MY LIFE AND TIMES
Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)
Jerome was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, the son of a coal mine owner who had visions of grandeur. He managed to get rid of most his wife's money (she had some) trying to expand his pit mine, then building a church (they were loyal Puritans), and attempting to recoup his losses through iron mongering. He had ambitions as an architect but failed to realize them and at length was forced to move his family to London, where he took a job at 100 lbs/year. Jerome became fascinated with London life at an early age and wandered the streets by himself for years before he was sent to Marylbone Grammar School. He commuted by train or by hitching rides on the back of passing carriages, as the school was on the other side of London. He did fairly well and had no horror stories of beatings or egregious chastisements. The hours were nine to three five days a week and learning was encouraged, as opposed to sporting activities.
"Education is the most important thing in the world, and most mismanaged, which accounts for the continued low intelligence of the human race."
Occasionally the family made excursions into the rural areas surrounding London and Jerome learned interesting things from the local natives: how to tickle trout, using a slingshot ("not very efficient at annoying birds or cats, but great for windows"). He met a lot of tramps and penurious travelers from whom he learned obscure ways to survive without money or food. These lessons were useful in later life.
Jerome left school at fourteen, in part because his father died, and he needed to help support his mother and sisters. He was hired as a clerk for the London and Northwest Railroad at 26 lbs/year. Then his mother died and his sisters moved away or married, so Jerome was left alone. He moved around a lot, and took advantage of his employer's gift of four free tickets a year to visit places he didn't know. Liverpool was a favorite. He got acquainted with the different levels of society, attending boxing matches and the theater, touring the Tower of London, and learning the social habits: smoking and drinking. He wasn't very good at drinking, disliking most of the tipples except porter, with which he gained a certain amount of familiarity. The Londoners drank a lot in those times; a sober person walking the street was apt to be stared at and accosted by pushy drunks.
Jerome became interested in literature and did a little writing, but lost enthusiasm after a while as the literary agents were mostly fat and dirty people. He quit the Railroad business after a while and became a poster hanger for a theatrical outfit, which inured him to traveling and dealing with sometimes obstreperous persons upon occasion. Soon he was offered roles in touring repertory companies. He learned how to live on almost no food and how to sleep in stables and doss houses: traveling theatrical organizations didn't pay very much and sometimes not at all. But Jerome became proficient in mastering roles on short notice; he once said he played every role in Hamlet except Ophelia.
After a few years, he got a job as a reporter in London, being paid 3.5 cents a line. He was hired in part because he'd learned shorthand. He started writing theater reviews and even tried teaching in a small boarding school. He taught Math, English, and sports for a semester and then went through a number of jobs. He was secretary to a builder, a commission agent(he bought things for people), a parliamentary agent(helping push bills through parliament), and worked in a solicitor's office at which, between other duties, he was hired to manage Ouida's financial affairs (she was a spendthrift without limit). Finally, after filling waste paper baskets with rejected poems and short stories, he found time to write a book: "On the Stage - and Off". The reviews of it were not too encouraging. Max Beerbohm was angry with him for writing it; Punch said it was vulgar; the National Observer panned it; and The Standard newspaper declared it was a menace to the world of English Letters. Jerome's second book, "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow" was a big improvement and sold well.
Jerome knew or became acquainted with many of the literati of the era: Shaw, Wells, Eden Phillpotts, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Brett Harte, Arthur Machen, Israel Zangwill and his brother (they both wrote books), Sarah Bernhardt, George Moore, and many more. James Barrie was very quiet, William Gilbert was fond of Turkish Baths, Rider Haggard was serious, H.G. Wells was shy until he started talking, then he was unstoppable; George Moore was a kind person, George Gissing was the nervous type, and Twain was poor, but unpredictable: he could be an elderly droll person, or come across as a young reformer.
Jerome wrote lots of plays and many of them were produced. "Paul Kelver", a drama about his own experiences, was well received. Some of his plays were taken around the world, playing in America, China, Australia, and other places. He collaborated with Eden Phillpotts on "The MacHaggis"and some other plays. He got a job managing a theater for six months, succeeding fairly well because of Bram Stoker's advice to avoid at all costs the temptation to actually manage anything. Other plays that were popular were "The Passing of the Third Floor Back", "The Great Gamble", and "Miss Hobbs". He was hired to edit a popular magazine, "The Idler" and it became a large success. Rudyard Kipling got mad at him because he had wanted the job himself.
Jerome seemed to enjoy traveling: he spent quite a bit of time in pre-war Germany and got to know the German people who he found to be kind-hearted and generous. But even in the Edwardian period, the streets were occasionally dominated by Prussian-type soldiers who shoved citizens off the sidewalks and generally behaved in a Trumpian manner, appropriating food and drink and bulldozing their way through urban society.
Jerome made three trips to America, lecturing in cities all over the continent. He was appalled at the treatment of black persons in the South, but got along well in almost every other area. He also took vacations to the Alps, where he learned to skate and ski with such varied companions as Kipling and Doyle, but not with W.W. Jacobs who he recognized as a meticulous writer, but in his own words, "to tired to take vacations". He toured Russia; when he got off the train, several "huge, bearded ursine behemoths" kissed him and threw him around for a while in order to express their delight in his presence. Jerome maintained that foreign languages were easy to master; he claimed that twenty sentences would enable a tourist to get along in any European country. He thought Bavarians used less than 300 words in ordinary, run-of-the-mill conversation.
He liked sports a lot and rode horses whenever he got the chance. Boating was a gay affair until Edward came to the throne at which time it became socialized and not much fun. Croquet was his nemesis: the only game in which the harder you tried the worse you got; the most successful players being children who didn't pay any attention to where the ball was going but seemed nevertheless to win every game. Jerome once had to retrieve a ball from a nearby field and was chased by a bull before he could get back over the fence.
After the war began, Jerome, age 55, got a job driving ambulance at the front. He described in some detail the rain, mud, lack of food, destroyed villages, the shrieking cannonry, the danger and the pathetic and tragic victims that he carried to safety. This was toward the book's end, and he seemed, even in print, to have been traumatized by his experiences. He finished by recording his feelings about religion and its relation to reality: a pessimistic but, to him, logical conclusion that apparently afforded him some relief and satisfaction.
In some respects, this book was a telescopic vision of London society at the end of the Victorian era. As those readers who are familiar with the "Three Men in a Boat" might predict, his prose style is replete with subtle and ingrained wryness, humorous and penetrating at the same time. I've never seen one of his plays, but from what i've read they're clever, pointed and highly entertaining. The book was a lot of fun, the information about the peculiarities of some of the chief members of British literary history being illuminating, in particular as regards the theatrical world of that time. I was surprised that P.G Wodehouse was not mentioned, but perhaps he lived just a little bit later. It's difficult, however, especially after having become more familiar with Jerome's style of humor, not to feel that Wodehouse's style might have been influenced a lot by Jerome's. At any rate, Jerome was a fabulously funny and witty person, and his associations with some of the major lights of that era were very interesting...