Say Nothing of The Dog by Connie Willis? It's time-travel fantasy and was obviously heavily influenced by Three Men In A Boat. It's a great read, and I highly recommend it to you!

    I'll have to download this and put it on my reader, as I love humorous books, especially classic humor (I'm the type that laughed uproariously at a scene in Anne of Windy Poplars).

  13. I read the sequel to this many many years ago, for college... a history course I think. Can't really remember. But I did enjoy it, a huge amount. For some reason I never read any more by JKJ, but I think I'll get around to him eventually :)

  14. I loved this book, too. I read Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog first, though-- hence my predisposition to like it.

    There's a wonderful audiobook version read by Hugh Laurie. It's hilarious! Sadly, it's abridged.

  15. Yes, sometimes all you need is humour! You sold me on it when you compared the humour to Pratchett's. I've been meaning to pick this one up for years and I'm delighted to know that it does what it is said to do.

  16. I loved this one as much as you, and also enjoyed Three Men on the Bummel. His After Supper Ghost Stories is very good too and I also remember reading a rather good biography, but have no idea who it was by now.

  17. this sounds very good! I hadnt heard of it before. I do like chapter summaries.

  18. I thought this book was an absolute hoot. What great fun--and what a great demonstration that some humor is timeless.

    And, sigh, if Pratchett's humor is in this vein, I really do need to read him. Someday...

  19. What a great cover and author name! Fabulous.

  20. I read Connie Willis's "To Say Nothing of the Dog" last year, after being told you didn't need to read this one to understand it.

    Maybe not, but after your review I certainly feel the need to do so. I have downloaded it from Project Gutenburg (yay for Project Gutenburg) and will be adding it to the long TBR list. I don't know when I'll get to it, but I will eventually.

    Thanks for an inspiring review.

  21. I love the chapter headings! Neil Gaiman does something similar in Brief Lives, and it was delightful for organized list-making me. :P

  22. There is a HILARIOUS audiobook version from Naxos narrated by Martin Jarvis. I checked it out from the library, and even the kids were cracking up as we listened to it. My favorite is the bit about the canned pineapple (though the smelly cheese is pretty funny also). If you can get hold of that audio it is so worth it. It's available from Audible.

  23. Verity: I haven't, but I'm adding it to my list!

    Lenore: I hope you do :)

    Sandy: lol, I don't think it says anything about you :P Humour works differently for each person, I find. I can see this working brilliantly as an e-book!

    JoAnn: It's definitely worth making time for :)

    Vivienne: I wouldn't want to taste it either, lol :P

    Steph: I was scared of the very same, but thankfully I'm not that person :P

    WordLily: Have you read the sort of sequel? I want to, but I worry it won't be as good!

    Jackie: I can imagine how actually knowing the places will make it a lot more interesting :) I'm sure there was a lot I missed, but I had a lot of fun with it regardless.

    Kathy: lol, isn't the cover a riot?

    J.T. Oldfield: I hope you enjoy it!

    Jeanne: I think it would work well in small doses, especially because more than anything it's a collection of only thinly connected anecdotes.

    April: I have! I finished it like 2 days ago - I started it soon after this. Needless to say, I LOVED it :D I found Anne of Windy Poplars funny too! That's another book I have finished but not yet reviewed. Can you tell I'm a bit behind?

    Fence: I'm glad to hear the sequel is enjoyable too! Must get my hands on it.

    Bea: I read the Connie Willis soon after this, and I found it brilliant :D What a pity the audiobook is abridged! Why would they do that? It's not like it's long...

    Claire: I think the main difference is that pTerry's humour is more varied, but this reminded me of what he does with the wizards of UU a great deal :D

    Cath: I love the title "After Supper Ghost Stories"! I want to read it for that alone :D

    Naida: lol, aren't they funny? And so Victorian :D

    Teresa: You do need to read him!

    She: The cover alone cracked me up, yes :D

    Kerry: I read To Say Nothing of the Dog soon after this, and while I agree that it's not necessary to read this to understand it, reading it will make you appreciate it even more :) And yes, yay for Gutenberg!

    Jenny: I'd forgotten about that! I love them too.

    Karen: Thanks for the tip - will look for it! I can see how this would be brilliant as an audio book :)

  24. Great quotes. My favorite part was the picture hanging scenario. I think the humor may have lasted because a lot of it relies on absurdities that aren't confined to a time or place, like that one. Or like camp kettles being slow to boil and kitsch becoming treasure!

  25. I read this one a few years ago and totally loved it! It's a great book and hilariously funny. Have you read Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog? It is based on this book and is a wonderful read as well. I can't remember if you have reviewed it or not, but I do highly recommend it to you!

  26. Based on the cover of the book and your review it looks and sounds funny! This will be a good one for me to keep for when I am feeling like I need a good laugh.

  27. Oh, this sounds FUN. I love books that are just written to be enjoyed and laughed over. In that way, it reminds me slightly (though totally not sure why) of Walter Satterthwait's Escapade. I feel like the authors of both must have just really enjoyed the act of writing these books! And snickered over some of the dialogue ;-)

  28. I read this one so I could read To Say Nothing of the Dog. I guess slap-stick kind of humor just isn't for me. I got weary of it after a while. But I loved the Connie Wills book!


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