I am so glad I did! How on Earth did this book escape me for so long?
The first-person narration describes a two-week trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford in a skiff with two close and quirky friends and an enthusiastic fox terrier, Montmorency. Parts of it are pure Victorian travelogue, describing in overwrought and sentimental fashion the towns, inns and historic sites they encounter along the river. Sounds dreadful, right? But what makes the book a classic of British comic literature are the narrator’s hilarious digressions, describing incidents from the lives of himself (an inveterate hypochondriac) and his companions, George (a lazy banker) and Harris (a prodigious tippler), as well as sending up some of the recurring themes in British history. In fact, the inclusion of these humorous sections actually renders the flowery travel writing funny in comparison, since it reads as satire of the genre.
What was most amazing to me was that even though the book was written in 1898, most of the humor still seems fresh in 2011. At one point, the narrator, J., shares the miraculous story of how he survived his first sailing experience, undertaken with absolutely no knowledge of the craft.
Possibly the result may have been brought about by the natural obstinacy of all things in this world. The boat may possibly have come to the conclusion, judging from a cursory view of our behavior, that we had come out for a morning’s suicide, and had thereupon determined to disappoint us. That is the only suggestion I can offer. p. 89
This book is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm and comic understatement. It occurs to me that a lot of what I love about British humor probably has its roots in this classic. The chapter about the mounted trout in the pub should be required reading for every fishermen – and every person who lives with a fishermen. Honestly, I laughed out quite a few times reading this book.**
Certainly, I’d recommend this to lovers of classics, but those who enjoy humor and travel books will also find it a pleasure. Really, unless you’ve had your funny bone surgically removed, I think you’ll find something to like in this book.
It’s so awesome to start 2012 off with a great surprise of a classic! This was my first book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, so thanks to Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much for hosting. Next up, of course, is To Say Nothing of the Dog for Carl V.’s Science Fiction Experience, which I hope to appreciate far more thoroughly after reading this book.
*I am having so much fun with the free and almost free classics that are available in e-book format. My Kindle has already paid for itself with public domain works that I didn’t have to buy, find or wait for!
**Unfortunately for my husband, at one point I was reading long after he had fallen asleep. Let’s just say he didn’t find my chuckling as funny as I found the book.