Idle Idol – Jerome K. Jerome
From Idler 5, July 1994
Editor of our Victorian namesake, Jerome K. Jerome is best known for Three Men in a Boat. He worked hard at his idleness, but did he ever fulfill his creative potential? Dan Glaister profiles a seminal idler.
You never know who you might bump into in a park. In his semi-autobiographical novel Paul Kelver, Jerome K. Jerome claimed to have seen Dickens one evening taking the air in Victoria Park in Hackney, East London. “Oh, damn Mr. Pickwick,” said the walking, talking legend, who had reached a wide public with The Pickwick Papers. For Jerome, this brush with greatness was enough. He and the master, if not one and the same, had at least suffered a similar plight.
Say Jerome K. Jerome to anyone today and you will discover the name of the complaint: Three Men In A Boat. Jerome, to his consternation, was known exclusively as “the author of Three Men In A Boat”, his comic novel published in 1899 about a trip down the Thames taken by three friends and their dog.
Jerome had not expected to be branded a master of whimsy. “like most men who have the reputation of being funny,” he was to write in his autobiography My Life And Times, “I am a somewhat gloomy personage.” He felt, quite justifiably, that his other talents had been overlooked.
For six years, from 1892 to 1898, Jerome edited The Idler, a monthly blend of fiction, essays, cartoons, interviews and poems, a 19th century gentlemen’s club magazine (ladies admitted).
The turn-of-the-century-idler, with Jerome as his prophet, took his pursuits seriously. Jerome records how he had to force himself to learn how to drink alcohol, graduating from the horrors of cheap claret, which he used to sip with his eyes shut, to the more acceptable pleasures of whisky, which he was eventually able to drink “without a shudder”.
The idle fellow was usually to be found sitting in an armchair before an open fire, sipping a glass of whisky, while smoking his pipe. With a small group of friends gathered around him, sometimes including a benefactor or a distant relation, the idler would while away the hours swapping tales. An apparently inexhaustible supply of anecdotes was an essential part of the idler’s armoury, as was the ability to be sidetracked, to lose one’s train of thought, or to nod off in the middle of telling a story. The idler could feign first-hand experience of virtually any subject, while affecting a disdain for earthly matters. Prevarication and deviation were a must, one-upmanship to be admired. The idler, in short, knew where his slippers were.
Jerome was expert at portraying his ideal idler. His Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow, published in 1886 and dedicated to his pipe, opens with the words: “It is a most remarkable thing. I sat down with the full intention of writing something clever and original; but for the life of me I can’t think of anything clever or original – at least, not at this moment. The only thing I can think of is being hard up.”
Costing sixpence, the first issue of The Idler ranged from the juvenile to the sophisticated. “Detective Stories Gone Wrong – The Adventures Of Sherlaw Kombs” by Luke Sharp, and “Enchanted Cigarettes”, a paean to the pleasures of smoking , ran alongside “Famous Idling Places – Hyeres” in the first issue, followed by Orvieto and Madeira in later numbers – and the Idler’s Club, a joint manifesto for the idle way of life.
Yet if he embraced idleness with enthusiasm, Jerome was no slouch, as businessman or editor. For the first number of The Idler, he ran a new story by Mark Twain. The magazine was an immediate success, and as it developed, so new items were introduced. “My First Book” had authors ruminating on their early successes, a gimmick that still appeals to newspaper editors today, while the archetype for Idler articles had the title “People I Have Never Met”.
The magazine breathed idleness. Newcomers to the Idler offices off the Strand were soon taken over by “the idling influence of the place”, seduced by Idler “at homes” Friday afternoon tea parties. Jerome assembled an impressive collection of idle friends to help him with his work, including Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling, who Jerome beat to the editorship of the magazine, Jerome being deemed easier to “manage” by co-founder Robert Barr. Some, like H.G. Wells, didn’t fit the idle bill: “How Wells carries all his electricity without wearing out the casing and causing a short circuit in his brain is a scientific mystery,” wrote Jerome.
But The Idler did attract one man who fitted Jerome’s vision of the productive yet contemplative figure. W.W. Jacobs, a regular contributor, was the antidote to the “industry and steadfastness” of other more well-known figures. “Often he will spend… an entire morning constructing a single sentence,” Jerome gushed. “If he writes a four thousand word story in a month, he feels he has earned a holiday; and the reason that he does not always take it is that he is generally too tired.”
There is, of course, a conceit at work. For Jerome, idleness had little in common with laziness. His notion of idleness in the world beyond his fiction was one of contemplative productivity with the minimum of fuss. While Jerome praised idleness to the full, his own life, at least in his early years, was a busy affair.
Jerome was born in Walsall in 1859. His family, having lost its former wealth, moved to London when he was young and by his late teens Jerome was out on his own, leading a life of Dickensian deprivation in the East End of London. The young Jerome pursued a variety of careers, clerk, actor, journalist, with varying degrees of success. His writing began at an early age, a mysterious lady on a train telling him, aged six, that “there is only one person you will ever know… always write about him.” Jerome took the advice to heart, and many of his later writings were semi-autobiographical. It was after all, easier that way.
His first paid writing was thanks to a journalist friend who introduced him to “penny-a-lining”. Jerome was once more treading in the footsteps of Dickens, perfecting shorthand and filing court reports to the newspapers. Journalism’s competitive nature provided him with a grounding in comic writing. “I found out how to make ‘flimsy’ more saleable by grafting humour on to it,” he wrote, “so sub-editors would give to mine a preference over more sober and possibly more truthful records.” The idler’s penchant for labour-saving adornment was already evident.
Despite having several books and plays, as well as stories and essays published, Jerome didn’t have the courage to devote himself entirely to writing until the publication of Three Men In a Boat in 1889. The uncertainty of his youth had left its mark, and the constant striving for financial security that had obsessed his parents was to express itself in Jerome’s reluctance to place himself at risk, intellectually or financially.
After the success of Three Men In A Boat, Jerome was recognised as one of the foremost humorists of his day. He mixed with the great and the good, and went to all the right clubs. He was able to settle down to a more leisurely way of life: travel, sport, good food and literature. Even with his new found success, however, he was denied the recognition by the critics that he felt he had earned.
One reviewer of his best-known play, The Passing Of The Third Floor Back, wrote that “it seems the work of a man of great cleverness, some fancy, and a shrewd humour; but one who has never tried his hardest to find out what is in him.” This is perhaps the main criticism to be had of Jerome. Shy and retiring, he preferred to cloak his writings in humour and avoid challenging his readers. Although his idleness was productive, it provided him with a security which was eventually to stifle his talents.
Occasionally a book or play would receive a favourable review, but it was the exception not the rule. Punch referred to him as Arry K. Arry, lecturing him on “the sin of mistaking vulgarity for humour and impertinence for wit”. Jerome saw himself as “the best abused author in England”.
Jerome wrote a sequel to Three Men In a Boat – Three Men On The Bummel – as well as, among other works, The Second Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow, Told After Supper, a collection of ghost stories, and Idle Thoughts in 1905. None of them was to reproduce the success of Three Men In A Boat. The only book by Jerome that approaches it is his autobiography published in 1926, the year before he died.
His involvement with The Idler was curtailed in 1898 by a libel action; in true Dickensian style the lawyers were the only victors, Jerome and the aggrieved company promoter who had brought the action against him being left to pay their own costs, in Jerome’s case ��9,000. He was later to write, “I have the satisfaction of boasting that it was the longest case, and one of the most expensive, ever heard in the Court of Queen’s Bench.”
In 1904 Jerome decided to put an end to his journalistic career to concentrate on writing and cultivate an interest in politics. He developed his taste for travel, becoming “an habitu?� of the Continent”. On a lecture tour of the States (again following in the footsteps of Dickens) Jerome publicly condemned a lynching, a rare and brave act of defiance at the time.
One event was to shape Jerome in his later years. The outbreak of the First World War had produced mixed feelings in him. He had lived for several years in Germany and had a great affection for its people. The jingoism whipped up by the war made him extremely uncomfortable, souring relations with several old friends, notably Kipling and Wells.
In 1916, at the age of 55, Jerome decided to enlist. He managed to get a commission as an ambulance driver with the French army, serving on the Western Front near Verdun. The experience was to prove traumatic, perhaps breaking his health and prompting the emergence of hitherto latent spirituality.
Whatever else, his wartime experiences, movingly recorded in his autobiography, cured him of his fascination with war and confirmed his mistrust of politicians. Jerome returned to England to continue writing plays and settle increasingly into the Jeromeian mode. He died in Northampton in 1927 after suffering a heart attack while returning from holiday in Devon.
Despite enjoying the good things in life, he was to write shortly before his death that “Happiness is not our goal, either in this world or the next. The joy of labour, the joy of giving are the wages of God.” A long way from the young man who had determined to “learn the vices.” “My study of literature had impressed it upon me,” he wrote, “that without them one was a milksop, to be despised of all true men, and more especially of all fair women.”