Since this is an expression I often find myself using, I figured I’d better read the classic where it originated. I’m very glad I did. What a delight! I felt as though I were sitting out on a pub’s patio or garden being entertained by the stories of a most charming man, such as the man in Robin Hood’s Bay who told us how the smugglers used to outwit the law by passing the goods from house to house by way of their secretly interconnected attics, or the man in Cornwall who told us about hermits and mazes and waterfalls before warning us about working farms.
This book, first published in 1889, tells of the antics that ensue when Jerome sets out with two friends and a dog to spend a fortnight traveling the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. Alternately rowing and towing their boat upstream, the three friends exchange tales of past adventures and find themselves tumbling into new ones. They’ve chosen to camp out rather than sleep at inns, and the resulting battles with canvas and cookpots left me shaking with laughter.
In addition to recounting their escapades, Jerome offers descriptions of the towns they pass and his surprising and hilarious musings on various subjects. Whether you consider it a novel or a travelogue, every page is packed with that quiet, self-deprecating, utterly ridiculous English humor. For example, Jerome reflects on an innkeeper who has, at great trouble and expense, papered over a room full of antique carved oak, and wonders if today’s junk will become tomorrow’s treasures, such as the loathsome china dogs that clutter furnished lodgings. “In 2288 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendents will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as ‘those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs.'”
I couldn’t keep from snickering throughout his description of his friend Harris trying to guide people out of the maze at Hampton Court. Confident that he knew the way, Harris kept picking up lost souls along the way, getting more and more lost, until they finally called out for help from the keeper. However, it was just their luck that he happened to be new to the job and also got lost. They would catch sight of him now and then but they couldn’t manage to meet up. Ah well, as Jerome says, “Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.”
One reason this was such a perfect book was that their adventure took place during the same season I was reading it, which made it easy to imagine being on the boat with them, watching the fields and towns slip by. And of course, it was this time of year, three years ago, that I was actually on a boat on the Thames near Windsor with my niece and a bunch of rowdy but charming morris dancers.
There are certain seasonal books that I go back to again and again. For example, when the leaves are all gone in November and the rain takes over, then it is time to read Jane Eyre once more. March, when the ground starts to get mushy, makes me want to read The Secret Garden and think about Dickon and Mary digging in the dirt. Deep summer makes me pick up Colette to enjoy her sensual descriptions of flowers and fruit and sun-tanned men. I usually choose Break of Day but really any of her books works fine. Now my shelf of seasonal books has increased by one: Jerome’s book is one I will come back to in early summer or whenever I need a good laugh.