Autumn Barlow, ‘Three Men in a Boat, on a Map’

Autumn Barlow is completing an MA in English Literature at Lancaster University.

Jerome K Jerome’s short story Three Men in A Boat was published in 1889. It was originally intended to be a travel guide, but it soon became a humorous account of three men trying to have a boating holiday up the Thames. As my maps reveal, though, it’s much more than that. What could have been a straightforward line meandering up a river and back again is exploded across the world, and ultimately this book demonstrates the global consciousness of the average late Victorian reader – as well as remaining a very funny read for the modern audience.

First, here is the map of the actual journey taken by the three men (make sure that ‘locations only’ is the only box ticked). Each point here is an actual location, showing where the characters are and when the place is mentioned in the text. This route has been used over the years by fans of the book to follow in the footsteps of Jerome’s characters.

Locations visited in ‘Three Men in a Boat’

But here’s where the travel guide idea falls down. When their journey is mapped, chapter by chapter … nothing happens. They don’t get on a train to get to the start of the trip until the end of chapter five. The first location on the river is mentioned in the middle of chapter six. There are only 19 chapters in this book.

So what’s going on in those first chapters? They certainly aren’t travelling up a river.

When I went through the book and noted down every place name (all 295 of them, including repetitions) I also gave each place an attribute to indicate in what capacity that place name was being used. I examined each name in context. There is some overlap but essentially these are my categories:

Location (113 instances), which refers to an actual place where they are located in the narrative at that moment in the story.

Anecdote (80), which is usually the narrator, J, but is occasionally a second-hand report by the narrator of another character’s anecdote. These can be tall tales or reminiscences.

Historical (53), which also includes the idea of general travelogue. If it’s something a tour guide would tell you as you all float past Hampton Court, then it’s in this category. Some of these instances merge into random anecdotes or sheer flights of fantasy.

Planning and journey details (36), where places are mentioned because they are heading towards them, or have just come away from them. I felt this was slightly different to location, and for mapping purposes, needed to be kept separate so as to show the actual journey and not the intended one.

Asides (7), which is a small category of place names which just get mentioned in passing, such as George being in “the City.”

Descriptives (6), which are mainly adjectives. This is the smallest category but I think this is a very important one so I will discuss it first.

‘Three Men in a Boat’ map, showing the ‘Descriptives’ category.

In the descriptives category, we have a Newfoundland Puppy, the Hartz Mountains in Germany, Margate, Russia, the Orient and the Himalayas, for example. I suggest that these offhand remarks, easily overlooked, demonstrate the comedic skill of Jerome. Humour works when it is specific, giving the reader something with which they can identify. These locations are carefully chosen for their cultural references that a British Victorian reader would understand.

If we look at one of the other categories, the places mentioned in anecdotes, it illustrates an additional point. There is an enormous and worldwide spread of places here. Partly, that is because of the added narrative power from using specific descriptions. But that is not the whole story. Consider one example: Cape Horn. The details of this anecdote are as follows. The narrator is musing on the phenomena of seasickness, and the fact that no one admits to it. He met a man being very ill in Yarmouth: “Three weeks afterwards, I met him in the coffee-room of a Bath hotel, talking about his voyages,” he records. This man mentioned how the only time he’d ever felt “a little queer” was “…off Cape Horn. The vessel was wrecked the next day.” When challenged about the seasickness off the Yarmouth pier, the man replied, “It was the pickles, you know.” The point of this story is not the seasickness. It’s that this story would have made less sense if the average Victorian reader didn’t already have a clear conception of Cape Horn and all the links and assumptions that go with it. Unlike Yarmouth, Cape Horn was big, scary, and miles away, but crucially it was somewhere that the readers had heard of. And they hadn’t just heard of it: they know what it means. They understand the symbol of Cape Horn. They understand that it is associated with very different values to the domesticity – even tedium –  implied by Yarmouth Pier. Jerome knew his readers would recognise Cape Horn and the meanings associated with it. It’s a symbol for adventure.

‘Three Men in a Boat’ map, showing the ‘Anecdotes’ category.

Something similar is true of all the other references, whether to Russia or Liverpool. First, these specific places are giving the narrative a “real” feel. And second, they are speaking directly to the global consciousness and awareness of the Victorian reader, whose knowledge extends far beyond their own area.

But who was Jerome’s “average Victorian reader?” Who are these people who want to read a funny book about silly adventures but who know all about the world? Ralf Schneider argues in ‘Shocking readers: The genres of Victorian popular fiction, the classes and the book markets’ (from The Making of English Popular Culture, edited by John Storey, 2016) that as the century wore on, there was a great deal of overlap between the “sensational” literature of the working classes and the “literary” novels of the middle classes, and Jerome’s book would seem to straddle both. He says that “…as the novel became both more attractive – and thus, ‘popular’ – to readers from all classes, middle-class readers of the previously more expensive fiction increasingly turned to formats originally intended for the low-price market.” This was an age of exploration. At its height towards the end of the nineteenth century, nearly a quarter of the world was claimed by the British Empire (The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Angus Maddison, 2001).

Detail from the ‘Anecdotes’ category.

But this was also the time of the working-man-made-good, a process which had begun in the early nineteenth century. There was a thirst for knowledge, and self-improvement was the buzzword. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had been visited by nearly a third of the population of Great Britain and showcased articles from around the world, as Paul Young explains in Globalisation and the Great Exhibition. Increasing awareness and class consciousness grew as revolutions swept Europe. Magazines proliferated, particularly after the lowering of taxation on printed publications and the improvements in mechanisation and of course distribution by railway (Daily Life in Victorian England, Sally Mitchell, Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 237). Steadily increasing access to elementary schooling (especially after the Education Act of 1880) meant more children could read. Working men’s institutes, night classes, the growing freedoms for women (Newnham College for women founded 1871, London School of Medicine for Women founded 1874), hundreds of pamphlets and newspapers – just a glance at the letters page of Popular Mechanic will reveal the thousands of everyday folk in their kitchens at home, after a ten-hour day in a factory, trying to make electricity or invent a new device for teaching parrots Shakespeare and Russian and writing up their experiments to share with others (originally published in English Mechanic October 1894 as invented by Mr R W Hill, cited in The Victorian World of Science, Alan Sutton, Adam Hilger Ltd, 1986, p. 122). Jerome’s use of places reflects this expansive, not insular, outlook and reminds us that the late Victorian mind was a – perhaps surprisingly – open one.

In summary, then, Jerome expected that his readers would be able to understand a wide range of references to places across the world, and would derive value and entertainment from their understanding and the associations with the places named. The maps reveal a much longer, and more intellectually complex, journey than one that simply moves from London to Oxford.

This project was completed as part of the English Literature MA module ‘Nineteenth-Century Literature: Place – Space – Text’, convened by Dr Jo Taylor. Please contact her with any questions about the module or assignment.

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