Jerome Klapka Jerome (May 2, 1859–June 14, 1927) was an English author, best known for the humorous travelogue Three Men in a Boat.
He was born at 1 Caldmore Road, on the corner of Bradford Street in Walsall, then in Staffordshire, where there is now a museum in his honour, and was brought up in poverty in London.
Other works include the essay collections Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow; Three Men on the Bummel, a sequel to Three Men in a Boat; and several other novels.
Jerome was the fourth child of Jerome Clapp Jerome, a lay preacher who dabbled in architecture, and Marguerite Jones. He had two sisters and one brother. Due to bad investments in the local mining industry, the family suffered poverty, and debt collectors often visited, an experience Jerome described vividly in his autobiography My Life and Times. The young Jerome wished to go into politics or be a man of letters, but the death of both his parents in 1872, when he was 13 years old, forced him to quit his studies and find work to support himself. He was employed at the London and North Western Railway, initially collecting coal that fell along the railway, and remained there for four years.
In 1877, inspired by his older sister Blandina’s love for the theatre, Jerome had decided to try his hand at acting, under the stage name Harold Crichton. He joined a repertory troupe who tried to produce plays on a shoestring budget, often drawing on the meager resources of the actors themselves to purchase costumes and props. Jerome had later comically reflected on this period in On the Stage—and Off, where it is apparent that he was penniless at the time. After three years on the road and with no evident success, a 21 year old Jerome decided he had had enough with stage life, and sought other occupations. He tried to become a journalist, writing essays, satires and short stories, but most of these were rejected. Over the next few years he was a school teacher, a packer, and a solicitor’s clerk. Finally, in 1885, he had some success with On the Stage—and Off, a humorous book which publication had opened the door for more plays and essays. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, a collection of humorous essays, followed in 1886. On June 21, 1888, Jerome married Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta Stanley Marris (a.k.a. Ettie), nine days after she had divorced her first husband. She had a daughter from a previous, five-year marriage, nicknamed Elsie (her actual name was also Georgina). The honeymoon took place on the Thames, a fact which was to have a significant influence on his next, and most important work, Three Men in a Boat.
Jerome sat down to write Three Men in a Boat as soon as the couple returned from their honeymoon. In the novel, his wife was replaced by his longtime friends George Wingrave (George) and Carl Hentschel (Harris). This had allowed him to create comic (and non-sentimental) situations which were nonetheless intertwined with the history of the Thames region. The book, published in 1889, became an instant success and has remained in print until the present. Its popularity was such that the number of registered Thames boats went up fifty per cent in the year following its publication, and it contributed significantly to the Thames becoming a tourist attraction. In its first twenty years alone, the book sold over a million copies worldwide. It had been adapted to movies, TV and radio shows, stage plays, and even a musical. Its writing style influenced many humorists and satirists in England and elsewhere. Its endurance can probably be attributed to the style and choice of a relatively unchanged location, which prevents the work from appearing dated.
With the financial security the sales of the book provided, Jerome was able to dedicate all of his time to writing. He wrote a number of plays, essays and novels, but was never again able to recapture the success of Three Men in a Boat. In 1892 he was chosen to edit The Idler (over Rudyard Kipling). The magazine was an illustrated satirical monthly catering to gentlemen (who, following the theme of the publication, appreciated idleness). In 1893 he founded To-Day, but had to withdraw from both publications due to financial difficulties and a libel suit.
In 1898, a short stay in Germany inspired Three Men on the Bummel, the sequel to Three Men in a Boat. While reintroducing the same characters in the setting of a foreign bicycle tour, the book was nonetheless unable to capture the life-force and historic roots of its predecessor, and the book enjoyed only a mild success. In 1902 he published the novel Paul Kelver, which is widely regarded as autobiographical. His 1908 play Passing of the Third Floor Back introduced a more somber Jerome, which the public was reluctant to accept.
Jerome volunteered to serve his country at the outbreak of the war, but due to his age at the time (56), he was rejected by the British Army. Eager to serve in some capacity, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French Army. The war experience was said to have dampened his spirit, as no doubt was the death in 1921 of his stepdaughter Elsie.
In 1926, Jerome published his autobiography My Life and Times. Shortly afterwards, the Borough of Walsall conferred on him the title, Freeman of the Borough. In June of 1927 Jerome suffered a paralytic stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage. He lay in the hospital for two weeks before succumbing on June 14th. He was cremated at Golders Green, and buried at St Mary's Church, Ewelme, Oxfordshire. Elsie, Ettie, and his sister Blandina are buried there beside him. A museum dedicated to his life and works now exists at his birth home in Walsall.