Thursday, July 13, 2006

A painstaking description of the Grampian Hills

In Three Men on the Bummel (1900), the sequel to Three Men in a Boat (1889), Jerome K. Jerome avoids describing the landscape of Germany through which his three men cycle because
‘Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read. When Gibbon had to trust to travellers’ tales for a description of the Hellespont, and the Rhine was chiefly familiar to English students through the medium of Caesar’s Commentaries, it behoved every globe-trotter, for whatever distance, to describe to the best of his ability the things that he had seen. Dr Johnson, familiar with little else than the view down Fleet Street, could read the description of a Yorkshire moor with pleasure and with profit. To a cockney who had never seen higher ground than the Hog’s Back in Surrey, an account of Snowdon must have appeared exciting. But we, or rather the steam-engine and the camera for us, have changed all that. The man who plays tennis every year at the foot of the Matterhorn, and billiards on the summit of the Rigi, does not thank you for elaborate and painstaking description of the Grampian Hills. To the average man, who has seen a dozen oil-paintings, a hundred photographs, a thousand pictures in the illustrated journals, and a couple of panoramas of Niagara, the word-painting of a waterfall is tedious.’
Jerome sees the problem not just as a symptom of modernity but of the basic fitness of language to convey landscape. ‘An American friend’ loved poetry but gained a better idea of the Lake District from ‘an eighteenpenny book of photographic views than from all the words of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth put together.’ This friend also said ‘that he would thank an author as much for writing an eloquent description of what he had just had for dinner’ (what would he think of today’s food writing?)

Jerome seems to be voicing here a typically jaded metropolitan post-Romantic view of landscape writing. But ironically, the lack of topographical description – whether witty or poetic – is one of the main defects of Three Men on the Bummel. You get no real sense of the journey through the Black Forest as you do the trip up the Thames in Three Men in a Boat. Shorn of a sense of landscape the sequel fails to come alive and exists more as a collection of loose anecdotes and ideas about the German people.

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