xxxxxThe English journalist and humorous writer Jerome K. Jerome is mostly remembered today for his amusing and highly successful novel Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889. His other works included a set of amusing essays entitled The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and his On the Stage and Off, based on his three years as an itinerant actor. In 1892 he founded The Idler, a monthly magazine extolling the virtues of a leisurely life. Contributors included Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the American writer Mark Twain. The following year he started his own two-penny weekly called Today. Later works included Three Men on the Brummel (a sequel to Three Men in a Boat), an autobiographical tale entitled Paul Kelver, and The Passing of the Third Floor Back, a more serious work with moral undertones.

JEROME K. JEROME  1859 - 1927  (Va, Vb, Vc. E7, G5)


Jerome: detail, by the Hungarian painter Philip Alexius de Laszlo (1869-1937), 1921 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Jacobs: by Bassano Ltd., the London firm of portrait photographers, active 1901-1962 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Meredith: enhanced portrait by the English painter George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), 1893 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Thompson: by the English engraver Emery Walker (1851-1933), 1894 – private collection.

xxxxxThe English journalist and humorous writer Jerome K. Jerome is best remembered today for his hilarious novel Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889. It was originally intended as a serious travel book about the historical landmarks to be seen on a trip along the Thames from Kingston to Oxford, but the amusing incidents encountered by Jerome and his two friends along the way (and Montmorency the dog) quickly gave humour pride of place. The critics, in fact, were not amused, regarding the story as “vulgar” and “common” but, as is often the case, the public found his warm, homely humour very attractive. The first edition alone sold 202,000 copies, and it has never been out of print.

xxxxxHe was born in Walsall in Staffordshire, the son of an ironmonger and non-conformist lay preacher, but spent his childhood in London. He attended Marylebone Grammar School, but left at the age of 14 and took up a variety of jobs. He first worked as a railway clerk and then, after trying his hand as a schoolteacher and an itinerant actor, he took up journalism. Success came with the publication of a set of humorous essays entitled The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow in 1886, and then Three Men in a Boat three years later. From his three-years experience as an actor came his play Barbara, produced in 1886, and his comic memoir On the Stage and Off, The Brief Career of a Would-Be Actor, published two years later. In 1892 he founded and became joint editor of The Idler, a monthly magazine which extolled the virtues of idle-making pursuits at the expense of Victorian values. Contributors included Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the American writer Mark Twain. The following year he started his own two-penny weekly called Today, but in 1897 his sardonic humour landed him in an expensive libel case, and soon afterwards he sold his interest in both publications.

xxxxxIn 1900 he produced a sequel to Three Men in a Boat, an account of a cycle tour in the Black Forest, but this work, Three Men on the Brummel, was less entertaining and much less successful. His other works included the autobiographical tale Paul Kelver in 1902, and The Passing of the Third Floor Back, produced as a novel in 1908 and made into a stage version two years later. This was moral in tone with characters named Cheat, Slut, Rogue, and Cad. Apart from his trip to Germany, he also travelled to Norway and Russia, and went on a lecture tour of the United States in 1907. During the First World War (1914-1918), he joined the French Army as an ambulance driver. He died of a stroke in June 1927.

xxxxxIncidentally, the story goes that Jerome’s middle name was in honour of a family friend, the Hungarian exile and patriot General George Klapka, but it might well be that Jerome was given the name of his father, Clapp, and made this story up to avoid having the same name. ……

xxxxx…… His work The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow was dedicated to his pipe: To the Friend who, treated with marked coolness by all the female members of my household, and regarded with suspicion by my very dog, nevertheless seems day by day to be more drawn by me, and in return to more and more impregnate me with the odour of his friendship.

xxxxxAnother humorist writer at this time, and one whose work was admired by Jerome K. Jerome, was William Wymark Jacobs (1863-1943). He also lived in London as a child, and many of his amusing short stories - such as Many Cargoes of 1896 and Sea Urchins of 1898 - are centred around life in London’s docklands, where his father worked as a wharf manager. He also gained a reputation for horror stories, and is particularly remembered today for The Monkey’s Paw, published in 1902. His early works were published in The Idler and Today - Jerome’s own publications - but he later became a regular contributor to the Strand Magazine. He published some 20 volumes, the majority made up of short stories.


xxxxxAnother English writer of this time who, like Jerome, began his literary career as a journalist, was George Meredith (1828-1909). As a novelist he is remembered today for two novels, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and The Egoist, but, in his day, it was not until the publication of Diana of the Crossways in 1885 that he gained a substantial measure of popularity both in Britain and the United States. Most of his works were concerned with social and moral conflicts to be found in everyday life. His prose work was praised for its character formation and its sparkling wit, but his style was somewhat oblique, being rich in metaphor and allusion. As a poet he made his name with the sonnet sequence entitled Modern Love, published in 1862, and produced his best work - Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth - in 1883. In verse, he was at his best when describing nature. Towards the end of his life Meredith was regarded as “the Grand Old Man of Letters”, and an outstanding literary critic. During his career he assisted the writer Thomas Hardy and numbered among his friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

xxxxxAnother English writer at this time who, like Jerome, began his literary career as a journalist, was George Meredith (1828-1909). As a novelist he is remembered above all for The Ordeal of Richard Feverel of 1859 and The Egoist, produced twenty years later. He wrote in an elegant, rich style and most of his works were concerned with the social and moral conflicts to be found in day-to-day life. As a poet he gained public recognition with his sonnet sequence entitled Modern Love of 1862 - generally considered to be his best poetic work - and his Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, published in 1883. In verse, he was at his best when describing the sights and sounds of nature.

xxxxxMeredith was born in Portsmouth, above the shop where his father worked as a tailor. He went to a private school in the city, and then completed his education at the Moravian school in Neuwied on the Rhine, an area of outstanding natural beauty which helped to develop his romantic nature. At the age of 18 he began work in the office of a London solicitor, but he had no interest in the law and soon turned to journalism. By 1850 he was writing poetry for a number of magazines, and he published his first set of poems in 1851. These received praise from the novelist Charles Kingsley and from no less a person than Alfred Lord Tennyson, but they brought little in the way of income.

xxxxxDesperately in need of money, Meredith turned his hand to writing prose. A number of works then followed, including the fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat in 1856, (much praised by the novelist George Eliot but not very successful), Farina in 1857, the history of a father and son, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel - a psychological novel of 1859 which received praise for its rich language and witty dialogue but condemned for its low moral tone -, the comedy Evan Harrington of 1861 (based on his family’s tailoring business), Emilia in England of 1864 (subsequently renamed Sandra Belloni), and Rhoda Fleming, published in 1865. In the early 1860s, however, he returned to writing verse. In 1862 he published his sonnet sequence Modern Love, a work reflecting in depth upon the failure of his marriage to Mary Ellen Nicolls (the widowed daughter of the poet Thomas Love Peacock), together with Poems of the English Roadside and Poems and Ballads. All this time, however, he was obliged to supplement his income by reading manuscripts and writing editorials for provincial newspapers.

xxxxxHowever, with the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 money came his way. Working as a war correspondent for the Morning Post he was sent out to report on the Italian campaign and, on his return, was able to buy Flint Cottage near Box Hill in Surrey. While in Italy he identified with the cause of Italian independence, and this is reflected in his book Victoria, a sequel to Emilia in England, produced in 1867. His novels in the 1870s included the romantic tale The Adventures of Harry Richmond, the political novel Beauchamp’s Career, and The Egoist , a satirical work with a cleverly crafted plot and full of witty and convincing dialogue. In the 1880s he published The Tragic Comedians and then Diana of the Crossways. Centred around woman’s right to equality with men, this was the first of his novels to gain wide critical acclaim and a substantial measure of popularity both at home and in the United States. And during this period belongs his Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, and Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life, written in 1887 after the death of his second wife, whom he had married in 1864. His later years were marred by deafness and a crippling disease. He managed to produced further novels in the 1890s, such as One of Our Conquerors of 1891, and The Amazing Marriage four years later, but these added little to his reputation.

xxxxxMeredith’s somewhat tortuous and oblique style, rich in metaphor and complex allusion, was admired by a number of discerning critics, and it placed him among the major literary figures of the Victorian period, but it never proved over attractive to the general public. His psychological insight into character formation and a rather sophisticated sense of humour - though highly witty at times - demanded an unusual and, for some, an unacceptable amount of concentration on the part of the reader. (The Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde once quipped that as a writer Meredith had mastered everything except language!). Diana of the Crossway, written in the mid 1880s, was his first work to attract a really wide body of readers, though The Egoist and his earlier work The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, aroused a deal of interest.

xxxxxIn the latter part of his career Meredith became a highly respected literary critic, and a noted advocate of political and social reform. Honours were showered upon him. He was elected President of the Society of Authors, and the King bestowed upon him the Order of Merit, an award limited to just 24 members. The Press referred to him as “the Dean of English Writers”, “The Grand Old Man of Letters”, and “the Sage of Box Hill”, and on his 80th birthday the American President Theodore Roosevelt sent his congratulations. Meredith gave advice to the novelist Thomas Hardy concerning his prose work, and he numbered among his friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle. He died at his home near Box Hill in May 1909.

xxxxxIncidentally, his marriage to Mary Ellen Nicolls was not a successful one. Both were strong, independent characters, and the continual lack of money put a strain on their relationship. During the summer of 1857 she was in Wales in the company of the Pre- Raphaelite artist Henry Wallis, and following the birth of a son, Arthur, in April 1858 (whose paternity Meredith strongly denied) the couple eloped to Capri. She died in 1861, and it was after this, in September 1864, that Meredith married Marie Vulliamy. This marriage was a highly successful one, and they had two children, William and Mariette. ……

xxxxx…… His Essay on Comedy, produced in 1877, is regarded today as a valuable contribution to that subject. In it he analyses irony, satire and humour, and argues that comedy, as “the fountain of sound sense”, is an important civilizing influence within society. It acts as an enjoyable social corrective, exposing man’s weaknesses and pretences, and assisting in the movement towards reform. If the comic idea prevailed, he maintained, then the world would be a better and happier place. ……

xxxxx…… In the last years of his life Meredith, a brilliant speaker, became something of an oracle, and he delighted in feeding the press with radical ideas. He made the suggestion - clearly based on experience - that marriage should be for a ten-year period, renewable by mutual consent, and that Britain should join the United States! On more serious subjects, he argued that the Boers should have been given their freedom, not repressed, and he warned that Britain should prepare to counter German aggression. He was certainly right on one count, and perhaps on both.


W.W. Jacobs

George Meredith,

and Francis Thompson

xxxxxAmong those writers whom George Meredith befriended was the English poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907). He considered the young man from Lancashire to be “a true poet, one of a small band”. Thompson was born in Preston and trained as a doctor at Owens College, Manchester, but he took little or no interest in his studies, never practised as a doctor, and in 1885 - penniless and already addicted to opium (originally taken for medical reasons) - he moved to London to make a living as a writer. For three years he patently failed to do so, and he was eventually reduced to living on the streets, selling matches and newspapers in order to survive.

xxxxxInx1888, however, his fortunes changed. Some of his poetry, sent to the Merrie England, was admired by the magazine’s publishers, Wilfrid Meynell and his wife Alice (1847-1922), herself a poet of some standing. They saw in him a poet possessed with a “celestial vision” and went to his support. They rescued him from a life of destitution, giving him a home, arranging for the publication of his verse, and trying to help him overcome his dependence on opium.

xxxxxThe first of his three volumes of poetry, Poems, was published in 1893, and this was followed by Sister Songs in 1895 and New Poems two years later. His treatise On Health and Holiness, based on his own ascetic way of life, appeared in 1905, and his Essay on Shelley and his Life of Saint Ignatius Loyola were published posthumously in 1909. Among his best known poetry, much of which had a mystic, ethereal quality, were At Lords, a nostalgic poem on the game of cricket, and Love in Dian’s lap, a tribute to Alice Meynell.

xxxxxToday, Thompson is especially remembered for his famous ode The Hound of Heaven. A work of immense lyrical beauty, it was published in 1893 but written in 1889 when he was on retreat at the Norbertine monastery at Storrington, in West Sussex, attempting to overcome his opium addiction. Clearly autobiographical, it tells of God’s determination to pursue and save by divine grace the most wayward soul.

xxxxxAnd it was while at Storrigton that Thompson wrote two other poems for which he is best known. His frequent climbs up Kithurst Hill inspired To Daisy, and he was moved to compose Ode to the Setting Sun during one of his visits to the “Field of the Cross”, situated between the monastery and the church. But despite the attempts of the Meynells to break his dependence on opium, and the period of literary success that he enjoyed, he relapsed into opium addiction at the turn of the century. This, together with his long term ill-health, hastened his death. He died of tuberculosis in 1907 at the age of 47.

xxxxxIncidentally, it is said that at one time during his impoverished days in London the young Thompson contemplated taking his own life, but he was dissuaded from doing so by a vision he believed he saw of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 17.

xxxxxAn English poet who was befriended by George Meredith was Francis Thompson (1859-1907). He was trained as a doctor in Manchester, but in 1885, penniless and already addicted to opium, he moved to London to make a career in writing. He failed to do so and lived a life of extreme poverty. In 1888, however, some of his verse, published in the magazine Merrie England, gained him recognition as a poet possessed of a “celestial vision”. Helped by the magazine’s editors, he eventually published three volumes of verse, much of it ethereal in nature. His most famous ode, The Hound of Heaven, an autobiographical work of immense lyrical beauty, was published in 1893. It tells of God’s determination to pursue and save by divine grace the most wayward soul. Thomson died of tuberculosis, at the age of 47.