Philobiblon: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

In the recent light reading category has been this JK Jerome "popular classic". I get the impression that every British person read it at school at some time, but it didn't make it on to the Australian curriculum.

It is in a curious way like reading 1984, because many of the images and ideas have already been encountered elsewhere. As this site suggests, Jerome's hapless, impractical males falling into endless ultimately harmless scraps can now be seen in every second sitcom. What was perhaps original at the time (1889), now falls curiously flat. But perhaps it was innovative - I can't think of an earlier set of contra-heroes as these.

I'm afraid my favourite character was the dog, a fox-terrier, who did not appear nearly often enough. But I did enjoy the following scene, which very much reminded me of an incident with my dog Beanie.

"Half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy -- the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands -- the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill -- and flew after his prey.
His victim was a large black Tom. I never saw a larger cat,
nor a more disreputable-looking cat. It had lost half its tail, one of its ears, and a fairly appreciable proportion of its nose.
It was a long, sinewy-looking animal. It had a calm, contented air about it.
Montmorency went for that poor cat at the rate of twenty miles an hour ; but the cat did not hurry up—did not seem to have grasped the idea that its life was in danger. It trotted quietly on until its would-be assassin was within a yard of it, and then it turned round and sat down in the middle of the road, and looked at Montmorency with a gentle, inquiring expression, that said; "Yes ! You want me ?"
Montmorency does not lack. pluck,; but there was something about the look of that cat that might have chilled the heart of the boldest dog. He stopped abruptly, and looked back at Tom.
Neither spoke ; but the conversation that one could imagine was clearly as follows :—
THE CAT : "Can I do anything for you ?"
MONTMORENCY : "No—no, thanks."
THE CAT : "Don't you mind speakng, if you really want anything, you know." ^
MONTMORENCY (backing down the High Street) : "Oh, no—not at all—certainly—don't you trouble. I—I am afraid I've made a mistake. I thought I knew you. Sorry I disturbed you."
THE CAT : "Not at all—quite a pleasure. Sure you don't
want anything, now ?'
MONTMORENCY (still backing): "Not at all, thanks—not at all —very kind of you. Good morning."
THE CAT : "Good morning."
Then the cat rose, and continued his trot; and Montmorency, fitting what he calls his tail carefully into its groove, came back to us, and took up an unimportant position in the rear.
To this day, if you say the word "Cats!" to Montmorency, he will visibly shrink and look up piteously at you, as if to say:
"Please don't."

(p. 128, JK Jerome, J.W. Arrowsmith, 1948 edition)

I was also directed to the reading by a recent purchase, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, which is billed as:
"a science-fiction fantasy in the guise of an old-fashioned Victorian novel, complete with epigraphs, brief outlines, and a rather ugly boxer in three-quarters profile at the start of each chapter. Or is it a Victorian novel in the guise of a time-travelling tale, or a highly comic romp, or a great, allusive literary game, complete with spry references to Dorothy L. Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle? Its title is the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's singular, and hilarious, Three Men in a Boat. In one scene the hero, Ned Henry, and his friends come upon Jerome, two men, and the dog Montmorency in--you guessed it--a boat. Jerome will later immortalise Ned's fumbling. (Or, more accurately, Jerome will earlier immortalise Ned's fumbling, because Ned is from the 21st century and Jerome from the 19th.)"

I read a good review of it, but we'll see ...

P.S. Doesn't it seem odd now the way in older books punctuation marks are all set off by spaces. (I OCRed this and haven't changed it.) I wonder when, and why, the change occurred? World War II paper shortage perhaps?

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