Jerome K. Jerome has been on my radar recently, since Catherine at Victorian Secrets sent me a new biography of him – Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome by Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton – which I hope to read soon. More on that from the publisher’s website here. But before I got Catherine’s message, and subsequently the book, I was already thinking about Jerome – because I’ve recently finished Three Men on the Bummel, the sequel to his very well-known novel Three Men on a Boat, which I reviewed here. It also takes the coveted 1900 place on my Century of Books.
George and Harris rejoin Jerome (our narrator) as they go off on the bummel. What is a bummel, you ask? Well, Jerome answers the question for us, but not until the final page. I’m going to save you the mystery:
“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe 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. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”
Theirs takes the form of cycling through Germany, and commenting on the things that happen there. Cycling holidays were rather the craze, and travel guides for Europe were equally popular, but the narrator is keen to correct the reader who might have picked up the book for the wrong reason:
I wish to be equally frank with the reader of this book. I wish here conscientiously to let forth its shortcomings. I wish no one to read this book under a misapprehension.
There will be no useful information in this book.
Anyone who should think that with the aid of this book he would be able to make a tour through Germany and the Black Forest would probably lose himself before he got to the Nore. That, at all events, would be the best thing that could happen to him. The farther away from home he got, the greater only would be his difficulties.
I do not regard the conveyance of useful information as my forte. This belief was not inborn with me; it has been driven home upon me by experience.
Well, he’s not wrong there! If you thought Three Men on a Boat went off on a lot of tangents, then you’d have to psyche yourself up to read this – there isn’t really anything but tangents. They’d cycle for a bit (well, it took some time to get even as far as the holiday itself) and something would remind the narrator of a past event, or he’d wander off on a pages-long anecdote about something that happened earlier in the week, etc. etc. It was often difficult to work out what was past and what was present, so tenuous was any attempt at linear narrative. But did that matter? No, of course not. Not in the slightest. Jerome K. Jerome is a hilarious writer, and that is the point of Three Men on the Bummel.
The anecdotes interweave and overlap, and are so long, that it’s difficult to give you a flavour of his writing – but I did find one excerpt which was short enough to type out and shows you how funny Jerome can be:
He handed me a small book bound in red cloth. It was a travel guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers. It commenced “On a Steamboat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load full of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?” – “It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout” – “Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?” – “Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down” – “Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate – “I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor. The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked!” (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.
Quite a lot of the novel’s humour comes from the stereotype that Germanic cultures are organised, regimented, and orderly. Any humour depending on national archetypes is apt to make us feel a little uncomfortable, but hopefully that wouldn’t ruin the book for you. The narrator is, any how, greatly admiring of this trait – and if we were to ignore any British novel which cast Germany in a negative light, it would wipe out most of the first half of the 20th century. I’m sure most of us are willing to accept a book as being from the time it was written.
Three Men on the Bummel was read while I was myself ‘on the bummel’ – through the Lake District – and I was able to smile wryly at the humorous misadventures the heroes experienced at the hands of transport and weather, and was only too grateful that I haven’t ridden a bicycle since I was 14. It’s been so long since I read Three Men on a Boat that I’d be hard pressed to compare them minutely, or choose a favourite, but this certainly isn’t a poor relation – it’s very, very funny and one of the silliest books I’ve read in years.