Although I love my gadgets, one of the most popular that I’ve avoided so far is the Kindle. My problem with it is that although one might store a library within its circuits, you don’t have the reassuring presence of much-loved titles looking down on you from the bookshelf as a reminder to be re-read. One such book of mine is the collection of three works by the Victorian/Edwardian humorist, Jerome K Jerome.
Best known for ‘Three Men in a Boat’, Jerome’s books described the idleness of the British middle-class, but his own background was somewhat removed from this stereotype.
Jerome Klapka Jerome was born in Walsall in the industrial Midlands of England in 1859. His father was an ironmonger, coal mine proprietor and lay preacher and had changed his name from ‘Jerome Clapp’ to ‘Jerome Clapp Jerome’ in the 1850s.
He gave his newly acquired name to Jerome Junior who in turn amended it to Jerome Klapka Jerome when in his teens after the exiled Hungarian general, György Klapka.
Jerome Senior was not a good businessman and after several failed investments, the family was forced to move to London where they lived in poverty, constantly hiding from debt collectors.
Even so, young Jerome had ambitions to enter politics or become a man of letters, but these dreams were shot when his father died when he was thirteen and he was forced to find work with the London and North Western Railway.
He stayed there until 1877 when inspired by his sister’s love of the theatre, he decided that he would become an actor. He joined a small travelling repertory company that had to make-do and mend for its props, costumes and scenery. This gave Jerome broad experience of stagecraft, as he later explained: ‘I have played every part in Hamlet except Ophelia’.
The stardust had worn thin by the time Jerome was twenty-one and he opted to try his hand at journalism instead. He submitted various essays, articles and stories for publication, but they were rejected and he supported himself by working as a school teacher, a packer and a solicitor’s clerk.
In 1888, Jerome married Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta Stanley Marris just nine days after she had divorced her first husband. They honeymooned in a small boat on the Thames and it was this that was to really make Jerome’s name as a writer.
Inspired by the trip, Jerome sat down to write Three Men in a Boat on his return, with his old friends George Wingrave (George) and Carl Hentschel (Harris) replacing his wife as his companions. To say nothing of the dog.
The book was an instant success and has remained in print since it was first published in 1889. In its first twenty years, more than a million copies were sold worldwide and it has contributed greatly to the success of the Thames as a tourist destination.
The book itself mixes the comedy scrapes that the three experience with an accessible history of the region and gave Jerome the financial security that had eluded him for much of his life.
He went on to write other books and plays, although none as successful as his earlier work, and in 1892 he was appointed the editor of The Idler, a satirical monthly magazine for gentlemen that included contributions from the likes of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.
As the title suggests, it was for men who enjoyed idling and below is a recording of Hugh Laurie reading some of Jerome’s thoughts on the matter.
Jerome visited Europe several times, particularly Germany, and this inspired him to write Diary of a Pilgrimage in 1891 and Three men on the Bummel in 1900, the latter featuring the characters from Three Men in a Boat, although this time forgetting the dog.
He clearly had a great fondness for Germany and its people, even if he did poke fun at their national characteristics, particularly when it came to their attitude to authority:
“It would save the State much trouble and expense and I can see that German criminal taking that piece of rope home with him, reading up carefully the police instructions, and proceeding to carry them out in his own back kitchen.”
‘Blind obedience to everything in buttons’ was a German trait, he said, along with the prescient observation that:
“Hitherto, the German has had the blessed good fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continues, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.”
Which it had done by 1914. Jerome volunteered to join the army in World War One, but he was rejected, being 56 years old. Instead, he volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French army and his war experiences depressed his usual cheerful spirits.
Jerome suffered a paralytic stroke and a cerebral haemorrhage while on a touring holiday in 1927 and was taken to Northampton General Hospital where he died two weeks later.
His body was cremated at Golders Green, London and his ashes buried at St Mary’s Church, Ewelme in Oxfordshire.
Shortly before his death, Jerome was made a Freeman of the Borough of Walsall, but other than that, his birthplace is quite forgetful of one of its most celebrated sons as this Telegraph article illustrates.