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I was going to continue with the Sherlock Holmes theme today but a tweet from one of my favourite blogs Interesting Literature has just alerted me to the fact that today is Jerome K Jerome’s birthday; so this seems like a good moment to review the funniest book ever written…
To journey up the River Thames in the company of J, George, Harris and, of course, Montmorency the fox-terrier is as good as having a holiday yourself.
From J. showing the others how to pack a trunk, through Uncle Podger and the picture-hanging episode, stopping off for a warm whisky and water in a little pub Harris just happens to know, then past George and the terrifying pineapple can, averting our eyes from Montmorency’s embarrassment over the incident with the kettle, and on to the fishermen’s tales, every step on the journey is more joyous than the last. And I haven’t even mentioned the musical interludes – Montmorency’s accompaniment to George’s banjo playing, the sad tale of the bagpipe student, the affair of the German comic song…
But, while I do think it’s the funniest book ever written, there’s more to it than that. Written as a travelogue, Jerome tells us lots of interesting historical snippets about the little towns and hamlets along the Thames. And since the book was published in 1889 we get a second historical view of Jerome’s own time – a view for once not of the upper-classes or of the poor, but of the ordinary working people in the middle and how they enjoyed their leisure time. One of the things that always surprises me about the book is that the interactions between the three men is so little different to what it would be today, giving the stories a timeless quality.
As well as the humour, Jerome gives poetic descriptions of nature in all its glory and sometimes drifts off into historical imaginings. I know some people find these passages overly sentimental but I love them. They seem quintessentially Victorian to me and they are beautifully written, even when at their most over-blown. The book inspired me to travel up the Thames myself (in a car!) and visit some of the little places that still retain their individuality today despite many of them having been absorbed into the London sprawl.
If you’ve never read this book, give it a try. If you’ve read it before, treat yourself and read it again. And if you think you know of a funnier book, leave a comment – I always welcome tips!