Jerome K. Jerome is famous, of course, for writing one of the funniest books in the English language: Three Men in a Boat. What is less well known is that he desperately tried to reinvent himself as a serious author. Weeds: A Story in Seven Chapters was published anonymously in 1892, Jerome hoping that the novella would be judged on its own merits, rather than compared unfavourably with his comic tales of irrascible terriers and tinned pineapple. Unfortunately for him, his publisher Arrowsmith was nervous about the story’s frank portrayal of adultery and it was never made available for general sale during the author’s lifetime.
While the Victorians’ moral squeamishness can be difficult to fathom for the modern reader, it’s not difficult to see why the edition was pulled. This disturbing narrative of sexual corruption shows marital fidelity as a perpetual struggle, with anti-hero Dick Selwyn falling for the attractions of his wife’s nubile young cousin. The link between his mental and physical corruption is sustained through a central metaphor of a weed-infested garden, which perishes through neglect (as predicted by the lugubrious narrator). Although there is the occasional comedic flash, this is a powerful evocation of fin-de-siecle society and its fears of degeneration.
Now, Jerome K. Jerome was no friend of the New Woman, but what really attracted me to Weeds was its radical ending (I shan’t spoil it), which embodies a clear challenge to the prevailing sexual double standard and casts an important light on late-Victorian gender ideology. I discovered when publishing Jerome’s biography that he was a complex and often contradictory man, and this story epitomises it more than any other.
Weeds: A Story in Seven Chapters is available in print and Kindle editions. It includes Mona Caird’s brilliant essay ‘Does Marriage Hinder a Woman’s Self-Development’, which is also available 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.