If you find the title of this post surprising, you probably weren't at the recent Annual Conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies. After hearing Tony Gray's talk on the subject of Jerome K Jerome's life, I was certainly surprised, and wanted to know more. What could have happened to the author of Three Men in a Boat, one of English literature's funniest books, to cause him to lose his sense of humour?
Jerome Klapka Jerome (his middle name was apparently borrowed from the surname of a Hungarian military hero, in preference to his father's original surname of Clapp) was born in Walsall, and had a very successful literary career by the time of the First World War, when he was in his fifties. He was a supporter of British involvement in the war, and was eager to enlist. Being too old for active service, he travelled out to the Western Front as an ambulance driver for the French army. One of his uniforms is on display at his recently-restored birthplace.
In 1919, Jerome produced one of his last works, a novel called All Roads Lead to Calvary, clearly based on his own experiences even though the main protagonist is female. Critics have highlighted the stereotypical characters and situations, but, among other things, the themes treated in the book reveal similarities between Jerome and Sassoon in terms of their spiritual development and changing attitudes to war.
The Great War was not Jerome's first introduction to suffering. On the contrary, he had gone through some very hard times as a child and a young man, beginning when his father's bankruptcy resulted in the family having to leave their home. He subsequently found himself an orphaned clerical worker reliant on his older sisters for support, then an out-of-work actor, and finally a hack journalist going from one temporary job to another. So it might have been expected that the hardships to be endured during his military service would not have taken him unawares; yet it seems that, in late middle age, he was unable to adapt.
With the success of his writing had come personal happiness, as he met and married the divorcee Georgina "Ettie" Morris and acquired a stepdaughter. They later had a daughter of their own, Rowena. The family lived in Dresden, Germany, for two years, thus they had many German friends and acquaintances. At the time war broke out, they were living in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
After his participation in the conflict, Jerome wrote that he emerged from the experience "cured of any sneaking regard I may ever have had for war", something that was true of so many people (including Siegfried Sassoon). His long-serving secretary commented, "The old Jerome had gone. In his place was a stranger." His subsequent novels were quite a departure, and he even showed leanings towards socialism in his 1921 novel Anthony John. It was, of course, at around this time that Sassoon, under the influence of William Rivers, was considering standing for Parliament.
The death of his beloved stepdaughter Elsie in 1921, only in her thirties, was a devastating blow for Jerome, and his later years were spent in quiet domesticity until the final, fatal stroke he suffered in 1927. Relatively few people are aware of his later work. Like Siegfried, he could easily have said, "Most people think I died in 1919." Fortunately, both have thriving literary societies to foster the understanding of their work and ensure that their memory endures.