Book: Three Men in an Omnibus

Three Men in a Boat

Image: My copy, “Three Men in an Omnibus”, contains the whole text of “Three Men in a Boat” and also extracts from his other plays and novels.

Jerome K. Jerome

Harris, George and J, the narrator, are three young men who feel they need a holiday. With Montmorency, J’s dog, they take to the Thames and row up to Oxford and back to London. Well, almost back to London but events take a different turn at the end of the journey.

‘Three Men in a Boat – To say Nothing of the Dog’ has given much joy to readers since 1889 when it was first published. It provided a steady income to Jerome, which tided him over the various ups and down of his life.

One reason for its success is that Jerome is a type of Everyman. He has the skill of recognizing the ordinary habits and weaknesses that we all share, and then making us laugh at them.  

The first is hypochondria, which we all have to some degree.

“I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was.  I got down the book and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally.  I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for a while, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages.  I came to typhoid fever—read the symptoms—discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it—wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance—found, as I expected, that I had that too,—began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically—read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight.  Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years.  Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with.  I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight.  Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee?  Why this invidious reservation?  After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed.  I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee.  Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood.  There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered.  I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class!  Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals,” if they had me.  I was a hospital in myself.  All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.

Then I wondered how long I had to live.  I tried to examine myself.  I felt my pulse.  I could not at first feel any pulse at all.  Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off.  I pulled out my watch and timed it.  I made it a hundred and forty-seven to the minute. 

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man.  I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

I went to my medical man.  He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I’m ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now.  “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice.  He shall have me.  He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.”  So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:

“Well, what’s the matter with you?”

I said: “I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me.  Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished.  But I will tell you what is not the matter with me.  I have not got housemaid’s knee.  Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it.  Everything else, however, I have got.”

And I told him how I came to discover it all.

After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.

I did not open it.  I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in.  The man read it, and then handed it back.

He said he didn’t keep it.

I said: “You are a chemist?”

He said: “I am a chemist.  If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you.  Being only a chemist hampers me.”

I read the prescription.  It ran:

“1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.

1 ten-mile walk every morning.

1 bed at 11 sharp every night.

And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”

I followed the directions, with the happy result—speaking for myself—that my life was preserved and is still going on.”

Hypochondria is not our only weakness. For example, getting up early seems so easy the night before and so difficult when next morning comes.

It is the evening before the three start on their expedition.

“George said: “What time shall I wake you fellows?”

Harris said: “Seven.”

I said: “No. Six.” because I wanted to write some letters.

Harris and I had a bit of a row over it, but at last split the difference, and said half-past six.

“Wake us at 6.30, George,” we said.

George made no answer, and we found, on going over, that he had been asleep for some time.

It was Mrs. Poppets that woke me up next morning.

She said: “Do you know that it’s nearly nine o’clock, sir?”

“Nine o’ what?” I cried, starting up.

“Nine o’clock,” she replied, through the keyhole.  “I thought you was a-oversleeping yourselves.”

I woke Harris and told him. 

He said, “I thought you wanted to get up at six?”

“So I did,” I answered; “why didn’t you wake me?”

“How could I wake you, when you didn’t wake me?” he retorted.  “Now we shan’t get on the water till after twelve.  I wonder you take the trouble to get up at all.”

“Um,” I replied, “lucky for you that I do.  If I hadn’t woke you, you’d have lain there for the whole fortnight.”

Finally, they make their way to their boat.

“Our boat was waiting for us at Kingston just below the bridge, and to it we wended our way, and round it we stored our luggage, and into it we stepped.

“Are you all right, sir?” said the man.

“Right it is,” we answered, and with Harris at the sculls and I at the tiller-lines, and Montmorency, unhappy and deeply suspicious, in the prow, out we shot on to the waters which, for a fortnight, were to be our home.”

Thus begins one of the most light-hearted boat trips ever undertaken.

Here is a final extract. Have you ever found that when you choose a hotel to stay the night, little, totally irrelevant concerns spring to mind and make you hesitate? Perhaps it is some primeval instinct of not feeling safe asleep in a strange place. J and his friends have the same misgivings.

“As we were passing Datchet, George asked me if I remembered our first trip up the river, when we landed at Datchet at ten o’clock at night and wanted to go to bed.

I answered that I did remember it.  It will be some time before I forget it.

It was the Saturday before the August Bank Holiday.  We were tired and hungry, we same three, and when we got to Datchet, we took out the hamper, the two bags, and the rugs and coats, and such like things, and started off to look for diggings.  We passed a very pretty little hotel, with clematis and creeper over the porch; but there was no honeysuckle about it, and, for some reason or other, I had got my mind fixed on honeysuckle, and I said:

“Oh, don’t let’s go in there!  Let’s go on a bit further and see if there isn’t one with honeysuckle over it.”

So, we went on till we came to another hotel.  That was a very nice hotel, too, and it had honeysuckle on it, round at the side; but Harris did not like the look of a man who was leaning against the front door.  He said he didn’t look a nice man at all, and he wore ugly boots: so, we went on further.  We went a goodish way without coming across any more hotels, and then we met a man, and asked him to direct us to a few.

He said: “Why, you are coming away from them.  You must turn right round and go back, and then you will come to the Stag.”

We said: “Oh, we had been there, and didn’t like it—no honeysuckle over it.”

“Well, then,” he said, “there’s the Manor House, just opposite.  Have you tried that?”

Harris replied that we did not want to go there—didn’t like the looks of a man who was stopping there—Harris did not like the colour of his hair, didn’t like his boots, either.

“Well, I don’t know what you’ll do, I’m sure,” said our informant; “because they are the only two inns in the place.”

“No other inns!” exclaimed Harris.

“None,” replied the man.

“What on earth are we to do?” cried Harris.

We were not so uppish about what sort of hotel we would have, next time we went to Datchet.”

And so it goes on. There is Harris lost in the maze at Hampton Court, George getting up in the middle of the night and thinking it is time to go to work, the three trying to open a tin of pineapple with no tin opener, memories of taking young ladies out in a rowing boat, and the episode of the swans near Henley.

And there are many more. Buy the book and read them all. It has never been out of print since it was first published.