At long last, a writer has given JKJ (or ‘Arry K. ‘Arry, as his contemporaries rudely dubbed him – “‘Arry”, as Oulton explains, being more or less on a par with “chav”) a decent biography. The earlier efforts have been hobbled by JKJ’s destruction of his own papers, and also by the way in which he concealed himself, either playfully or deliberately or even mistakenly, in his own autobiography. His name alone is a problem – He was certainly named Jerome Jerome, although his father was born Clapp, and changed it to Jerome not long before JKJ, his last child, was born (his previous biographer gets that completely the wrong way round). The middle ‘K’ disguises the fact that he (the son) was Jerome Clapp Jerome, something he was still admitting to census-takers and the like until well into the 1870s. The story he put round was that a Hungarian general called Klapka had been a family friend. There was a Klapka, but the dates are all wrong, and the connection is beyond implausible.
Three Men In A Boat (Not To Mention The Dog) was perhaps a mixed blessing for Jerome, because it made his name and defined him as a comic writer (ironically, the book was intended as a sort of travelogue, offering glimpses of the history of the Thames, but a good editor, and good sense changed all that). Little of his other work was taken very seriously, although he did write a much-performed (and now little-known) play, The Passing Of The Third Floor Back. As a working journalist, however, he defined a new and entertaining style, and influenced a number of other writers, including Robert Lynd, the mainstay of New Statesman from 1913 to 1945, and who wrote for ‘Today’, one of JKJ’s magazines. Another, now-forgotten journalist, Gerald Gould, was also much influenced. Indeed, JKJ had a profound effect on the very magazine that took a critical cleaver to him more often than most: Punch.
What I love about Oulton’s study is that it gets under the skin of the man. Sometimes, as Oulton admits, he can be hard to like. His views on women and suffrage were far from breezy, and his views on race contradictory: nonetheless, he can be found denouncing the lynchings that took place in the southern USA, and, in his very private life, he protected his wife and his children – there is almost no trace of them, merely stray references by others. And yet their courtship must have been extraordinary, since she divorced her first husband – far from easy then - a husband who was actually related to Jerome. No real trace of it survives, and what little there is is dealt with with a really impressive caution by Oulton, who is not given to speculation. (Jerome also believed he had, as a child, met Dickens. He believed it. I doubt it. Oulton is properly careful. If he didn’t, he should have.)
I first came across the oddity of Jerome’s life when I had the idea – about the only one that has ever attracted a publisher – of writing vignettes of a variety of figures in the 1881 census whose lives were becoming ‘lost’ – misunderstood, confused, subject to rumour. Quite often this was, it’s true, because the figures had tried to erase their footsteps, as Jerome did. I had a great two years, and then was swallowed by a job, and simply put the outcome up on the internet for anyone to have a go at. In Jerome’s case, it was the wonderful Frank Rodgers who set me straight (he is the fount of almost all Jerome wisdom, and what’s more, possesses Jerome’s mother’s diary). And if there is a family relationship to get tangled up in, it’s Jerome’s. I thought my own family had a stunner in that my great-grandfather’s cousin married her father’s brother-in-law. The Jeromes created a web of marriages and cousinry (no such word, but there should be) that it would take a genius to put it simply.
Oulton, like me, has had Frank Rodgers on her case. He ticked me off very generously. Unlike me, she’s completed a full-scale biography. That curious Amazon trick of letting you read what feels like a lot of the book had the desired result: press Order Now. I didn’t regret it, and read the whole thing straight through. I really advise you to do the same. Do it here.