I suspect this is going to be another review of a book that makes you run right out and not buy that book. So let me start by telling you about the book you should run out and buy: Jerome’s Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). It’s been in print for a century, and for good reason– it’s great. I think people on this side of the Atlantic no longer know it, but it’s the narration of a trip upriver on the Thames, with frequent, hilarious digressions. It’s part of the tradition of British books celebrating messing about with boats, along with The Wind in the Willows, Gaudy Night, and The Voyage fo the Dawn Treader. While telling you everything that can go wrong with such an expedition, it makes you want to try one.
Good, but not quite as good, is the much later sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, about a cycling trip through Germany, perhaps most notable for its observations on German culture of the time (such as the horrific student duels).
The book I just finished is Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, which is a set of humorous essays– the Victorian equivalent of stand-up comedy or blogging. It’s pretty variable. He’s often quite funny, and it’s also a fascinating window into the mores of the Victorian middle class– which are suprisingly recognizable. With corporate jobs, railroads, and the telephone, it doesn’t seem that far from our society. A little more sex-differentiated, but very little that shakes the weirdness meter. (One of his frequent topics is the relations between the sexes, and sometimes it’s a bit sexist, but he makes a real effort to make fun of men too; he has the English attitude that everyone is rather silly.)
Occasionally he gets tedious, partly because the essays are overlong, partly because he often lapses into moralistic flights of fancy. I think these are intended to fall somewhere between parody and earnestness; their usual message is that this world is ultimately vain, or that we don’t live up to our ideals; or he laments the loss of youthful vigor and naivete. For a modern reader, the joke if any is lost– if nothing else these passages are way too long to come off as tongue in cheek. It’s kind of interesting, though, that the ancient moral lesson of dismissing this world (riches are vain, remember we’re all going to die anyway) was still strong in 1899; American evangelicalism is much more likely to sell prosperity theology and blip right over death (many even try to give the impression that Christians don’t even have to die, as they’re gonna get raptured any moment now anyway).