Summer voyages: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

It was meant as a travel guide for boating fans – but then the author's voice took over and turned it into a comic masterpiece

An ancient river. The journey upstream of an impressionable young man into a mysterious interior. An inevitable reckoning at the source. Finally, the terrible return to reality. Here, surely, is pre-Edwardian English fiction at its classic finest.

But this is not Heart of Darkness, and the river is not the Congo. Actually, it's the Thames, and the narrator is not Marlow but J, for Jerome K Jerome. Published in 1889, a decade before Conrad's novel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), is one of the comic gems (barely 150 pages) of the English language. An accidental one, too. "I did not intend to write a funny book, at first," said its author.

Jerome K Jerome is more or less forgotten now. He was a jobbing freelance literary journalist who had just got married and needed to provide for his wife and family. Jerome intended his account of a boating holiday to be a popular travel guide aimed at a booming market.

In late-Victorian England there was a vogue for recreational boating on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. This was the golden age of the Henley Regatta. Rowing boats, steam launches, even the occasional gondola: in the season, up to 800 vessels a day passed through Boulter's Lock, near Maidenhead. Here was an audience for a new guide to the Thames. In fact, Jerome's descriptions of Hampton court, Marlow and Medmenham are all that survive from the original plan for a travel book.

Something funny happened on the way to publication, perhaps because it was first serialised in the magazine Home Chimes. Jerome's discursive comic voice took over. The river journey he makes with his friends George and Harris (and Montmorency the dog) becomes the narrative line on which he hangs a sequence of comic anecdotes loosely associated with the journey up-river.

Jerome's themes are airily inconsequential and supremely English – boats, fishing, the weather, the atrocities of English food and the vicissitudes of suburban life – perfectly pitched in a light comic prose whose influence can be detected later in the work of, among many, PG Wodehouse, James Thurber, Mark Haddon and Nick Hornby. My favourite Jerome set-piece is the episode with the tinned pineapple.

The three mariners have had a long, hard day on the river. They reach their evening mooring, dog-tired and ravenously hungry. When George unearths a tin of pineapple chunks, "we felt," writes Jerome, "that life was worth living after all." They were, he says, all of them exceedingly fond of pineapple. As the anticipation begins to build, he comes up with a perfect sentence in a book buoyant with light comedy. "We looked at the picture on the tin," he writes; "we thought of the juice."

It's then that they discover they have no tin-opener. What follows is a passage of comic genius spun from nothing more, or less, than the banality of everyday life. Read it. The passage ("a fearful battle") comes as the brilliant climax to chapter 12.

Three Men in a Boat is one of those rare classics that seems to come, as it were, out of nowhere, and to defy the odds. On publication, the critics were hostile. Jerome's fascination with bank clerks and "the lower orders" was denounced as a menace to English letters. As usual, the reading public paid absolutely no attention. Three Men in a Boat went on selling in vast numbers, and it hasn't been out of print since its first appearance in 1889. Jerome K Jerome later wrote a hit West End play, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, but he could not recapture the mood of careless comic joy that aerates the pages of his masterpiece. That moment had passed into literary mythology. On or off dry land, you won't read a more enjoyable book this summer.

Tomorrow, Justine Jordan on The Phantom Tollbooth.


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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