Review: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome

Carolyn W. de la L.Oulton, Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome (Victorian Secrets, Brighton, 2012)

The English writer Jerome K. Jerome is usually remembered for one book: his 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat, which was immensely popular in its day, and continues to spawn countless adaptations and homages. This is no surprise: the book still reads like a handbook for the modern observational comic, with its sharp one-liners about hypochondria, DIY, consumerism and dogs. Despite its meandering, anecdotal tone, the book more than holds its own against competitors, from George Grossmith to P. G. Wodehouse and, later, Nancy Mitford; not least because its perspective is not that of the upper-class twit, or self-important middle-class, but of a proud lower-middle class: a world Jerome K. Jerome knew, and knew better than to patronise. In siding with this class, Jerome risked mockery – Punch referred to him, scathingly, as a ‘cockney pilgrim’, whilst others branded his work ‘vulgar’ – but he also garnered a huge, appreciative audience, becoming a leading figure in what was termed, a little lazily,  ‘The New Humour’.

However, like many a talented comic writer, Jerome had higher aspirations – as Carolyn Oulton’s new biography reveals. As a critic in The Idler (which he edited in 1892) and TO-DAY (founded 1893), he explored a range of social issues; sometimes humorously, sometimes less so. A conservative man by nature, he did not always fall on what we might now call the ‘right’ side of the debate. The ‘new’ or ‘advanced’ woman was a concept he could never quite wrap his head around, and he was largely sceptical of decadent literature. Animal rights, however, were central to his journalism, and as the son of a poor investor, he was ever attuned to the causes and pressures of poverty. Like his hero Dickens – with whom he may or may not have had a chance encounter as a child – he remained haunted by his difficult childhood, and the flaws of his father.

By the time Edward VII reached the throne in 1901, Jerome was past the height of his popularity; having, to some extent, saturated the market with his particular brand of comic writing. Despite his self-confessed reputation as an ‘idler’, he was in fact a prolific writer, often writing several plays a year, alongside collections of casual prose with titles such as The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, Tea Table Talk and – best of all – Idle Ideas in 1905. He started the new century in nostalgic mode, with Three Men on the Bummel, the long-awaited sequel to Three Men in a Boat. Escaping his reputation seemed increasingly difficult at this stage; even when he tried to play it straight-faced, he found that the expectations of his audience got in the way. Writing of one friend he noted: ‘if I said it was going to be a fine day, he exploded with laughter. If I came and told him my favourite cat was dead he would fall into paroxysms of enjoyment’. In 1902, however, he finally published what he would go on to describe as his ‘first and only serious novel’, the autobiographical Paul Kelver.

Although this was not in fact Jerome’s first ‘serious’ novel (he 1892 he published the anonymous Weeds, a story of sexual corruption), it was certainly his most successful and sustained attempt at a non-comic narrative. It is also, in Oulton’s opinion, one of his greatest achievements, containing a ‘superb rendering of the London of Jerome’s early years’ (Jerome is rarely better than when writing about the dark draw of the metropolis) as well as a return to the major theme of Weeds: masculinity and sexual desire. Here, at last, Jerome frees himself from the shackles of his earlier reputation, and makes a case for himself, at least temporarily, as a worthy heir of those Victorian writers he so admired. Having done so, he also frees himself to return to lighter themes; notwithstanding the underlying morality of a play such as the 1910 The Passing of the Third Floor Back, the rest of Jerome’s writing seems predisposed to light-hearted farce. That Oulton deals with the last fifteen years of his life in little than forty pages rather sums up his ambitions after Paul Kelver.

Despite the popularity of his work in his lifetime – and the ongoing fame of Three Men in a Boat – biographies of Jerome are few and far between. Of these, Oulton’s work clearly sets a new standard, though she is at pains to point out that this is far from a ‘definitive’ work. The problem, it seems, lies in a lack of source material – Oulton rarely quotes from correspondence, building her image of Jerome largely from his published writings – and in Jerome’s self-mythologizing. One of Oulton’s aims in this book is to reveal the man of social conscience hiding below the witty public persona. This she does well in parts, though too often Jerome comes across as a confused, or fickle, thinker, and a far duller man than we might expect.

Oulton’s enthusiasm for her subject is, nonetheless, infectious – and though she may not send the reader rushing to read everything that Jerome K Jerome has ever written, she makes a strong case for the continued relevance of selected texts. Her attention to detail is impressive throughout, and her grasp of the wider social and literary context is suitably firm. Like Jerome, she has a tendency to drift away from the chronological narrative at times, but usually has a good excuse for doing so. She is also refreshingly honest, admitting in the preface that though she finds aspects of Jerome’s life (most obviously his attitude to women) ‘downright irritating’,  she resists the urge to downplay his faults. Likewise, in her closing remarks, she does not seek to over-praise the man. While one appreciates the desire to take him seriously as a writer, Jerome doesn’t always seem to merit this approach, which Oulton recognises. The challenge is not to resurrect Jerome’s reputation so much as to over-turn certain preconceptions. ‘Attacked for vulgarity in his lifetime,’ she notes, ‘Jerome has been largely ignored by recent critics, who are more drawn to working class anger than the ebullient behaviour of respectable bank clerks out of hours’. This book fires a warning to such critics, offering as it does a fresh perspective on the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century literary culture in London. A must for all fans of Jerome K. Jerome, it is also highly recommended to anyone with a passing interest in comic writing, autobiographical novels of the 1900s, London theatre c.1890-1920, and middle-class readerships in England in the late nineteenth-century.

Samuel Shaw, November 2012.

Further resources:

The Jerome K. Jerome Society (includes bibliography of Jerome’s writing)

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