Did you ever venture beyond Three Men in a Boat and explore the world of Jerome K Jerome? You should. For not only did he write ghost stories, he also deconstructed them mercilessly. He had some surprisingly thoughtful things to say in general – and he engaged in speculative satire, which may have influenced some of the great dystopian novels of the 20th century, including works by Huxley and Orwell. Join us, then, dear listener, for more Edwardian Arcane…
Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is most often remembered these days as a humourist. His boating tales are still shared, republished and broadcast. As biographies of Jerome are easy to find, we’re only concerned here with his involvement in the supernatural and speculative, otherwise this would be an awfully long feature.
Some background may apply before we mention his ghost stories. Firstly, his middle name was Klapka, after a Hungarian general, apparently. Seconfly, Jerome, who found The Idler and Today magazines, knew everyone. H Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, J M Barrie, Arthur Machen and so on. He published some of them in The Idler, and hob-nobbed with many.
Nor was he afraid to chatter about his acquaintances. A somewhat poignant example from his name-dropping memoirs concerns Machen and Machen’s first wife Amy, who died of cancer in 1899:
Arthur Machen married a dear friend of mine, a Miss Hogg. How so charming a lady came to be born with such a name is one of civilization’s little ironies. She had been a first nighter, and one of the founders of the Playgoers’ Club, which was in advance of its time, and admitted women members. Amy Hogg was also a pioneer. She lived by herself in diggings opposite the British Museum, frequented restaurants and Aerated Bread shops, and had many men friends: all of which was considered very shocking in those days…
…Machen when he was young suggested the Highbrow. He has developed into a benevolent-looking, white-haired gentleman. He might be one of the Brothers Cheeryble stepped out of “Nicholas Nickleby.” For ability to create an atmosphere of nameless terror I can think of no author living or dead who comes near him. I gave Conan Doyle his “Three Impostors” to read one evening, and Doyle did not sleep that night.
“Your pal Machen is a genius right enough,” said Doyle, “but I don’t take him to bed with me again.”
My Life and Times, 1926
Jerome even manages to shoehorn Oscar Wilde into the same reminiscence:
One frequently saw Oscar Wilde (at the Florence restaurant). He and his friends would come in late and take the table in the further corner. Rumours were already going about, and his company did not tend to dispel them.
He was close friends with Barry Pain, author of ‘The Undying Thing’ and other supernatural stories, who we mentioned a while back – six dark tales of dread . Whilst Jerome wrote a range of short stories and essays during the late Victorian and Edwardian period, ghost story enthusiasts might know him only for his wonderful collection Told After Supper (1891). This is a collection which every lover of early ghost stories should have, and should read, but for less usual reasons:
1) In the introduction, Jerome pulls apart almost every ghost story theme and trope with merciless and very amusing skill. He explores the Christmas Eve concept of ghosts walking and tales being told, and slyly mocks many a ‘Dickensian’ period concept.
2) The linked concept of the stories in there is a lovely parody in itself.
3) ‘The Haunted Mill’ is one of the most wry deconstructions of a haunting ever.
The 1891 edition by Leadenhall press was profusely illustrated by Kenneth M. Skeaping (some of his illos are shown in this article) and can be found on-line: https://archive.org/stream/toldaftersupper00jerorich#page/n9/mode/2up
The Darker Side of Jerome
Should you want rather more worrying tales, Jerome did a few of these as well. In Novel Notes (1893), he has the construct of four men trying to work together to write a novel, but never succeeding:
When, on returning home one evening, after a pipe party at my friend Jephson’s, I informed my wife that I was going to write a novel, she expressed herself as pleased with the idea. She said she had often wondered I had never thought of doing so before. “Look,” she added, “how silly all the novels are nowadays; I’m sure you could write one.” (Ethelbertha intended to be complimentary, I am convinced; but there is a looseness about her mode of expression which, at times, renders her meaning obscure.)
When, however, I told her that my friend Jephson was going to collaborate with me, she remarked, “Oh,” in a doubtful tone; and when I further went on to explain to her that Selkirk Brown and Derrick MacShaughnassy were also going to assist, she replied, “Oh,” in a tone which contained no trace of doubtfulness whatever, and from which it was clear that her interest in the matter, as a practical scheme, had entirely evaporated.
Some of his stories are surprisingly dark. ‘The Skeleton’, for example, is a classic horror story, whilst ‘The Snake’ is a tale of tragedy. Both are in Novel Notes, and the whole book is easily available through Project Gutenberg. You might also check out a genuine tale of ghosts and terrible vengeance in perhaps his most effective straight supernatural tale, ‘The Woman of the Saeter’, which is in his short, varied collection published as John Ingerfield, and Other Stories.
We mentioned dystopias at the start, and the reason for this is that Jerome wrote a short speculative piece called The New Utopia in 1891. Presented as a typical ‘dream’ event, a common approach back then, it describes a man’s guided wandering through the world of the 29th Century. Every aspect of life has been ‘equalised’, in favour of the needs and views of the Majority.
All citizens are numbered and wear identical clothes; living is communal, with set times for everything. The family has gone – children are bred and raised in appropriate numbers under State supervision – and men and women are anonymously equal. Jerome takes this down to even the most mundane aspects of life:
I had not washed when I got up, there being no conveniences for doing so in the Museum, and I was begining to feel somewhat hot and dirty. I said:
“Can I wash myself anywhere?”
He said: “No; we are not allowed to wash ourselves. You must wait until half-past four, and then you will be washed for tea.”
“Be washed!” I cried. “Who by?”
He said that they had found they could not maintain their equality when people were allowed to wash themselves. Some people washed three or four times a day, while others never touched soap and water from one year’s end to the other, and in consequence there got to be two distinct classes, the Clean and the Dirty. All the old class prejudices began to be revived. The clean despised the dirty, and the dirty hated the clean. So, to end dissension, the State decided to do the washing itself, and each citizen was now washed twice a day by government-appointed officials; and private washing was prohibited.
Despite that trivial note, there is also a threatening side to the suppression of individuality in his story. The curious thing, for our purposes, is that Jerome’s tales were translated into Russian during the Edwardian era, and circulated there. And then, in 1924, the Russian author Zevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) published the influential dystopian novel We. It seems likely that Zamyatin had noted Jerome’s New Utopia, for many of the same themes crop up in We. Zamyatin read widely, and as an engineer worked in the United Kingdom from 1916 to late 1917.
We is important, not just in its own right, but because this work in turn strongly influenced George Orwell in the writing of 1984. Zamyatin’s novel is also said to have influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, though Huxley denied it at the time. For completeness, given that this is Edwardian Arcane, H G Wells’s writing on socialist utopias was also a major factor, though the books about which we’re talking did not see such developments as positive. And Wells’ main writing on the utopian theme and politics came a decade after Jerome, in the early 1900s.
Time, The Great Pretender
Whilst our main message is probably that you should get hold of Told After Supper, and enjoy it, we’ll mention that some of Jerome’s fanciful essays are well worth a look. Here’s an extract from the rather delightful Clocks, as a taster:
At first it exhibited a strong desire to topple over and fall on people, but by the liberal use of nails and screws and bits of firewood, I made life in the same room with it possible, and then, being exhausted, I had my wounds dressed, and went to bed.
In the middle of the night my wife woke me up in a great state of alarm, to say that the clock had just struck thirteen, and who did I think was going to die?
I said I did not know, but hoped it might be the next-door dog. My wife said she had a presentiment it meant baby. There was no comforting her; she cried herself to sleep again.
During the course of the morning, I succeeded in persuading her that she must have made a mistake, and she consented to smile once more. In the afternoon the clock struck thirteen again. This renewed all her fears. She was convinced now that both baby and I were doomed, and that she would be left a childless widow. I tried to treat the matter as a joke, and this only made her more wretched. She said that she could see I really felt as she did, and was only pretending to be light-hearted for her sake, and she said she would try and bear it bravely.
In the night the clock gave us another warning, and my wife accepted it for her Aunt Maria, and seemed resigned. She wished, however, that I had never had the clock, and wondered when, if ever, I should get cured of my absurd craze for filling the house with tomfoolery.
The next day the clock struck thirteen four times and this cheered her up. She said that if we were all going to die, it did not so much matter. Most likely there was a fever or a plague coming, and we should all be taken together. She was quite light-hearted over it!
After that the clock went on and killed every friend and relation we had, and then it started on the neighbors. It struck thirteen all day long for months, until we were sick of slaughter, and there could not have been a human being left alive for miles around.
Then it turned over a new leaf, and gave up murdering folks, and took to striking mere harmless thirty-nines and forty-ones. Its favourite number now is thirty-two, but once a day it strikes forty-nine. It never strikes more than forty-nine. I don’t know why–I have never been able to understand why–but it doesn’t.
It does not strike at regular intervals, but when it feels it wants to and would be better for it. Sometimes it strikes three or four times within the same hour, and at other times it will go for half-a-day without striking at all. He is an odd old fellow!
I have thought now and then of having him “seen to,” and made to keep regular hours and be respectable; but, somehow, I seem to have grown to love him as he is with his daring mockery of Time.
He certainly has not much respect for it. He seems to go out of his way almost to openly insult it. He calls half-past two thirty-eight o’clock, and in twenty minutes from then he says it is one!
Is it that he really has grown to feel contempt for his master, and wishes to show it? They say no man is a hero to his valet; may it be that even stony-face Time himself is but a short-lived, puny mortal—a little greater than some others, that is all–to the dim eyes of this old servant of his? Has he, ticking, ticking, all these years, come at last to see into the littleness of that Time that looms so great to our awed human eyes?
And finally, Jerome could be oddly profound at times. We leave you with this thought from Novel Notes:
There is a fairy story that I read many, many years ago that has never ceased to haunt me. It told how a little boy once climbed a rainbow. And at the end of the rainbow, just behind the clouds, he found a wondrous city. Its houses were of gold, and its streets were paved with silver, and the light that shone upon it was as the light that lies upon the sleeping world at dawn. In this city there were palaces so beautiful that merely to look upon them satisfied all desires; temples so perfect that they who once knelt therein were cleansed of sin. And all the men who dwelt in this wondrous city were great and good, and the women fairer than the women of a young man’s dreams. And the name of the city was, “The city of the things men meant to do.”