The Penguin Stephen Leacock 
by Robertson Davies.
Penguin, 527 pp., £2.95, October 1981, 0 14 005890 7
Show More
Jerome K. Jerome: A Critical Biography 
by Joseph Connolly.
Orbis, 208 pp., £7.95, August 1982, 0 85613 349 3
Show More
Three Men in a Boat 
by Jerome K. Jerome, annotated and introduced by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green.
Joseph, 192 pp., £12.50, August 1982, 0 907516 08 4
Show More
The Lost Stories of W.S. Gilbert 
edited by Peter Haining.
Robson, 255 pp., £7.95, September 1982, 0 86051 200 2
Show More
Show More

Stephen Leacock, the English-born, Canadian-reared humorist, has a single entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘Lord Ronald ... flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions’ (1911). Innumerable speakers, writers and politicians have helped themselves to this very serviceable joke; Leacock himself, writing in old age, used it without acknowledgment to illustrate a scientific disquisition. Perhaps he had forgotten that he was the originator of it.

As a humorist, Leacock could fairly be said to have jumped on his horse and galloped madly in all directions: into the realms of nonsense, fantasy, burlesque, parody, satire and the wisecrack – ‘Advertising ... the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’. In the process, he made himself a tremendous name and earned the high respect of those whose workaday trade was irreverence. But oblivion creeps up fast on funny men, and today he is in danger of being looked on as a mummy from some remote archaeological site of humour.

The bald facts of his life are these. He was born in Hampshire (or possibly the Isle of Wight) in 1869 and accompanied his parents to Canada when he was six. He had a rigorous upbringing on a farm, graduated at Toronto University, then taught for ten years before taking a degree in philosophy at Chicago. In 1903 he joined the staff of McGill University, Montreal, and from 1908 to 1936 was Professor of Political Economy and head of the Department of Economic and Political Science. From 1911 he began turning out humorous books with titles like Literary Lapses, Nonsense Novels and Behind the Beyond, and became a highly-paid lecturer. He died in 1944.

Leacock held his own in the world of Will Rogers, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, the early Wodehouse, A.P. Herbert and ‘Beachcomber’. Americans, or some of them, accepted him as a successor to Mark Twain. His Yankee-style hyperbole did not, for once, upset the British, for he practised the tricks of ‘sly English humour’ too. He was too near academe to be a cracker-barrel philosopher. His style was zestful, easy and lucid, free from tags and tired allusions. J.B. Priestley, who edited The Bodley Head Leacock (1957), claimed that, at his best, the Professor, by steering between the ‘amiable nonsense’ of English humour and the ‘hard-cutting wit and almost vindictive satire’ of America, was able to express an essentially Canadian quality and outlook, much to be valued in a land which had long been looking for a voice. This may well be so, though one would hate to be called on to identify a Canadian joke.

Leacock said he would rather have written Alice in Wonderland than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but there were sixth-formers (of whom this reviewer was one) who would rather have written his ‘Boarding-House Geometry’ than Alice in Wonderland. These specimen postulates will give the flavour:

All boarding-houses are the same boarding-house.

Boarders in the same boarding-house and on the same flat are equal to one another.

A single room is that which has no parts and no magnitude.

The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram – that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described but which is equal to anything.

Any two meals at a boarding-house are together less than two square meals.

The clothes of a boarding-house bed, though produced ever so far both ways, will not meet.

Ranking with ‘Boarding-House Geometry’ was the fantasy about A, B and C of the mathematics problem papers, an exercise which has inspired emulators. Another famous short piece, about an awed young man opening his first bank account, was used by George Eastman, the American pundit on humour, as the roll-’em-in-the-aisles centrepiece of his lecture for nearly twenty years.

All three items appear in the present Penguin anthology. Robertson Davies’s choice follows closely that of J.B. Priestley, but this is no doubt because large areas of the humorist’s works are undeniably dated. There is a generous helping from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the nearest he got to writing a novel, and also from the less satisfying (and uncompleted) The boy I left behind me, the nearest he got to autobiography. The parodies, as of Pickwick in the throes of Prohibition, do not wear too well, though ‘My Victorian Girlhood’, a skit on memoir-writing by the upper classes, remains first-rate.

For much of the volume we are in a remote wood-chopping world, a species of Arcadia – though a far from innocent one – in which earth-shaking events do not intrude. Leacock, it emerges, first became a humorous lecturer to raise funds for the Belgians in 1914, but, apart from that, World War One (in this volume, anyway) hardly registers. Suddenly, on page 310, there is a reference to Hitler, and the shock is like that administered in The Code of the Woosters when Wodehouse starts writing about dictators.

The small-town satires are the best items. They do, however, make one ponder Leacock’s statements, in his rather dull book on what makes us laugh, that humour is ‘the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof’ and that ‘the essence of humour is human kindliness.’ Not much human kindliness enters into ‘The Spiritual Outlook of Mr Doomer’, in which the dying man makes a beautiful end surrounded by such devotional works as the State Inheritance Statute. The only common faith among those present is faith in money. When the doctor says he must leave the patient to ‘other ministrations’, they call in the broker Jarvis, a most sympathetic man who ‘does all his firm’s business with the dying’. References to the ‘Other side’ are understood to mean New Jersey across the river, where the inheritance tax is more lenient. In a race against time, the dying man signs stock transfers and blank certificates:

‘The room is getting dim,’ he said, ‘I can see nothing but the figures.’

‘Never mind,’ said Jarvis, much moved, ‘that’s enough.’

‘Is it four hundred and thirty?’ he asked faintly.

‘Yes,’ I said, and I could feel the tears rising in my eyes, ‘and fifty cents.’

And Doomer passes on, with the eagerly-awaited tip on City Traction lost with his last breath.

It is ruthless, unsparing stuff, yet never sick or angry. Touches like ‘and fifty cents’ work their own magic. A similar mood prevails in the tale about the rival churches of St Asaph and St Osoph, where the outcome of the fight between the forces of God and Mammon is never in doubt. Here the author indulges to the full his gift for separating professed motives from real motives. It is the sort of story which could have got a lesser writer run out of town, yet Leacock was a favourite of the higher clergy.

In other sketches the local politicians and boosters are unflaggingly devious. The cry for ‘Clean Government’ is only a cover for seizing office and giving a new herd of hogs a turn at the trough. There are difficult ethical decisions to make: ‘The corruption of the press,’ says one reformer, ‘is one of the worst features that we have to oppose. But whether we can best fight it by buying the paper or buying the staff is hard to say.’

Robertson Davies seems to have qualms about some of these sketches. They are very funny, as he agrees, ‘but is there a character in them with whom you would willingly associate yourself? This is not the humour of Dickens, whom Leacock so greatly admired: it is the humour of the classical mind, when the classical mind takes a humorous course. It is an observing, cool, apparently easygoing mind that misses nothing and is deluded by nothing. It is very much an adult mind.’ The astonishing thing is that such a cool, adult, classical mind, improbably quickened and irradiated by political science, could have achieved on occasion such riotous burlesque.

There is much period interest in the glimpses of Leacock’s boyhood, in a harsh rural landscape where the architecture, such as it was, offered to the initiated all the tell-tale signs of slump and renewal. The Leacock farm, in recollection, was ‘one big stink’. The stable, undeniably foul, was not as bad as the ‘unspeakable cowshed, sunk in the dark below a barn, like a medieval oubliette’, or ‘the henhouse, never cleaned and looking like a guano deposit off the coast of Chile’, which in turn was outstunk by – what else? – the pigsties.

The children were instructed by their mother with the aid of old manuals designed for the use of English ladies bringing up their offspring in the colonies. Since the object was ‘to get a maximum of effect from a minimum of effort’, there were strings of leading questions ‘something like this’:

Q. Did not Julius Caesar invade Britain?

A. He did.

Q. Was it not in the year 55 BC?

A. It was.

Q. Was he later assassinated in Rome?

A. He was.

Q. Did not his friend Brutus take a part in assassinating him?

A. He did.

It sounds crazy, yet rings a far, faint bell in the memory.

Like so many transatlantic wags, Perelman not excepted, Leacock seemed out of his element when he ‘discovered’ other lands, notably Britain. Or perhaps he just did not study the English hard enough. At Oxford the Professor sat pontificating about educational systems, observing, reasonably enough, that the university needed a few millionaires to carry on the work of the Tudors. He affected distress – this was in 1922 – at the sight of all those young women ‘flittering up and down the streets’ in cap and gown. Women, he was sure, were better off in their own academic institutions: ‘a girl in such a place as McGill, with men all about her, sits for four years as silent as a frog full of shot.’ Twenty years on, it was a slightly different story, for young women had become lively, amusing creatures. ‘What could be more charming than a witty girl, half stewed, as compared with a girl half stewed and silent as a toad full of gravel?’

Was Leacock, then, an anti-feminist? He did say things (not quoted in this volume) like ‘In points of morals, the average woman is, for business, too crooked,’ adding that ‘men are able to trust one another, knowing the exact degree of dishonesty they are entitled to expect.’ No doubt his tongue was well within his cheek. Humorists sometimes get this way after dipping into the works of Ambrose Bierce.

In his autobiographical chapters, written during World War Two, Leacock is beginning to shy at innovations in education: ‘the effortless pretentious study of things that cannot be studied at all, the vague fermentations that tend to replace stern disciplinary work’. Sociology is ‘a wonderful subject of reflection for riper years, but hopelessly artificial as a class study for youth’. The new term ‘ecology’ ‘sounds a little too much like being sick’. At the same time, he lambastes some of the idiocies of Classical education and the ‘infernal conceit’ of Classicists. More entertainingly, if a shade nervously, he discourses about what scientists are doing to the atom; while he writes, unknown to him, the first atom bomb is being prepared for delivery.

Leacock enjoyed being Canada’s leading ‘character’. At the same time, he was a good university administrator and a good educator. A contemporary description of him says: ‘He has a fine grave face; a head well thatched with hair; a deep vibrating voice; and he walks with “a stride”.’ In geometrical terms, he had parts as well as magnitude. Something of a man’s man, perhaps: a pity he was unsure whether young women were frogs full of shot or toads full of gravel.

Three Men in a Boat was a book that caused the unlikeliest people to fall about laughing. In 1953 it may have caused hysteria on the Clapham omnibus as readers devoured the Pitman’s Advanced Shorthand version published (as Christopher Matthew reminds us) that year. Jerome would surely have relished such a spectacle; or would he have felt, as the Almighty may have thought when the Bible was first rendered into Pitman’s, that the finer elements of the text must inevitably be lost on someone struggling to decipher grammalogues? The plain version of Three Men has been in print since 1889. Somewhat late in the day its author is now up for study in a ‘critical biography’. This coincides with the publication of a lavishly illustrated and annotated edition of his most renowned work.

In reference books Jerome’s humour earns such tributes as ‘warm, unsatirical and un-intellectual’ (Britannica). The Dictionary of National Biography says: ‘The blending of farcical humour with somewhat naive sentiment, and of pretty descriptive writing with simple philosophising, suited the taste of the period.’ Much has been made of the fact that Three Men appealed to those compulsorily educated under the 1870 Education Act: but the addicts of this work included the beneficiaries of a superior education who were well aware that the author was being assailed for his clerkish colloquialisms and defiance of the rules and traditions of humour.

In America, where his early books were pirated, Jerome, like Leacock, was said to be inspired by Twain, which spurred his English admirers into tracing a Dickens influence. Joseph Connolly (author of an illustrated biography of P.G. Wodehouse) considers that the success of Three Men ‘depends largely on the adroit alternation of exaggeration and understatement which – as V.S. Pritchett put it – “runs like a rheumatism through English humour’”. It is tempting to say: ‘If this is rheumatism, send us more of it.’ Adolescents dreaming of fame used to sit down to analyse how Jerome got his effects, but the apparently easy prescription proved treacherous. It is, as Mr Connolly allows, hard to explain how Jerome, as a young man, developed his peculiar talent and acquired his freshness and nimbleness of style. Certainly it was not by reading his favourite writer, Carlyle.

His upbringing in Walsall and London was by no means a rollicking one. His father was a preacher turned coal prospector, who sank shafts in the wrong places and then, funds being exhausted, became an ironmonger in the East End of London. Young Jerome, though harried by roughs, was able to go to the Philological School in Lisson Grove, but left at 14, eager to be a writer. He worked first as a railway clerk, travelled with seedy repertory companies for two years and, at 19, became a penny-a-liner, tearing all over London to earn a pittance. All this must have disposed of his early shyness, even if it made him no extrovert. More important, it was excellent training for a popular author-playwright, though not calculated to mould a literary style to please Max Beerbohm, who was to pursue him with curious venom. Jerome’s first book was a collection of sketches about the stage and then came The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (all his busy life he affected to be an idler). Having found his feet he married and Three Men followed shortly afterwards. It was dashed off, in a Chelsea attic, in a mood of high elation: ‘I was feeling very young and absurdly pleased with myself for reasons that concern only myself.’ That is virtually all we know about the birth of the ‘new humour’.

Three Men was the best of books and the worst of books. Notoriously, Jerome could not decide whether he was writing a guide to the Thames or not. The fancy writer in him describes the moon attempting to kiss the river with a sister’s kiss and throwing her ‘silver arms around it clingingly’. The philosopher tells us that ‘Pain and Sorrow are but the angels of God.’ The historian pictures bright-cloaked gallants on the water-steps at Hampton Court crying ‘Gadzooks’ and ‘Gramercy’. But readers forgave him everything for the comic set-pieces.

The correspondence between the author and his publisher, J. W. Arrowsmith, on Three Men has a curiously unprofessional air. On receiving Jerome’s first exploratory letter, Arrowsmith says: ‘Of course I recognise your name. Will you kindly let me see what you propose that we should publish together: if it is verse, I am afraid of it: verse does not pay. Bye the bye, reading your note again, I see it is not verse.’ This is so much in the vein of the telegram ‘Why did you not pack my dress shirt? PS: I have just found it’ that it is hard to see why Jerome was so keen they should ‘do business together’. He was no fool, however, and screwed up the publisher’s terms to his advantage.

Most of Jerome’s papers were destroyed after his death, but there is no suggestion that they harboured dark secrets. In 1928, a year after he died, Alfred Moss published the sort of eulogy one Walsall man reserves for another; it contained little that was not in Jerome’s My Life and Times, his novelised autobiography Paul Kelver, or his essays. Sir James Barrie, a friend of Jerome, was asked for recollections and said that everything relevant was in My Life and Times. Others apparently took a similar view. They could have been conspiring to conceal something, or they could have felt Moss was the wrong man for the task, or Barrie could have meant, quite simply, that there was nothing else to look for: that Jerome was that ‘fatal drollery’ (to borrow a Disraelism), a reasonably eupeptic and uncomplicated author, a decent fellow and a good family man.

Mr Connolly, whose prose is none too supple at times, does not succeed in producing a ‘real’ or an ‘unknown’ Jerome. Of necessity he, too, relies heavily on the published canon, picking his way with discrimination between incidents which are real, coloured or quite fictitious. The great problem with the writings of professional funny men is in knowing just what to believe. As an example, Mr Connolly quotes a diverting account of social visiting in Belgium and then points out that it is all made up. Did Jerome, in his shy middle teens, really play all the characters in Hamlet except Ophelia, as he claimed? He was ‘fairly convinced’ that as a boy he met Dickens in Victoria Park, Hackney and talked about authorship to him. There is a passage on these lines in Paul Kelver. But Jerome was not the only public figure to boast of such an encounter (see Coulson Kernahan’s introduction to Moss’s life).

Jerome’s works are as treacherous a guide to reality as the travels of Perelman. The conscientious Mr Connolly must often have sighed for firmer ground, just as he must have wished that his subject’s life had contained more controversy. There was that business of the farthing damages received from a printer and the farthing libel damages he had to pay a rich man, but the libel action was anything but a juicy one. Even when Jerome had to sell the magazine in which the libel appeared, along with another one, to help pay his £9, 000 costs (a very stiff sum in those days) he seems not to have been heavily scarred by the ordeal and nobody thought the worse of him. At no time did scandal attach to his name. There is a minor riddle in that he almost wholly ignored the existence of his wife’s daughter by an earlier marriage, but that is not a bone worth gnawing.

Of course, like many authors he wished people would forget the early book which made his name and praise instead his own favourite. Like many authors, he feared he had not fulfilled himself. Like all humorists, he wanted to say something serious and do his stint of moralising and letters to the Times. Even in Three Men he had to insert that extraordinary incident of the female corpse floating downstream and discourse about the way society treats the ‘erring outcast’ (Christopher Matthew and Benny Green identify her as a Gaiety Girl drowned the previous year at Goring: ‘Jerome read a report of the tragedy in the Berkshire Chronicle and decided to incorporate it into his story’). Jerome’s most successful serious play, though few would now grant it the second adjective, was The Passing of the Third Floor Back, in which a Christ-like figure transfigures the nasty inhabitants of a boarding-house (a ‘vilely stupid’ play, Beerbohm thought). It seems unlikely that in his heart the playwright regarded it as the sort of thing to establish him as ‘quite a swell dead author’.

How much annotation does Three Men really need? If the resourceful Christopher Matthew and Benny Green err at all, they do so on the generous side. Among sources they ransack for sidelights are The Lock to Lock Times, which catered for the boating fancy, and a Thames guide published by Charles Dickens Junior. Jerome’s mention of the fine riverside house of ‘my newsagent’ is the cue for a run-down on the original W.H. Smith. A reference to Sandford and Merton is used to remind us why it was ‘one of the most riotously ridiculous books of the 18th century’. Do allusions to mustard, whooping cough, mackintoshes and gaslight need elaboration? Well, I have been criticised (in these pages) for saying that everybody ought to know about Zeppelins. Two chances for a gloss, I respectfully suggest, have been missed. The boy making peculiar noises by lowering something on a string was operating a home-made toy called a ‘sucker’, capable of lifting tiles out of kitchen floors; and the reference to dogs killing rats was a clear call for a discourse on the ratting pits of the East End pubs, in one of which the dread Jacko killed 1000 rats in one hour, 40 minutes – something that quarrelsome tyke Montmorency could never have done.

The lost stories of Sir William Gilbert were lost only in the sense that nobody until now was moved to disinter them from old magazines. Gilbert, we are told, rated his short stories highly and several of them, as Peter Haining shows, were adapted for stage productions: notably, the one about the upsets caused in an English village by a widely distributed love philtre, which was the basis of The Sorcerer. Several of these tales exploit a vein of supernatural whimsy. The author, writing in the first person, plainly enjoys casting himself as a good fairy; but he also turns up as a bohemian, an old buffer, a paralysed invalid in Venice and an old Etonian son of a begging-letter writer. The first story is semi-autobiographical and describes a barrister dodging a boot flung at him in court by a woman pickpocket he is incompetently defending (Gilbert was a failure at the Bar). The last story, about an unlikely encounter with a confidence trickster, is vouched for by Gilbert as ‘literally true in every detail’, which recalls Jerome’s assurance that Three Men in a Boat was a tale of ‘hopeless and incurable veracity.’.

What Mr Haining oddly calls ‘a story of personal heroism’ is a cynical piece about wire-pulling in the Army when commissions were bought and sold. What he hails as ‘an example of Gilbert’s Topsy-turvydom at its very best’ is merely every householder’s dream of forcing a burglar at gunpoint to disrobe and go naked into the night. Most baffling of all is the description of the story ‘Diamonds’ as ‘a grim tale of tragedy complete with a vivid denouement’: it is patently nothing of the sort. The title ‘Diamonds’ is meaningless; surely there has been some strange muddle here? Mr Haining is right, however, in supposing that a psychologist would relish the tale in which a bachelor of grumpy ways is beset on the train by a tiresome negress, becomes marooned with her and eventually allows her to wed and discard him.

Gilbert is mainly on his good behaviour, in so far as his well-known cruel streak is subdued. The wit is of the type known as puckish; the style can be long-winded but is not always so; the occasional pathos is sensitively handled. Period touches include phrases like ‘I denied the soft impeachment.’ Predictably, we meet a slippery man of the theatre called Levy; less predictably, a girl called Bertha, ‘a clean girl for a German’, who has taken to ‘performing ablutions three or even four times a week’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences