Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Some of the topics covered:

  1. Structure of the book;
  2. Tone and language (unsurprisingly, the first two points kept seguing into each other, and my notes reflect that);
  3. Favourite set piece scenes.

This book was the book club’s first ‘classic’, with an original publication date of 1889. It was also the book that had the most straightforward name recognition as a ‘comic’ or ‘funny’ book,* and the general response to the book was positive, though some readers were more enthusiastic than others (with Jacquie calling it her second favourite classic of all time, behind only Pride and Prejudice).

Several readers agreed on wanting to push the three men (but not Montmorency the dog, who was an universally beloved character, and also reminded Caroline of her mother’s dog with whom he shared some traits) into the river in exasperation at some of their exploits, although their relative youth made their bumbling more likeable than it would have been in older men. (A jarring scene that spoilt that part of the book for the readers, however, was their evident relief at not having to take responsibility for the body of a tragic suicide, thereby inconveniencing themselves.)

Favourite set piece scenes: there were many of these:

  • stinky cheese
  • packing to set off
  • the stealing of the train
  • Uncle Podger
  • shopping trip
  • tow path scenes
  • the maze
  • Irish stew/Montmorency being sarcastic
  • the catching of the trout

 

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* That this book is not a straightforward comic narrative is evinced by the various comments that were made regarding what felt like unevenness in the tone. Some readers wished the author had made a decision to choose one genre of narrative – comedy, travelogue, historical fiction, social commentary – and stuck to it. Others wondered whether the rambling style was a product of the book having originally been written for serialisation in a newspaper,# an attempted reflection of the ways in which people – young upper class men like the protagonists – talk, or a deliberate stylistic choice reflecting the writing styles of the day.

​The variation in tone – especially in its diversions into historiography (such as the signing of the Magna Carta) and informative descriptions of life on and near the river – on the part of this book is reflected by an interesting comparison made by Fern, who made a convincing argument for the book as a mock odyssey, because of the ways in which it reminded her of Tales from the Rifle Brigade by Captain John Kincaid.

# Readers wondered whether the set piece scenes went on just a bit too long (even though everyone had known, in their work or personal lives, an Uncle Podger, or any of several of the stock characters), or whether their reactions were because those episodes were written as standalone scenes, which then belied expectations once compiled within the covers of a novel? It fed into a discussion of whether the style the author used was impacted by the house style of the type and grade of publication it first appeared in, or simply that the writing conventions of the day took in their stride sentences spanning entire pages. Two other stylistic points that pointed to how much time has elapsed between publication and this reading were 1) words that were marked as abbreviations but which have become commonplace in their shortened usage and 2) the chapter précis that some readers skipped over to avoid ‘spoilers’.

There were two other excellent points made about this book in messages sent in by members who could not be present:

1) Melody spoke of the possible death of the reader which can be occasioned by returning to a much-beloved but long-unread book only to find it lacking.

2) Jacquie said: I found the comments on antiques fascinating. He really got it spot on didn’t he? How he would have laughed if he could see an ‘Antiques Roadshow’!

Closing note: it’s fascinating to see how, as the days go by, readers are bringing more and more of their personal selves and experiences into the ways they read and discuss the books; a cheerful case perhaps, of the ways in which this real, semi-accidental book club is starting to reflect its cozy fictional counterparts.

 

The next title for discussion will be: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

 

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