After enjoying Three Men in a Boat so thoroughly, I approached its sequel with anticipation. And while Bummel wasn’t quite as funny as Boat, it was still a very worthwhile and engaging read.
Several years have passed since J., Harris, and George tooled about on the river. Harris and J. are both now married with children, and our story opens with the three friends discussing how they could really do with a bit of a break from the wear and tear of domestic life. I think that one of the things that I greatly enjoyed was that while J. and Harris are definitely eager for a holiday, there is never a feeling that they are tired of being married or that they wish that they could abandon their families forever. Both wives are portrayed as intelligent and hardworking, and on the whole everyone seems to be quite happily married. However, that doesn’t mean that a bit of a vacation wouldn’t be welcome.
And so, the three decide to bicycle around Germany (specifically through the Black Forest). The first few chapters are them deciding where to go and what to do, and then persuading the wives to let them go off and do it – without tagging along. My first genuine laugh came in chapter two, when J. begins to imagine how he will broach the subject to his wife, and how his wife will respond.
I opened the ball with Ethelbertha that same evening. I commenced by being purposely a little irritable. My idea was that Ethelbertha would remark upon this. I should admit it, and account for it by over brain pressure. This would naturally lead to talk about my health in general, and the evident necessity there was for my taking prompt and vigorous measures. I thought that with a little tact I might even manage so that the suggestion should come from Ethelbertha herself.
J. imagines a lovely discussion with his wife, in which she humbly pleads with him to take a break from domestic life and go off on a little jaunt with Harris and George. The whole paragraph had me giggling, with sentences like, “Go away to some green corner of the earth, where all is new and strange to you, where your overwrought mind will gather peace and fresh ideas.” Or, “Go away for a space and give me time to miss you, and to reflect upon your goodness and virtue, which, continually present with me, I may, human-like, be apt to forget, as one, through use, grows indifferent to the blessing of the sun and the beauty of the moon.” The whole thing is absolute balderdash, but one can still see a man thinking that this may be what his woman will say to him!
It is extra funny when contrasted with how the conversation actually goes – from Ethelbertha not actually noticing that J. is more irritable than usual, to her completely turning the tables and persuading J. that she should go on a holiday. It is all just too perfectly written.
Eventually, the friends get away and begin their journey. It is full of the usual adventures, although Jerome is less apt to go off onto his historical and natural meanderings – and I found myself rather missing them. Still, he does give many observations about Germany and the people who live there. On the whole, Jerome tends to admire their hardworking and law-abiding attitude. His writing on the way that Germans obey rules that the English would flaunt was quite funny, and a reminder of how different cultures really can be. However, I never felt that Jerome crossed the line to unpleasant mockery. His teasing is always gentle and kind.
This book was published in 1900, with World War still over a decade away, yet Jerome already seems to sense the possible danger of a culture so tied up in automatic and unquestioning obedience to the government.
Their [the German schools] everlasting teaching is duty. It is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it, one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what his ‘duty’ is. The German idea of it would appear to be: ‘blind obedience to everything in buttons.’ It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continues, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.
All in all, while Bummel wasn’t the rollicking, nonstop laughter of Three Men in a Boat, it was still an interesting and entertaining volume, reflective of its time, yet still full of the timeless observations of human nature that made Boat so enjoyable. Not quite as highly recommended as the first book, but Bummel is still an easy 4/5 read and recommended as well.