Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

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

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and 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.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • 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 remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


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The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)

Nothing is purposed but mirth. (Preface to The Shoemaker’s Holiday)

This is a city comedy. City comedy was a sub-genre of comic plays which developed right at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (died 1603) and flourished into the first decade of the reign of her successor, James I.

City comedy rejects all the magical and supernatural elements which characterise many of Shakespeare’s bourgeois comedies, most of which are set abroad, and instead portrays the gritty realities of contemporary London life, with large casts of rascals and fools who are often portrayed with quite harsh satire.

During Elizabeth’s reign London had boomed, becoming the chief port of northern Europe, and its population had exploded from an estimated 50,000 in 1530 to about 225,000 in 1605. In its over-populated, filthy streets, crime and vice, crooks and con-men of every kind flourished, and these were the kinds of people city comedies set out to depict.

Two caveats: One, after emphasising that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is a city comedy, it has to be pointed out that it’s also something of a history play, since the Lord Mayor who is the central character, Simon Eyres, was a real historical figure who was appointed Sheriff in 1434 and Lord Mayor in 1445 in the reign of Henry VI.

Two, the editor of the Mermaid edition of the play, D.J. Palmer, makes the simple but important point that plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of London life, far from it. Palmer explains how Dekker used narratives and characters from several printed sources, and cast them into a parallel series of fairly stereotyped storylines in order to create this ‘genial and light-hearted comedy’.

The plot

Three plotlines are interwoven:

  1. Lacy loves Rose
  2. Simon Eyre becomes Lord Mayor
  3. Hammon tries to seduce Jane

The current Lord Mayor of London, Sir Roger Oatley, dispatches troops raised in London to the wars in France. The Earl of Lincoln, by his side, discusses his nephew, Rowland Lacy, who disgraced himself by burning through his inheritance and learned the shoemaker’s craft in Wittenberg, before returning to England. Now he is meant to be going off to the wars with everyone else. But both men know that Lacy is madly in love with the Lord Mayor’s daughter, Rose. Lincoln disapproves of this because his nephew is an aristocrat and the Lord Mayor is simply a puffed-up greengrocer; the Lord Mayor disapproves of Lacy because he is a wastrel, and so has dispatched Rose to an out-of-the-way house out in Bow where she is being minded by Sybil, a maid.

Enter the dominating figure of the play, Simon Eyres – a ‘madcap fellow’ with a light heart – a master shoemaker with a phenomenally bombastic way with language, his much-put-upon wife Margery, and his entourage of journeymen – Hodge, Firk and Ralph. The backchat among this crew is wonderfully colourful, stuffed with Elizabethan slang, double entendres, technical terms of the shoemaker’s trade,

Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewiss of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out, you powder-beef queans! What, Nan! what, Madge Mumble-crust. Come out, you fat midriff-swag-belly-whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisome stench offend not the noses of my neighbours.

Where ‘brewiss’ means ‘broth’, ‘queans’ means ‘prostitutes’, ‘kennels’ means ‘gutters’. It is great fun to sit back and listen to him and his employees swap great hunks of exuberant vituperation. They are all lamenting because young Ralph, one of his shoemakers, has been conscripted for the wars, lamenting most is his brand-new wife Jane, amid much bawdy humour about pricking of honour etc.

One fine morning a Dutch itinerant shoemaker turns up at their shop and asks for work. Simon is for turning him away but Hodge and Firk say they need an extra pair of hands and so the man, who says he’s named Hans Meulter, is hired. But Hans is in fact none other than Rowland Lacy, who’s skived off his army unit and taken on a disguise in order to find out where his beloved Rose is, to find and woo and wed her.

Meanwhile Rose and Sybil are out walking when some aristocrats ride up in pursuit of an escaping deer. One of them, Hammon, falls in love with Rose in the process of a flirtatious dialogue. The Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) rides up and welcomes the two hunters to his nearby lodge, and then soliloquises to the audience that this Hammon would make a fine husband for his daughter.

Hans/Lacy fixes up a deal with a Dutch skipper for Simon to buy a cargo of exotic goods at a bargain price, using the money Lincoln gave him to go to the wars. The deal makes Simon very wealthy.

The Earl of Lincoln had sent a spy, Dodger, to keep tabs on Lacy at the wars. Now Dodger returns and tells Lincoln of a famous battle with the French but that Lacy was not there. His place was taken by his cousin Askew while Lacy snuck back to England. Lincoln immediately realises Lacy has bunked off the war in order to marry the ‘puling girl’ Rose, the Lord Mayor’s daughter. Well, he’ll put an end to that if it’s the last thing he does.

The Lord Mayor comes to supervise Hammon and Rose’s betrothal but she rejects him, saying her heart is given to another. Irritated, Hammon says he’ll go look up an old girlfriend at the Exchange. The Lord Mayor dismisses his daughter at which point Dodger arrives with a message from Lincoln that Lacy never went to France but is in hiding or disguise somewhere in London. Simon has arrived to see the Lord Mayor who says he will make Simon a Lord Sheriff.

Cut to Margery and the journeymen i.e. Firk, Hodge and Hans-in-disguise. Enter Ralph from the French wars. He is in terrible shape. He was obviously wounded, his legs are permanently damaged and he is walking on crutches. Once he’s been welcomed by his friends he is distraught to learn that, soon after he left, Jane left the household and they don’t know where she is.

These lamentations are interrupted by the startling news that Simon has been elected Sheriff of London and makes a grand entrance. He swaggers and swells over his wife and the apprentices, then says they’re all invited to the Lord Mayor’s house out in Bow.

Cut to the Lord Mayor’s house in Bow where the Lord Mayor welcomes Simon, wife and journeyman, introduces them to Rose and laments that she wouldn’t marry a fine aristocratic suitor. At this moment Simon’s crew arrive dressed as morris men and dance. Rose notices how like Lacy ‘Hans’ looks. Lacy is desperate to talk to her but has to stay in character. The Lord Mayor gives the dancers money and says he has to return to London

Rose admits to Sybil that Hans is none other than her love, Lacy. Sybil says she’ll help Rose get into London and elope with him.

Act 4 Meanwhile Hammon approaches the Exchange in disguise and his old girlfriend turns out to be none other than Jane, Ralph’s new wife who absconded from Simon’s household. Hammon puts in a sustained barrage of wooing, refusing to take no for an answer and as his masterstroke, when he learns Jane is married to one Ralph Damport, he pulls out a report of the recent wars and shows that Ralph’s name is on the list of the dead. Jane is distraught, Hammon keeps on trying to take advantage of the fact she is free to hammer her into marrying him.

Act 4 scene 2 Cut to Simon’s workshop with Firk, Hodge, Ralph and Hans all singing and working. Enter Sybil who, after some bawdy chat, tells them her mistress Rose requires Hans to come and fit her shoes.

Act 4 scene 3 In a separate scene a servant arrives at the shop and finds Ralph answering and gives him an order: his master requires a pair of new shoes like the ones he hands over, for a wedding first thing the next morning of a woman to his master, Hammon. Ralph is astonished because this is the very shoe he gave his wife Jane before he set off to the wars! Exit the servant and enter Firk, who Ralph tells the amazing story. Firk is dismissive, but Ralph says he’ll assemble a crew of shoemakers to attend this wedding and find out whether the bride really is his wife.

Act 4 scene 4 Lacy and Rose are together, and tell each other their love. Lacy casually lets slip that, because of the abrupt death of several aldermen, Simon has been voted Mayor. He tells her to meet him at Simon’s house and they’ll be married. Enter the Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) and Lacy just remembers to pretend to be Hans fitting a shoe. The Lord Mayor approves then calls Rose away because the Earl of Lincoln has arrived. Lacy’s uncle!? What the devil does he want here? Panicking, Rose suggests they flee immediately.

Act 4 scene 5 Lincoln apologises to the Lord Mayor saying he thought perhaps he was deliberately harbouring the fugitive Lacy. Why of course not, replies the LM, my respect for your honour would forbid. At that moment Sybil comes running in to announce that Rose has just run off out of the house with a shoemaker!

Lord Mayor Oatley is just cursing and ranting that he will disinherit her for marrying a commoner, when Firk enters bearing shows as if for Rose. Firk is a sarcastic tricky customer. His role here are to 1. spin an elaborate yarn and delay the two men from chasing after the couple 2. mislead them into thinking the couple are planning to get married at St Faith’s church tomorrow morning. In fact it is Hammon and Jane who are planning to get married at St Faith’s – and Ralph is organising a posse of shoemakers to interrupt them – while Lacy and Rose are planning to marry at the faraway Savoy chapel.

If it wasn’t obvious before this is the scene which really brings out the so-called ‘class war’ of the play i.e. in which the ‘knave’ Firk thoroughly enjoys tricking and deceiving two higher-ranking men who had, at his first arrival, dismissed him as a lowly servant.

Act 5 scene 1 At Simon Eyre’s house. He is lording it as Lord Mayor. Lacy has revealed he is not Hans but Rowland Lacy. Eyre is, typically, amused by the disguise and fully approves of Lacy and Rose getting married, not least because he owes to Lacy-Hans the deal with the Dutch skipper that made him a fortune and paid for the fine clothes he is wearing! He promises to arrange everything, and in addition give a grand feast to all shoemakers in the city since it is Shrove Tuesday.

Act 5 scene 2 The journeymen are assembled, Hodge, Firk, Ralph and others. Only that morning Ralph fitted the new shoe he’d been commissioned onto Jane’s feet but he was so changed by the wars that she didn’t recognise him, and he didn’t want to make himself known in a stranger’s house.

Now Hammon enters with Jane and his entourage. The shoemakers intervene, take hold of Jane – at which Hammon defies them and his entourage threaten to fight – but when they present her with Ralph, admittedly sunburnt and lame, nonetheless he is her true love and she declares he is her real husband and contemptuously asks Hammon why he lied about Ralph’s death.

She does, of course, prefer humble honesty to dressed-up deceit. Some critics spin this out into ‘class war’ but in fact it’s a conceit which goes back to ancient times, that true love is worth more than wealth.

JANE. Whom should I choose? Whom should my thoughts affect
But him whom Heaven hath made to be my love?
Thou art my husband, and these humble weeds
Make thee more beautiful than all his wealth.

Still it is not over, though, because Hammon – egged on by his supporters – now offers to buy Jane from Ralph for twenty pounds in gold. Hodge and Firk cry Fie Fie and, indeed, good Ralph spurns the offer with contempt. Utterly beaten (again – remember his attempt to woo Rose on Bow), Hammon gives them the money anyway and withdraws with his entourage.

At this moment the Lord Mayor and Earl of Lincoln enter. They address Firk and accuse him of deceiving them when he told them that Lacy and Rose would be married at St Faith’s church. Now Jane had, before her wedding, been wearing a mask or visor. At the two men’s approach Firk had told her to put it back on. Firk is thoroughly enjoying himself and now tells the men that here are Lacy and Jane in disguise, Lacy pretending to be a lame shoemaker, Jane wearing a mask (it is only at this moment that we learn from the text that Ralph has all this time been using a crutch, maybe a pair of crutches, as he now threatens to hit anyone who touches his wife with it).

When Jane takes off her mask and Ralph really continues hobbling Oatley and Lincoln realise they have been thoroughly conned and turn on Firk, calling him a ‘base crafty varlet’. But here, as throughout the play, Firk begs to differ, calling himself a member of the Gentle Craft – and by the stage in the play, we have heard references to the Gentle Craft so often that it has acquired a real sense of class solidarity or the camaraderie of the craft.

FIRK: O eternal credit to us of the gentle craft! March fair, my hearts! Oh rare!

At this point the spy Dodger appears to inform Lincoln and Oatley that their children have got married at the Savoy Chapel and that the new Lord Mayor – Simon – vows to stand in their defence. Lincoln says they’ll go petition the king about this.

Our crew are planning to go to feast with the new Lord Mayor when the pancake bell rings and Firk delivers a long paean of praise to all the fine food they’re going to eat.

FIRK: O musical bell, still! O Hodge, O my brethren! There’s cheer for the heavens: venison-pasties walk up and down piping hot, like sergeants; beef and brewess comes marching in dry-vats, fritters and pancakes comes trowling in in wheel-barrows; hens and oranges hopping in porters’—baskets, collops and eggs in scuttles, 11 and tarts and custards comes quavering in in malt-shovels.

Other prentices rush out of their buildings and tell them the new Lord Mayor has invited all the city’s apprentices to a grand feast. Hooray! Hooray!

Act 5 scene 3 A brief scene in which advisers tell the king the new Lord Mayor – Eyres – is a madcap. The king says he wants to see this eccentric.

Act 5 scene 4 Eyres is in a heightened mood even for him, as he commands some four hundred prentices to be fed! When he is told the king is on his way, he becomes even more faluting. When his wife Margaret warns him to mind his language with the king, this is his response:

EYRE. Away, you Islington whitepot!  hence, you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here, and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic freebooters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London.

Act 5 scene 5 The king forgives Lacy for going absent without leave to pursue his love and is thoroughly amused by Eyres’ mad way of talking. Then Otley and Lincoln arrive who first of all claim Lacy is a traitor – having abandoned the king’s army – only to be told the king has pardoned him. And then beg to prevent the pair marrying. But it is too late, they are wed. But she is so beneath him, wails Lincoln, at which the king reads him one of the first rules of romantic comedy:

KING: Lincoln, no more.
Dost thou not know that love respects no blood,
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.
Besides, your nephew for her sake did stoop
To bare necessity, and, as I hear,
Forgetting honours and all courtly pleasures,
To gain her love, became a shoemaker.
As for the honour which he lost in France,
Thus I redeem it: Lacy, kneel thee down!—
Arise, Sir Rowland Lacy! Tell me now,
Tell me in earnest, Oateley, canst thou chide,
Seeing thy Rose a lady and a bride?

He is a fairy tale king. The actual king the real Simon Eyres served as Lord Mayor under was Henry VI but Dekker is careful not to name him, thus making the play feel contemporary, but – with its repeated mention of wars against the French – invoking the presence of Henry V.

The shoemakers all shout their loyalty. The king declares the new hall built near the Exchange shall be called Leadenhall because they discovered the lead in the foundations which they will use to roof it. Eyres kneels and begs the shoemakers may have the honour to sell leather there two days a week which the king agrees. And then one boon more, he invites the king to join them at their feast. Which the king agrees. In fact the very last lines of the play are suddenly and a bit surprisingly belligerent, for the king declares he’ll feast this day, but then continue with his plans to war with France.

KING: Eyre, I will taste of thy banquet, and will say,
I have not met more pleasure on a day.
Friends of the gentle craft, thanks to you all,
Thanks, my kind lady mayoress, for our cheer.—
Come, lords, a while let’s revel it at home!
When all our sports and banquetings are done,
Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun.

But maybe the idea is to really emphasise the loyalty and the readiness to fight of the loyal company of shoemakers.

Commentary

The Shoemakers’ Holiday has no very great intellectual themes, its passages of poetry are pretty run-of-the-mill, the most vibrant sections come whenever Simon Eyres appears on stage with his hyper-charged language and, to a lesser extent, the jolly roistering prose of his journeymen, Hodges and, especially, Firk. And yet I found it hugely enjoyable.

In his introduction, D.J. Palmer makes a distinction between two types of comedy. The first is the high-minded, moralising comedy described by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetry (1595):

an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he [the poet] represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.

This is designed to embarrass and shame viewers by holding up exaggerated versions of the follies and vices we are all prone to. It is meant to be a corrective. This is the tough-minded theory embodied in the prefaces and plays of Ben Jonson.

To define the second type, Palmer quotes from a much earlier play, one of the earliest imitations in English of the Roman comic playwright, Plautus, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roster Doister (c.1552). The prologue reads:

What Creature is in health, eyther yong or olde,
But som mirth with modestie wil be glad to vse
As we in thys Enterlude shall now vnfolde,
Wherin all scurilitie we vtterly refuse,
Auoiding such mirth wherin is abuse:

‘Avoiding such mirth wherein is abuse’, is a crystal clear indication that the play will avoid precisely what Sidney, and especially Jonson, thought plays should do which is cruelly mock the follies and vices of the age. Instead, Udall proposes a completely different idea of comedy based on this key word Mirth:

Knowing nothing more comendable for a mans recreation
Than Mirth which is vsed in an honest fashion:
For Myrth prolongeth lyfe, and causeth health.
Mirth recreates our spirites and voydeth pensiuenesse,
Mirth increaseth amitie, not hindring our wealth,
Mirth is to be vsed both of more and lesse,
Being mixed with vertue in decent comlynesse.

Mirth promotes good health, leads to long life, refreshes our spirits, drives off depression, increases friendship. Mirth has therapeutic properties and a social function.

At the end of a Jonson comedy the criminals are punished, often by a very severe judge. At the end of a mirth comedy, the king joins in the conviviality and merry-making. It is festive comedy, associated with popular festivals and, as in this play, with actual holidays, days on which workers cease work and join together in feasting and drinking and celebrating their solidarity.

If the shoemakers, on their festive day, kick over traditional restraint, so, in their ways, do other characters. Lacy and Rose defy parental authority and class barriers to insist on their love. Jane is liberated by the physical threat of the shoemakers from the hold Hammon has over her. The rise of Simon Eyres from master shoemaker, through sheriff to Lord Mayor symbolises this escape from class barriers, and his madcap prose is a deliberate contrast with the poised, blank verse of the snobs Oatley and Lincoln.

In a comparable way, Firk is the trickster of the play, but he operates not only on the level of action but of language, too. Not only are his lies and fibs (to Lincoln and Oatley) a key moment in the plot, but throughout the play Firk is addicted to turning everything almost anyone says into a bawdy double entendre. As Palmer points out, he liberates the secondary and tertiary meanings of words and phrases said in all seriousness which he reveals to have a bawdy and disreputable side. To continue the class war theme, Firk undermines the bourgeois respectability of language with his working class puns and dirty laugh.

All this ‘subversion’ and liberation may sound good, but if you started assessing the characters with the serious Morality of a Jonson, you would begin to get into trouble. Lacy may be the romantic hero but there is no doubt he is a deserter from the army, able to skip free in sharp contrast to poor Ralph who is pressed into the army with no escape and returns badly injured. Lacy then uses the money given him by Lincoln to raise and supply troops instead to pay for a dubious business deal with a Dutch skipper which makes Eyres rich.

What all this suggests to me is that the Jonsonian theory of comedy – that by putting egregious examples of folly and vice onstage you force the audience to confront it in themselves and so ‘reform’ them – is exactly wrong. Palmer doesn’t draw the conclusion but he provides plenty of the evidence to suggest that Mirth arises from release, release from the usual laws and regulations and restrictions we all live under.

Mirth does the audience good, it is liberating and mentally uplifting and creates a sense of social solidarity among an audience united by laughing at the scrapes and cons and scams of the rogues onstage. Thus I don’t think anyone ‘judges’ Lacy for deserting from the army because a) all his behaviour is justified by him being a stereotypical stage lover who will go to any lengths for his lady love, aaaah, and b) his scam of pretending to be a Dutchman is, quite simply, funny and life-affirming: in the many scenes where he appears with his fellow shoemakers he brings life and banter and humour, plus he buys everyone drinks!

In a phrase: festive celebration (love, food, beer and scams) trump narrow definitions of ‘morality’.

This, I think, is the downfall of Jonsonian comedy. In theory, the more outrageously characters like Volpone and Mosca behave, the more we should despise and condemn them. But the reality is that – although, admittedly, they are not exactly likeable – nonetheless, their cons and scams are thrilling, they have a tremendous verbal and theatrical energy which the audience, far from finding disgusting and repellent, finds energising and enlivening.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Jacobean history

Restoration comedies

Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

Related links

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