I must confess to never having given much thought to the man behind Three Men in a Boat, one of the funniest books in the English language. When the manuscript for a biography of Jerome K. Jerome arrived on my desk, I expected to read about a lively and carefree man who never took life very seriously. Instead I discovered a complex, often dark, figure who was frustrating, comic, and challenging in equal measure.
Many of his opinions seem painfully misguided to the modern reader, but Jerome was always prepared to admit he was wrong after reaching a better understanding of a thorny issue. He never really got to grips with the New Woman, but Jerome was a tireless campaigner for the animal welfare movement, and was always ready to champion the underdog, even if it landed him in court.
Jerome’s tenacity and lugubriousness can be ascribed in part to his difficult upbringing in Walsall with his Micawberish father and God-fearing mother. Living under the constant threat of poverty and damnation, the young Jerome was an enigmatic child who craved security and recognition. His life was transformed by a momentous move to the Fairy City of London, where a formative encounter with Charles Dickens influenced his choice of profession. Like his mentor, Jerome was forever associated with his comic creations, and never taken seriously as a diverse and innovative author.
Although famous primarily for his tale of jolly chaps larking about on the Thames, Jerome wrote seven other novels and was also a prolific journalist, essayist and dramatist, leaving behind a prodigious quantity of work, belying his famous quote “I like work. It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.” One of his most unusual books is Weeds: A Story in Seven Chapters, a shocking (for the time) and painful account of how adultery destroys a new marriage. Such was its force that the publisher seems not to have released it to the reading public. Had Jerome been associated with this novella during his lifetime, he might have earned a very different reputation.
Jerome K. Jerome’s complexity, idiosyncrasies and exquisite wit are all conveyed with great skill by Carolyn Oulton, and it was astonishing to me that this was the first biography of him in many decades, and the only one to delve into his early life. I hope other readers enjoy it as much as I did.
You can read the prologue of Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome, or find out more on the Victorian Secrets website.
Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.