Three Men in a Boat is a deceptively simple story: three friends take a boating holiday on the River Thames. At first sight this does not seem a likely plot for a classic work of comedy, and the fact that it was written in the late Victorian period and was an instant bestseller seems even harder to believe. Nowadays a sense of humour does not immediately spring to mind as a defining characteristic of the Victorians, particular as Queen Victoria herself is famous for the remark, ‘We are not amused!’

Jerome K. Jerome later wrote, ‘I did not intend to write a funny book, at first. I did not know I was a humorist. I never have been sure about it. In the middle ages, I should probably have gone about preaching and got myself burnt or hanged.’ Although the book was a huge success with the reading public, Jerome was lucky that it was not killed off by the reviews. ‘Of course it was damned by the critics,’ Jerome observed. ‘One might have imagined – to read some of them – that the British Empire was in danger. One Church dignitary went about the country denouncing me. Punch was especially indignant, scenting an insidious attempt to introduce “new humour” into comic literature.’

The humour lies not in the plot, but in the detail. A relaxing holiday on the river, rowing and sailing upstream, seeing the sights, and camping in the boat during overnight stops – what could possibly go wrong? The answer, of course, is just about everything, and it is the antics of the three men with their differering attitudes and approaches to the various problems that make the book so funny. On the periphery, there is also the dog Montmorency, a thoroughly anarchic figure whose practical solution to their difficulties usually consists of getting out of the way until all the fuss dies down.

Most of the humour comes from comic set pieces, such as the agony of putting up a tent in adverse weather conditions. In some cases, episodes that still raise a laugh (because they are based on perennial problems like finding the correct train at a railway station) were actually topical jokes. Waterloo station was considered a confusing mess of platforms that it was almost impossible to find your way around, and the idea of bribing a train driver to take you wherever you want to go appeals as much to the modern railway user as it did to the Victorians. Indeed, the whole book was topical, because a river boating holiday had only become fashionable a decade before, and part of the book’s success was due to the fact that boating on the Thames was the latest craze at the time it was published.

The book also broke new ground with its subject matter and with its protagonists. The most popular books of the day were generally adventures with dashing heroes, by authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. A book about three ordinary men and their minor but hilarious adventures on the river was something totally new. Also new was the structure of the book, though whether by accident or design is unclear. The structure is completely unbalanced, since it takes the first quarter of the book to discuss and plan the trip and get them onto the river, while the return journey is wrapped up in just eleven pages.

The trip on the river is really just a frame on which to hang the various anecdotes and digressions that contain much of the humour. At intervals, and often sitting uncomfortably within the string of anecdotes and incidents, Jerome provides straight descriptive passages in a guidebook style, noting the places they are passing and their history. Sometimes he overdoes things, with fantasies such as a long description of how King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede. He seems to be trying to convey the idle thoughts and flights of fancy inspired by locations of such historical importance, but this does not always work. In general, his shorter descriptions succeed far better in creating the illusion of a real trip on the river.

Jerome was very well acquainted with the river, having made many trips on it with friends and even spending his honeymoon there with his new bride, immediately before writing the book. He certainly drew on previous experiences, and the three men he writes about had real counterparts – Jerome himself was the narrator ‘J.’, ‘George’ was based on a George Wingrave, and ‘Harris’ on Carl Hentschel. Only the dog, Montmorency, was entirely imaginary.

Perhaps the key to the success of Three Men in a Boat lies in its combination of simplicity and set-piece humorous incidents, most of which have a timeless, universal appeal. The book has been translated into many languages and repeatedly adapted for television. It is probably as popular today as when first published, because much of the language seems so fresh and modern. Ultimately, though, humour is a mysterious thing, a very personal thing, and there is only one way to discover whether Three Men in a Boat is funny – you must read it.