Jerome Klapka Jerome, best known as the author of ‘Three Men in a Boat’, one of the great comic masterpieces of the English language, was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, on 2nd May 1859, the youngest of four children.
His father, who had interests in the local coal and iron industries and was a prominent non-conformist preacher, had moved to the town in 1855 and installed the family in a fashionable middle class house in Bradford Street where they lived in comparative comfort until 1861. Following the collapse of the family business, the Jeromes moved first to Stourbridge and thence to Poplar in the East End of London where he was brought up in relative poverty.
Jerome left school at fourteen and worked variously as a clerk, a hack journalist, an actor (‘I have played every part in Hamlet except Ophelia’) and a schoolmaster. His first book ‘On the Stage and Off’ was published in 1885 and this was followed by numerous plays, books and magazine articles.
In 1927, one year after writing his autobiography ‘My life and Times’, he was made a Freeman of the Borough of Walsall. He died later the same year and is buried in Ewelme in Oxfordshire.
Though a relaxed, urbane man, Jerome was a relentless explorer of new ideas and experiences. He travelled widely throughout Europe, was a pioneer of skiing in the Alps and visited Russia and America several times. He was a prolific writer whose work has been translated into many foreign languages, but as Jerome himself said: “It is as the author of ‘Three Men in a Boat’ that the public persists in remembering me.”
Jerome was still a struggling unknown when he confided to his friend George Wingrave that he had four ambitions in life:
- To edit a successful journal.
- To write a successful play.
- To write a successful book.
- To become a Member of Parliament.
Only the last eluded him. Not a bad achievement, especially when you consider Jerome’s background, one that did not exactly augur success, certainly not in a theatrical or literary career, let alone as the author of a comic masterpiece that has become among the most enduring and endearing books in the English language.
As a minister and part-time farmer in Appledore, Devon, Jerome Senior was comfortably off and well-respected. It was after some unsuccessful speculative mining on his land that things began to go wrong. When he moved to Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1854 and became first a partner in an iron works and then ventured into coal mining, things went horribly wrong.
Jerome Klapka Jerome was born into this unorthodox, highly-religious family on 2nd May 1859. He had three exotically-named older siblings: his two sisters Paulina Deodata and Blandina Dominica, and a brother, Milton Melancthon, who was born in 1855 and died of the croup aged six.
Jerome Jerome père boasted the unusual middle name of Clapp. To his congregation in Devon he was known as Parson Clapp. When he left with his family to move to the Midlands, he dropped Clapp and began calling himself Rev. Jerome.
All biographical references to JKJ reiterate the story that his unusual middle name of Klapka, a near-homonym of his father’s, was adopted en homage to General George Klapka, the young hero of the 1849 Hungarian War of Independence who had left his country for Britain and was commissioned to write his autobiography. Needing somewhere quiet, he had accepted the invitation of Rev. Jerome to stay and became a family friend. This story, however, now seems to be almost certainly a fabrication by JKJ.
Following research by one of the Society’s patrons, Frank Rodgers, it has been established that JKJ’s mother died on 20 July 1875, when Jerome was 16. The death certificate notes “J.C. Jerome, son, present at the death.” ‘Note the middle initial,’ says Rodgers. ‘That rather puts paid to the notion of his being named in honour of General Klapka!… Since Klapka’s memoirs were published in 1850, if Jerome Senior wished to honour him, wouldn’t it have been more logical to do so when his older son Milton was born? My guess is that just as his father adopted the surname Jerome, presumably because “Parson Clapp” didn’t sound too good, and as his father’s nephews who were doctors, with even greater reason abandoned their style of “Doctor Clapp” and substituted “Woodforde”, I think that when he began to write, Jerome looked for something with a bit more glamour than his real middle name. But I doubt that we shall ever find any proof…’
In other words, JKJ was christened with the same names as his father (to avoid confusion between the two Jerome Jeromes, incidentally, JKJ was known in the family as ‘Luther’); he changed his name from Jerome Clapp Jerome to Jerome Klapka Jerome when he needed a pen-name, and invented the story of General Klapka’s relationship with his family.
The year of his birth saw the family plunge from tottering financial stability to total ruin. Jerome Senior’s coal-mining venture, into which he pumped the remainder of his wife’s estate, proved a disaster. He was forced to sell up and move the family to Stourbridge. Now desperate for money he went alone to London and bought a failed ironmongery business in Limehouse. He lived in Poplar for two years before sending for his family to join him. It was here, in London’s East End, that JKJ spent his childhood – in abject poverty.
Just before his tenth birthday he gained admission to the Philological School in Lisson Grove remaining there from New Year 1869 to July 1873. Jerome’s father died on 3 June 1871, just after JKJ’s 12th birthday.
At the age of fourteen JKJ left school to begin a succession of jobs, first as a clerk on the London and North Western Railway at Euston. He began work here on 12 January 1874, a fact noted in his mother’s diary. As we have seen, his mother passed away some eighteen months later. By now his sisters had left home and Jerome, at sixteen, was completely alone. But Blandina had fired her young brother with a fascination for the theatre. He became involved with a stage company and eventually chucked the railway in favour of ‘the life whose glorious uncertainty almost rivals that of the turf.’ Jerome made his professional debut at the age of eighteen under the name of Harold Crichton, touring the country with a succession of third-rate outfits.
Three years hard labour on the road left him demoralised and disillusioned. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was at the bottom of the social pile, penniless and living in dosshouses. He drifted into journalism, spending all his spare time writing short stories, essays and satires… and getting rejected. Next he tried school-mastering in Clapham, then worked in turn for an illiterate north London builder, as a buyer and packer for some commission agents, for a firm of parliamentary agents and ended up as a solicitor’s clerk, with vague thoughts of training for the law. Nothing gelled.
Then, inspired by one of Longfellow’s poems from ‘By the Fireside’ (with the curious title of Gaspar Becerra), Jerome had the idea of writing about his experiences as an actor. The result was On the Stage – and Off, The Brief Career of a Would-Be Actor. After several publications had supplied him with the familiar rejection slips, a new magazine came up trumps: The Play, edited by a retired actor, Aylmer Gowing. In 1885 the work was published in book form. It remains one of the most detailed, absorbing (and under-rated) portraits of late-Victorian theatre life. It is also very funny.
A collection of humorous essays followed, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886). Two years later he married Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta Stanley Marris, known by her pet name of Ettie. She was the daughter of a Spanish soldier and, when Jerome first met her, married to a Mr Marris with a five-year old daughter, also christened Georgina but known as Elsie. Georgina filed for divorce, it became absolute on 12 June 1888 and Jerome and she were married nine days later. They were both twenty-nine years old. The honeymoon was spent on the Thames and Jerome began writing Three Men In A Boat on his return.
The book appeared in 1889 and made him rich and famous. In one leap he was made for life, part of the literary establishment, sitting above the salt with a loosely-knit circle of friends who included Eden Phillpotts, J.M. Barrie, Rider Haggard, H.G.Wells, Conan Doyle, W.W.Jacobs, Hall Caine, Thomas Hardy, Israel Zangwill and Rudyard Kipling.
The Diary of a Pilgrimage (a trip to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play) followed Boat, then collections of short stories and essays at the rate of nearly one a year until Three Men on the Bummel (1900) in which George, Harris and J made their second and final appearance together. Only a dozen or so titles were published after that, the most distinguished of which is his autobiographical novel Paul Kelver (1902), widely-praised at the time and, indeed, considered by some critics worthy to be put alongside Dickens.
Three Men In A Boat so overwhelms the mention of Jerome’s name that his other achievements remain quite obscured. There was Jerome the dramatist: between his first book and his most famous, he had four plays produced in London and wrote a further fifteen, many of them achieving respectable runs in London and America. By far the most celebrated and successful of these was The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1908), in which a charismatic Christ-like Stranger visits a run-down boarding house and transforms the lives of its inhabitants. The first production starred the greatest Hamlet of his day, Sir Johnson Forbes-Robertson. It was a huge hit and, though its maudlin sentiment renders it unperformable today, it continued to be revived well into the 1960s.
There was Jerome the editor and prolific columnist: he was preferred to Kipling as the chief of a new monthly magazine called The Idler, founded in 1892. The following year JKJ founded the weekly To-Day which survived till 1905. Both of these he edited until 1898 when the enormous costs incurred after losing a libel case (his opponent was awarded a farthing damages) necessitated selling his interests in both publications.
Jerome was much in demand as a lecturer, an occupation which complimented his love of travel, and we find him quite at home in Russia, America and especially Germany. His own daughter Rowena was born in 1898 (like her father, she too was to have a brief stage career) and in 1900 he moved the whole family to Dresden for two years. The First World War came as a terrible blow to him. At the age of 57, rejected by his own country for active service, he enlisted in the French army as a front line ambulance driver. When he returned home, his secretary wrote, “the old Jerome had gone. In his place was a stranger. He was a broken man.” Another black event was the death of his stepdaughter Elsie in 1921 at the early age of thirty-eight. She, his beloved Ettie and Rowena receive barely a mention in his autobiography. That part of his life he preferred to keep private. My Life and Times (1926), though frustratingly short on domestic details and with no attempt at chronology, is among Jerome’s most vital and entertaining books, his personality imprinted on every page.
He and Ettie were on a motoring tour returning to London from Devon via (in typical Three Men fashion) Cheltenham and Northampton when Jerome suffered a paralytic stroke and a cerebral haemorrhage. He lingered on in the Northampton General Hospital for two weeks, unable to move or speak, before dying on 14 June 1927.
His wife outlived him by eleven years. Rowena, who never married, died in 1966, the last surviving member of that branch of the Jerome family. JKJ, Ettie, Elsie and Jerome’s sister Blandina lie side by side in the beautiful churchyard of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, not far from the River Thames.