A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome Brighton, U.K.: Victorian Secrets, 2012. 285pp. ISBN: 978-1-906469-37-5

reviewed by John McRae

The Victorian Secrets imprint goes from strength to strength, performing a valuable service in recovering many long-forgotten and unavailable texts and publishing biographies of often lesser-known figures of the period.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) could hardly be described as a lesser-known figure. But this is astonishingly only the fifth biography of one of the most famous names in comic fiction, the direct link between Dickens and Wodehouse. Being known for one or two novels has not helped his cause, and his often significant plays have languished undeservedly – they need the kind of enthusiastic quality revival currently being enjoyed by Githa Sowerby. The biographer here, Carolyn Oulton, has performed a major recovery job for Victorian Secrets on Jerome’s anonymously published 1892 novel Weeds, which stands with Moore’s Esther Waters, Teleny by Wilde et al, the social novels of Hardy and some plays of Pinero as one of the significant works on the sexual morality of its day.

Of these, only Esther Waters gets a mention here. Strangely, there is no mention of Max Beerbohm either, whom most would consider the other great comic essayist of the time, famed, like Jerome, for one major novel (and famously negative about his contemporary colleague). The tradition of humorous magazine articles for a middle-brow, middle-class readership goes back to Charles Lamb, and continues to the present. But of course, it is seen as only journalism, and self-deprecating titles like The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow play up to the image of unconsidered trifles.

Carolyn Oulton rightly makes much of the considerable artistry Jerome demonstrates in his seemingly effortless lighter pieces, and examines carefully some of the more socially significant plays and stories. She has carried out some necessary research into the author’s background and upbringing, and clarifies a lot of the myths and legends that have tended to obfuscate the reality of his middle-class origins and the family’s falling on hard times in the Midlands and London.
Jerome was born in Walsall in 1859. That peculiar middle name, Klapka, comes from his father’s actual surname, Clapp. His penurious upbringing ties in with, but cannot really be ascribed as the cause of, a core of melancholy in Jerome’s life and thought. Despite his glorious successes, he shared with many of his contemporaries the serious trauma of the First World War, as well as a disastrous libel suit, and the death of his beloved step-daughter, Elsie, in 1921.

Like his idol Dickens, Jerome was a melancholy man. Oulton mentions this again and again, but somehow I never feel she comes close to knowing the man. She has not the skills to analyse his writing style linguistically or stylistically. And quotations, albeit well-chosen, from the “semi-autobiographical” 1902 novel Paul Klevert, do not, despite her insistence, take us into the heart of the man.

It was his glorious comic writing which brought him early success, fame, and powerful friends. And it is frustrating that Oulton’s writing about Jerome’s magical prose is itself so flat. Her heart is certainly in the right place, but she manages the flow of the narrative poorly, such that it often seems disjointed and the reader has to check back to see what she is referring to. We are told of the illness and death of the actress Ruth Norreys in 1940 in a paragraph that feels it has been stuck in because it would not fit elsewhere, just at the moment when her success in Jerome’s play Barbara is about to happen.

I wanted her treatment of Jerome’s theatrical writing to be more informed and informative. In fact, she does not go very deeply into many of the drama texts and she shows little flair for the theatrical world of the time, so we have to be content with an accumulation of summaries, reports and snippets rather than a revelatory reading of the various texts or a proper dash of theatre history.

Oulton’s writing style is not as fluent as it might be, and she constantly loses the arc and time-frame of her chapters with bitty paragraphs, stuttering sentences, and wayward digressions. The text lacks a sense of the flow of narrative; Jerome himself never actually comes to life as a person; he is just a series of quotes, speculation, and supposition. In just one paragraph (on page 79) for example, his success “must have seemed providential” and “must have been some consolation”. Never does she actually enter into the thoughts, idle or otherwise, feelings or emotions of the man, even at the height of his success.

Where Jerome is easy to read, fluent and thoroughly musical in his writing, Carolyn Oulton serves up a dull dish here, tiresome to read, and confusing in what the reader can actually take away from it. It is adequate but plodding, informative but not stimulating, not the critical biography such a sparkling, troubled, complex writer deserves. The writer’s stated aim is to some extent accomplished: “to reassess Jerome’s position in the literary culture” of his time; she restricts this, though, to the fin de siècle, and dismisses some of the later works with startling abruptness.

So this is disappointing as a biography, although valuable as an attempt at critical reassessment. It does usefully gather together a lot of bits and pieces of the jigsaw of his life, and provides the raw material that might give a better writer and a more thoughtful critic a basis from which to write the biography Jerome K Jerome deserves.