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Victorian Humor At Its Silliest, Cheesiest Best

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 27, 2011

If I said I was going to recommend to you the funniest novel ever written, I imagine you’d come over all suspicious. After all, what would I know about making you laugh?

I too ignored Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat when my husband pressed it into my hands insisting it was hilarious. I had more important things on my mind, like lunch.

Over the following weeks, he would approach, asking whether I had got to the bit about the cheeses. There are only so many times a wife can hear that question. So, wishing to keep a grip on sanity, I read it.

There comes a moment in every marriage, often after decades, when a husband is finally right. This was his moment.

The plot, like the novel, is decidedly small. Three Victorian gentlemen, and a dog, go on a boating trip on the Thames. Er … that’s it. But it is their misfortunes along the way, as well as the gloriously random anecdotes and modern humor, that make this book a comedy classic: It hasn’t been out of print since 1889.

The impetus for the trip is that the narrator, J, reads through a medical book only to discover that he is suffering from every conceivable ailment known to man apart from, that is, “housemaid’s knee.” He and his two equally hale friends declare they need a rest and change of scenery.

His fellow travelers are George and Harris, and a fox terrier named Montmorency, all of whom J mercilessly ribs. George works in the city, and, according to J, is so lazy that instead of working he “goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two.”

As for who is better at preparing for the trip, J jokes: “When George is hanged Harris will be the worst packer in this world.” And while the dog may look like an “angel sent upon the earth,” his life’s greatest object is to “get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour.”

You don’t have to wait long to get to the bit about the cheeses. They are ripe enough to “knock a man over at two hundred yards” and clear a train carriage. Eventually they are buried on a beach, their powerful odor attracting consumptives for years.

There are other memorable moments, such as J’s observations about fraudulent weather forecasts. “But who wants to be foretold the weather?” he asks. “It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”

A little further on he recalls a time when he was in a picturesque graveyard. Such was its loveliness, he forgave all his friends and relatives for their wickedness, but when an old man startled him out of his reverie, J threatened to slay him.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention the most famous attempt in literature to open a tin of pineapple.

I’d warn against reading this book in public: You may get arrested for breach of the peace. I would be a little stunned if it doesn’t become one of your favorites. Only a whiff of particularly strong cheese would revive me.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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