Sunday, 5 January 2014

Anthropological fiction: three men in a boat

I got a Kindle for Christmas last year, and as a result I've started reading quite a few Project Gutenberg books. For the uninitiated, Project Gutenberg provides free ebooks, in particular those books where the copyright has expired. As my maternity money has really started to bite, I'm been downloading more and more of them. I've just finished reading Three men in a boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome K. Jerome, image in the public domain
 via wikimedia commons
Although I have my issues with Victorian novels, I really enjoyed this one. Maybe because Jerome actually succeeds in being vaguely humorous, or because he's not trying to make any political points. As well as enjoying the writing what I liked the most was the beautiful little glimpse it provided into Victorian life. Just by writing from the point of view of the time he was in, the author gives a little anthropological study of a way of life that is now almost completely alien.

Things I found particularly fascinating:

  • The 'boys'. Every shop they visited had a 'boy' working there, and several turned up to watch when they were trying to hail a taxi. 
  • Servants. Random housekeepers, washing ladies and charwomen turn up in what are clearly middle-class households. What's most interesting is that in an era of sexual inequality a large number of these random servants are women. Speaking of which...
  • Sexual inequality. Women are described as basically another species. It's not malicious, or degrading, just very alien. He devotes a full mini-chapter to the experience of having the boat pulled by 'girls'.
  • Entertainment. This stands out because while on the boat the guys are entertaining themselves by going to the pub in the evening and chatting, which is pretty much what most people would do on a boating trip nowadays. Whenever he goes off into an anecdote about home life though, you're suddenly plunged into a world of piano playing, music hall songs, and party games.
There's a wonderful blend of the familiar and the strange that make it so enjoyable to read. One minute it's packing a hamper with a dog (relatable) or the annoyance of that one friend who has to work the first day of the holiday and so decides to meet up downstream on the second day (very relatable - that friend was my husband!). Then the next sentence will be everyone lighting up pipes, or an anecdote that involves a household with at least six children in it. Sometimes I had to actively remind myself that the book was written over 100 years ago, other times it's impossible to ignore.

I enjoyed the historical anthropology of it so much that it almost tempted me into reading Dickens again. Almost...

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