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Three men in the wrong boat

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 18, 2022

I enjoy reading mystery stories, which is why I give them up for Lent. In addition to stimulating more spiritual reading, this modest sacrifice—happily completed for now—also leads me into other forms of lighter literature. This year I read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which is a comic account of a fortnight’s holiday taken by three English friends and one dog, in a very small boat, punting, rowing and pulling from tow paths on the Thames from Kingston to Oxford and back. It’s a deliberately funny book and, of course, the premise itself is ludicrous: No fully adult male today would want to spend fourteen days doing that with two other men (and a dog)—including, for the most part, sleeping rough in the bottom of the tiny boat itself.

The book was published in 1889: Perhaps tastes were different in the late nineteenth century? In any case, Jerome is a superb comedic story-teller, and the book really is enjoyably absurd. Apart from the endless discomforts, reality seldom intrudes to spoil the fun. And yet there is a sad reality to be found nevertheless: Christianity makes a brief appearance—or rather a disappearance. And it is hard for a Catholic to read the book in Lent without noticing a touch of sadness beneath the jokes. I don’t mean Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) isn’t humorously entertaining; it is. But there is one inevitable slip of the late nineteenth-century spiritual mask.

References to Christianity

The book presumes a basic cultural Christianity which popular books deliberately eschew today. There are the occasional humorous references to the way a “Christian” people or a “Christian” man must act (certainly a “Christian” must not abuse a dog, for example). And all this is fine in a comic story. Moreover, some fundamental principles of “Christian” morality are taken for granted. A mainstream author could not write the same story now without allusions to both sexual and gender “liberation”. The overall atmosphere of Jerome’s work is still wholesome, which is to say still pure.

But it is a denatured Christianity that characterized late nineteenth-century English culture. In that world a man was expected to be “Christian” in the very same colonial sense as he was expected to be “white”, to avoid behavior that is “not quite the thing”. For a sincere and thoughtful Catholic, of course, it would be impossible to recount even the humorous side of a two-week vacation without references to God and to prayer, and such references would serve at once to enlarge the atmosphere, deepen the humor, and remind us of an even more wonderful dimension of our human experience. But there is only one passage in Jerome’s book that brushes these heights and depths, so often tinged with the most poignant human folly, and the reader will see at once that the perception is entirely wrong—an opportunity lost not only for lightness but for light itself.

Here is the passage, lifted from chapter 13:

...and a little further still, nestling by a sweet corner of the stream, is what is left of Medmenham Abbey.
The famous Medmenham monks, or “Hell Fire Club,” as they were commonly called, and of whom the notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was “Do as you please,” and that invitation still stands over the ruined doorway of the abbey. Many years before this bogus abbey, with its congregation of irreverent jesters, was founded, there stood upon the same spot a monastery of a sterner kind, whose monks were of a somewhat different type to the revelers that were to follow them, five hundred years afterwards.
The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.
A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them—the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind—should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.

A false note

This is, I think, the only passage of serious reflection in the entire book, and of course the conclusion drawn is all wrong. The author is already captive to a culture that associates Christianity—or at any rate Catholicism—with a dreary outlook, a joyless discipline and a stubborn refusal to admit the wonder of nature. But no one could possibly be more attuned to nature than the monks in a medieval monastery, who made their living from the land, with its cycle of growth through all weathers, and who even prayed in accordance with the rhythms of the hours of the created day. We speak here of those who denied themselves so many purely human comforts precisely that they might be better attuned to God’s incomparable gifts—deep and precious gifts manifested first of all in material creation itself, but even more in those souls who have grasped that all is gift.

In this richer joy, nineteenth century rationalist “Christians”, like those of our own day, are surpassed even by the dog in the boat. After all, what lover fails to invest the gifts of his beloved with a value far greater than immediately appears to his senses? Therefore, what sort of observer can possibly assume simple monks to be somehow less attuned to creation through their praise of the Creator?

Still, laughter is good medicine, and in spite of this single passage, Three Men in a Boat is a very funny book. As purely human comedy, it stands the test of time, especially in its banter among friends. We may hope its author beholds a more sublime joy now. Perhaps he has learned at last that the very greatest joys must be expressed through tears. As the Catholic Francis Thompson wrote just a few months later, thinking about both dogs and men in a very different way: “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest. I am He Whom though seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Apr. 19, 2022 8:13 PM ET USA

    How heart-warming to read an insightful juxtaposition of two works which I first enjoyed (for different reasons) more than sixty years ago! (I was a voracious, precocious reader of light literature and deep poetry.) Alas, I’ve recently met a 25 year old, “woke”, former Catholic student, who misreads the Faith as badly as Jerome, even though (because?) he went to our local Catholic high school.

  • Posted by: winnie - Apr. 19, 2022 10:56 AM ET USA

    In this excerpt, Poet R. S. Thomas described Anglicanism in the UK thusly: I was vicar of large things in a small parish. Small-minded I will not say, there were depths in some of them I shrank back from, wells that the word “God” fell into and died away, and for all I know is still falling. Who goes for water to such must prepare for a long wait. Their eyes looked at me and were the remains of flowers on an old grave. I was there, I felt, to blow on ashes that were too long cold…

  • Posted by: garedawg - Apr. 19, 2022 12:52 AM ET USA

    Oh, well, happily for those Englishmen, the dour Cistercians were replaced by "cool" monks.