Rowing Women as
Belles des Bateaux,
To Say Nothing of the Cat
by Göran R
Never being out of print
since it was first published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K.
Jerome is the wittiest and funniest book ever written about a rowing trip on the
River Thames. Never has Father Thames seen recreational rowing celebrate such
triumphs in idleness as when ‘J’, Harris, George, and the dog Montmorency go on
a water Odyssey. Although the book was an immediate success among the public,
who loved to read this travelogue about the three men’s adventures on the water
and in the towns and villages from Kingston to Oxford, it met with tepid reviews
in the press. The critics raised concerns about the vulgar style, and derided
the working-class slang Jerome used in his novel - nor did they approve of his
“new humour”. The satirical magazine Punch, which at this time published
cartoons of the lower classes, mocking their use of leaving out the first letter
in names, ridiculed the author and renamed him “’Arry K. ’Arry”.
Jerome Klapka Jerome was
born in 1859 under poor circumstances due to his father’s bad investments.
Jerome had to give up his studies at a young age when first his father died in
1871 and his mother the year after. After working for the railway for four
years, he went into acting, but it showed to be a bad career-move. However,
after Jerome had tried his hand in other unsuccessful occupations, his former
work on the stage gave him material to write the humorous book On the Stage –
and Off, which was published in 1885. This book opened doors to the
publishing world and the following year he came out with an entertaining
collection of essays called Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.
Different sources tell
different stories about the background of his next book, Three Men in a Boat
(To Say Nothing of the Dog). Some say that Jerome K. Jerome sat down to
write the story after he came home from a voyage on the Thames with his wife.
Other sources say that it was after he had been out rowing on the river with his
friends George Wingrave, “George”, and Carl Hentschel, “Harris”, (‘J’ in the
novel is of course Jerome); the three friends were often out rowing on the
Thames. “Montmorency”, the dog, was totally fictional, although Jerome would
later say that there was much of himself in the animal.
The three men in their boat, and the dog.
A famous silhouette printed in many of the British and American editions of
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
The truth is that F. W.
Robinson, editor for the magazine Home Chimes, asked Jerome to write “the
story of the Thames” for his publication. The story should give the readers of
the magazine sceneries and the history of the river, dotted with humorous
passages, but the latter took over. At the end, Robinson cut out most of the
historical, serious parts and kept the funny parts, and Jerome gave it a new
title, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The episodes
were published in Home Chimes from August 1888 to June 1889. In September
the same year, the publisher J. W. Arrowsmith in Bristol preserved it between
covers, and it became an instantaneous best-seller and a classic.  It
is said that twenty years after it was first published, it had sold over one
million copies around the world. Jerome, on the other hand, claimed in an
introduction to the second edition, published in 1909, that unauthorized
printers had illegally sold one million copies in America alone up to that date.
Henry Holt Company in New York published the first American edition in 1890. I
have always wondered if my old copy, published by the New York-based company A.
L. Burt Co. - without a printing year and any mention that A. Frederics was the
illustrator - is a “pirate”. Maybe it is. Although there existed a copyright for
authors in the United Kingdom already in 1709, it was first in 1891 that the
United States agreed to stop “literary piracy”. Five years later, the American
Congress joined the international copyright union. Of course, it is impossible
to know how well the American publishers lived up to the copyright agreement
with regard to British authors. Jerome claimed that he never made a penny from
the sales of Three Men in a Boat in America.
After Three Men in a
Boat was published, the business of renting out boats along the River Thames
flourished, and the book made its author financially secure which allowed him to
continue to write. Jerome wrote short stories, novels, and plays, but he would
never be able to replicate his success of Three Men in a Boat, not even
with the sequel, the funny novel Three Men on a Bummel (1900) where ‘J’,
Harris, and George go on a bicycle trip in Germany. His autobiography My Life
and Times was published in 1926, a year before he died.
Some ways to measure a
book’s success are to see how many copies of the book are sold and how much
money the author is making in royalties. Added to this are translations into
other languages, and film adaptations, of which there have been a few of
Three Men in a Boat for both the big screen and for television. It has been
adapted into a musical and to several stage plays. Also other books have been
published which are more or less linked, or allude to, Jerome’s best-seller, for
example Connie Wills’s novel To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999) and the
Olympic and World rowing champion Tim Forster’s memoirs Four Men in a Boat
(2004). The lesser known nowadays is a book that was published only a couple of
years after Jerome’s, the counterpart Three Women in One Boat - A River
Sketch by Constance MacEwen, published in 1891 by F. V. White & Company,
Very little is known about
Constance MacEwen. In 1882, she published a children’s book called All Among
the Fairies, and the following year, Miss Beauchamp – A Philistine.
In 1885, MacEwen came out with Not Every Day: A Love Octave, and the year
thereafter her romance Soap was published by J. W. Arrowsmith, who three
years later would publish Three Men in a Boat. MacEwen’s Soap did
not receive any rave reviews. William Sharp wrote surly in The Academy,
October 30, 1886:
strives to be clever and amusing; but whatever else Soap may be, it is
not clever, and it is difficult to image anyone being amused by it. It is not so
much that it is exceptionally trivial or absurd, as that it is hopelessly,
irredeemably dull; and dullness is the unforgivable shortcoming of the would-be
writer of amusing fiction.
Six months later, May 2,
1887, the great Oscar Wilde could find little to praise in her book, but put it
elegantly in his piece published in the Pall Mall Gazette. Under the
title “A Batch of Novels”, he wrote:
authoress of Soap was once compared to George Eliot by the Court
Journal, and to Carlyle by the Daily News, but we fear that we cannot
compete with our contemporaries in these daring comparisons. Her present book is
very clever, rather vulgar, and contains some fine examples of bad French.
The next novel, or
“romance”, that came out of Constance MacEwen’s hands was A Cavalier’s Ladye
in 1889 (the second edition, in 1892, had the subtitle A Romance of the Isle
of Wright). Then in 1891, Three Women in One Boat left the printing
presses. Three Women in One Boat is without a doubt a rare book in the
true antiquarian sense of the word, as it is impossible to find a copy nowadays.
The cover of Constance MacEwen’s Three Women in One Boat
(third edition, with the author’s name misspelled)
The following is a summary
of the story, mainly concentrating on the “rowing parts” of the book.
Just like Jerome’s novel,
MacEwen’s begins with the three friends meeting. In Three Women in One Boat
the narrator Phœbe Winter has invited two friends, Selina Davidson and Sabina
Ann Piplin, to her college rooms for tea. Phœbe probably needs some company and
encouragement as we learn that she is to be “sent down” from her school (“sent
down” being the old English way of saying that someone is being expelled).
Selina happens to bring a copy of Three Men in a Boat, and the three
women decide to repeat the three men’s boat trip, or as Phœbe puts it, “I am
determined to show the world that what brains may have denied us three, muscles
and biceps have done for us, and how we ‘three women in one boat’ didn’t make
half such a mess of it as Mr. Jerome’s ‘three men in a boat’ – not by a long
way.” To underline that women can be as strong as men, Phœbe describes Selina as
a “great big creature”, and Selina proclaims her Englishness by saying that she
is “English to the backbone.”
As Jerome’s men have an
animal aboard their boat, Phœbe decides that she and her friends shall bring,
not a dog, but her cat, Tintoretto, which we later learn “is twice as
well-behaved as Montmorency.” Tintoretto was otherwise an Italian painter who
lived between 1518 and 1594.
Selina actually has a
trick up her sleeve when it comes to getting instruction in the noble art of
sculling: her brother is a multiple sculling champion. He is the “winner of the
Wingfields, the Diamonds, the Colquhouns,” which in other words are the
Wingfield Sculls - the Amateur Championships of the Thames and Great Britain;
the Diamond Challenge Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta; and the Colquhoun
Sculls at Cambridge University – the Championships of the Cam. We never learn
Selina’s brother’s name; he is sometimes called “the Champion,” alternately
“Monsieur Wingfield,” “M. le Wingfield-Colquhoun-Diamonds,” or “Champie”
throughout the book.
On their first training
outing, the Champion gives the three ladies advise how to scull: “keep under the
bank, sit up, and don’t bucket – keep your stroke long and light, turn your
wrists under, and get your hands away sharp; avoid racing, and ‘see that ye fall
not out by the way.” When he pushes them off from shore, the narrator reads his
lips, which “seem to form the words ‘Women can scull.’” Their first outing goes
off well, and whets their appetite for sculling and their boat expedition on the
Thames. Phœbe, who is the coxswain, proclaims that she is ready “to be cox for
the World Championships.” A reflection here is that the World Championships in
rowing at this time were only held for professionals, not for amateurs. The
amateur rowers had to wait till 1962 before they could win this title (women had
to wait till 1974).
On a hot Monday in
September at Richmond Bridge, it is time for Phœbe, Selina, and Sabina (and
Tintoretto) to take on their self-assumed challenge to prove “that three women
are equal to three men in the boating line.” They go aboard their Thames skiff
with the name The Sirens, which has less equipment than ‘J’, George, and
Harris had on their expedition, and set out on a river adventure.
Their first encounter with
another boat is not a lucky one. Phœbe is daydreaming and happens to steer
The Sirens into another boat with a man and his wife. Our narrator describes
them as if they were from a Punch-cartoon. In the boat “sat an old
gentleman in swallow-tails and white tie and parson’s crush-hat,” and his wife
is a “madam” that “had fought Time not with weapons intellectual or spiritual,
but with cosmetics and unguents.” The ladies in The Sirens quarrel with
her, and they praise the road they have taken, the one of “healthy womanhood.”
To feel stronger they burst out in a women’s equality song. The second verse
We are glad with the joy
of a new day’s birth,
We are free with the freedom of women’s worth,
We are strong with the strength of the river’s breath
Three women afloat in a boat, Yo-ho !
And the third:
The kingdom of
women has yet to come,
The race for wealth is not half begun;
In the heart of a man there is room for all,
Three women afloat in a boat, Yo-ho !
An old man fishing from
the shore approves of what he sees and hears. He shouts encouraging words and
applauds their sculling and song. A little later Phœbe steers into shore where
an old boatman helps them to dock their boat. He also expresses his approval of
their sculling, “he didn’t see ‘why womenfolk shouldn’t row a boat as well as
menfolk.’” The three ladies take a room at a haunted inn where they meet a ghost
at night. In the morning there is a knock on the door and a German nobleman,
“Hereditary Grand Ducal,” enters their room with three bouquets of flowers. He
pays tribute to the ladies and their country: “You English people are to this
day an [sic] heroic people, also an athletic people. I insist on the athletics.
The oar is the national safeguard against horrible luxury which overtook Rome
and killed Greece.”
The German nobleman hopes
to see them again on the river, he bows and leaves.
Out on the river again, it
is crowed with boats and shells. The Sirens moves away from the scullers,
but one “gentleman” in a shell is determined to race them. His shell is named
Pecksniff’s Dream which makes the narrator reflect: “a curious name for a
boat – some connection with Dickens, evidently.” And she is right: Seth
Pecksniff is the great villain in Charles Dickens’s picaresque novel
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
(1843-1844). Remembering what the Champion has told them, Phœbe forbids racing,
but when Selina and Sabina put more power to the sculls, Phœbe is soon caught up
by the thrill of speed and strength, “I went in for the madness of pure sport,”
she says and cheers on her scullers in the boat: “Go it, Sabina! Well done,
Selina! Never be beat! Don’t be beat! Go it! Go it!”
It almost sounds like a passage from Herman Melville’s master work
Moby-Dick (1851), where second mate Stubbs aboard Captain Ahab’s whaling
ship Pequod urges his men when they row toward some whales:
Pull babes – pull,
sucklings – pull, all. But what the devil are you hurrying about? Softly,
softly, and steadily, my men. Only pull, and keep pulling; nothing more. Crack
all your backbones, and bite your knives in two – that’s all. Take it easy – why
don’t ye take it easy, I say, and burst all your livers and lungs!
In The Sirens, Phœbe continues to urge on her crew: “Go it,
Selina! My splendid Selina! My clever, darling Sabina, go it! Noble girls! Noble
Bereans! Won’t I fête you after this!”
is gaining speed: “Then came a spurt from Selina and Sabina which would have
done credit to a ‘Varsity finish.” Phœbe is absorbed by the race, and admires
her crew’s “coolness [when] they put on a tremendous stroke – I should think
nearly forty to the minute.” Phœbe shows that she is well aware of the Punch
terminology of the day: “Now our boat commenced to forge ahead. I looked for our
‘’Arry’. I saw symptoms of distress; his mouth was open.” When The Sirens
is a boat length ahead of
Phœbe decides to try
an old trick of the trade of the watermen and professional scullers. She steers
The Sirens across Pecksniff’s Dream’s course to take his water, or
as Phœbe puts it, “to give him our wash, and so dishearten him as much as
possible.” Her plan works and the sculler give up and the victory is theirs!
After the race Phœbe feels at peace with everybody, “even poor dear ‘’Arry.’”
After a fishing endeavor,
Phœbe begs Selina to tell the story how the Champion won the Diamonds. Selina
was present at the regatta in Henley-on-Thames and begins by saying that “a more
modest fellow than my brother never championed the Thames.” She paints some
atmosphere pictures of Henley Royal Regatta, “Henley – gay Henley”, the famous
regatta where not much has changed over the years. There are people on the
banks, and “Henley bridge is massed with heads, […] strawberry-sellers [- - -]
flannels, gay straws, blazers distinctive of colleges, clubs, schools, light
blue, dark blue, each colour as significant to boating men as the degree of a
parson to a ’Varsity graduate.” She is not forgetting to mention the obvious,
that “there’s a grand display of bare legs, both in the boats and on the banks.”
Selina continues to relate
her brother’s first race in the Diamonds, though wrongly stating that the single
scull races are “pair-oar-races” which is a widespread mistake made by
non-rowers. (In a pair-oar shell each rower is using one oar; while in a
sculling shell each rower is using two oars, or sculls.) There are three
competitors in the Champion’s race for the champion title. One is the holder of
the Diamonds, the second “a well-tried man”, and Selina’s brother, the novice.
The latter is “walking over the course with long, swinging, powerful strokes; he
is sweeping over the water, his cherry-coloured flag waving gaily in the nose of
that racing craft.” He is the first to cross the finish line, and “this was the
beginning of the long series of triumphs for which our Champion is famous,”
Selina says. Nowadays only two shells are in each race at Henley. However,
during the period when Constance MacEwen wrote this story it was common that
there were three single scullers in the final of the Diamond Challenge Sculls.
On their voyage, Selina
would like to stop at Eton, the prominent school where modern rowing once began
in the early 1790s. Phœbe calls Eton “the nursery of our statesmen and the
playground of our lords.” Two of Selina’s “chummies”, Tick and Turk, are
studying there. The ladies meet the Eton boys on a little island on the Eton
side, Monkey’s Island, but are soon off in The Sirens again.
When the three ladies have
moored their boat for the night and pulled a cover over The Sirens, Phœbe
suddenly is awakened by voices from the river. Curious as she is, Phœbe peeks
out on the river where she sees a coal barge with a man and a beautiful woman.
The man babbles on and on, while the woman tries to quiet him down. The man on
the barge takes a hook and starts to fish for something in the water. All of a
sudden, Phœbe can see the man aboard the barge smiling; he has found what he is
looking for. He hoists up a dead man from the river, and puts him on the deck.
The dead man is well dressed and quickly the man on the barge goes through the
dead man’s pockets and pulls his rings off his stiffened fingers. He turns the
body over and stares at him for a minute. He speaks: “Here Gloriana […] come and
kiss him; he’s a darn’d aristocrate, and yer like ‘em. Yer kiss him; I ain’t
jealous on ‘em, dead or alive.” To Phœbe’s surprise Gloriana walks over to the
dead man, bends down and “kisses the dead man with a tenderness of a mother.”
The man laughs, ties some heavy weights to the dead man’s feet and flings the
body into the water. He puts a clay pipe in his mouth and starts to count his
gold. “The barge glided onward like a black swan on the silent waters, and
Gloriana sat still and erect on her pile of coal. So they passed.”
The next morning, a mile
beyond Windsor, the ladies take a swim in the river, which makes Phœbe reflect
about their bathing costumes and thinks about “old Socrates, or Diogenes in his
tub.” Phœbe thinks Sabina looks silly, especially when she is trying to talk
about the philosopher Schopenhauer with her mouth full of water. At breakfast
they get out their frying pan to try to copy George, “(I think it was ‘George’)
to a T. Frizzle, frizzle, frizzle” as Phœbe puts it. When breakfast is over,
they begin to talk about their plan for the day, or as Phœbe says, “L’homme
propose, mais Dieu dispose.”
Suddenly, a steamboat
approaches The Sirens from aft – it is Hereditary Grand Ducal. He is
delighted to see “the aquatic Fräuleins,” and after some polite words, he adds
“I have a note-book always at hand. […] I shall possess myself of the wise,
witty, and tender sayings of the fair lady scullers! I shall absorb them into
books. We authors live to write […].” Is this the voice of Constance MacEwen
skinning through the lines?
Hereditary Grand Ducal, or
Fritz, which is his first name, insists on towing their boat to his house by the
river in Sonning, so they can meet his sister, Xenia. On their way to his house,
Sabina is on deck, while Phœbe takes a nap on one of the couches in the salon
onboard the German’s steam launch. Phœbe wakes up in the middle of Fritz’s
proposal to Selina, but not to interfere she pretends to be asleep.
with four horses picks them up to drive them to Fritz’s house, but before they
arrive, they stop at the post office to send some telegrams to friends and
relatives, that they will arrive at Richmond Bridge that night. At the house,
they are well received by Fritz’s sister Xenia.
In the late evening at
Richmond Bridge, a little group of people have gathered to meet the three women
when they row the last stretch of their trip in The Sirens. A friend of
Sabina’s, a man called Calendar, is waiting for her. In the beginning of the
story we learn that Sabina met him at tennis, and he has a big beard. Sabina is
fond of him, although he “has reached the dangerous land of forties.” For Phœbe
the Champion is waiting, which makes her sigh, “if he should ever care for me,
with that strange unexplained love which makes for matrimony, be sure and let me
be rechristened Rowena, not Phœbe, for a Phœbe I never was and
never could be.” And with these words the story ends.
* * * * *
The purpose of this essay
is not to offer a literary analysis or do a comparison study on Jerome K.
Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (Three Men) and Constance MacEwen’s
Three Women in One Boat (Three Women). However, I would like to
present some similarities and differences found between Three Men and
While it almost takes us
to read a third of Three Men before anyone takes a stroke, MacEwen does
not waste any time, the three ladies are in the boat, sculling on the river,
already in Chapter 3, page 21, in Three Women. Even if Phœbe, Sabina, and
Selina are sculling in a pleasure boat, they are early on - as are we, the
readers - introduced to competitive rowing: by the Champion’s presence, the
story about his race in the Diamond Challenge Sculls, the descriptions of Henley
Royal Regatta, and when the three women are racing against the sculler in
Pecksniff’s Dream. Jerome’s novel is not lacking moments of rowing as a
sport, if by that one means rowing in narrow racing shells. It is just that
‘J’, George, and Harris are never racing in their skiff during their trip
between Kingston and Oxford. They talk about other occasions when they have been
out on the river, like when George was on his first outing in “an eight-oared
racing outrigger” when he “immediately on starting, received a violent blow in
the small back from the butt-end of number five’s scull [sic], at the same time
that his own seat seemed to disappear from under him by magic, and leave him
sitting on the boards. He also noticed, as a curious circumstance, that number
two was at the same instant lying on his back at the bottom of the boat, with
his legs in the air, apparently in a fit.”
It is understandable that
the three men are not racing as this would contradict the idle spirit of the
book. They have the chance to watch some rowing races as they arrive in
Henley-on-Thames when the little town is getting ready for the regatta, but they
make no effort to stay and watch any of the races.
One of the most dramatic,
not to say overdramatic, scenes in Three Men is when George finds a body
floating in the water by the town of Goring. It is the body of a woman and we
learn the tragic story that she fell in love, got pregnant, was deceived by the
man, and got the cold shoulder by her family and friends. In despair, she went
down to the river and, as Jerome melodramatically writes, “the old river had
taken her into its gentle arms, and had laid her weary head upon its bosom. And
had hushed away the pain.” It is believed that the author got the story from a
true event about a young woman who committed suicide in Goring in July 1887. The
story of the body in the river in Three Women is not at all sentimental,
far from it. It is, as shown earlier in this essay, vulgar and macabre. You get
the feeling that the dead man in the river in Three Women has ended up
there because of some foul play, maybe even carried out by the man on the barge.
While Jerome depicts the people from the working-class with sympathy and light
humour, MacEwen’s describes them either as silly people or in an unsympathetic
Out for a row with a “boating belle.”
The narrator in Three
Women has, of course, a positive attitude towards women rowing. Women do
have a place in a boat in Jerome’s book, but not at the sculls. They are there
as someone for the men to impress or to have as Belles des Bateaux.
However, women should be correctly dressed in a “boating costume,” which
according to Jerome, or ‘J’, should be a “costume that can be worn in a boat,
and not merely under a glass case.” He tells the story how he and a friend took
two ladies for a river picnic and how the ladies were dressed “all in lace and
silky stuff, and flowers, and ribbons, and dainty shoes, and light gloves.” Not
surprisingly, the trip ends in a disaster. There is no dress code given in
Three Women, but the cover illustration gives us a hint, at least what the
artist of the cover thought that women should wear in a boat.
At the time for Three
Men’s and Three Women’s publication, women at the oars were still a
rare thing to see on most waterways in England, other European countries, and
the United States. Women had, however, made appearances on the water, showing
that oar power was not only an activity for men - and it was not an athletic
movement on a whim; women’s rowing was here to stay. In 1875, Wellesley College
in Massachusetts started a rowing program for women. The following year, two
women competed in single sculls on the Mohongahela River at Pittsburgh. One year
after Three Women was published, in 1892, four women in San Diego,
California, founded the first U.S. women’s rowing club, ZLAC Rowing Club (after
the founders’ first names, Zulette, Lena, Agnes, and Caroline). The year after,
Newnham College, Cambridge in England, organized a “boating society” for women.
The London-based Hammersmith Sculling Club, which started in 1896, was a club
for both women and men. By the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, the Bicycle,
Barge and Canoe Club was established in 1897, but almost immediately changed its
name to the Sedgeley Club which was for rowing women.
The Sedgeley Club in Philadelphia.
It would not be adequate
to discuss women rowing at the end of the 1800s without mentioning Scandinavia.
It is known that women in the Swedish province of Dalecarlia have been rowing
the mighty church boats on Lake Siljan for centuries. The people in small
villages use to row to church each Sunday. Fairly often women took to the oars
on the way home from church as the men were too drunk to row. Some of these
women, dalkullor (“Dalecarlian women”) found their way to Stockholm where
they became legendary during the 1800s as roddarmadamer (“rowing
madams”), who since mid-1600s had taken cargo and people in wherries from one
shore to the other in the Swedish capital. These women’s skills were famous in
Sweden, and could easily be compared favourably with the watermen in London and
New York when it came to oarsmanship, cursing, and drinking. In 1852, Johannes
van Damme published a novel with the title En Roddarmadam [“A Rowing
Madam”]. Despite the title, it had little to do with rowing and the women rowing
on the rivers in Stockholm.
There are many good
stories about Swedish women rowing in Åke Svahn’s and Sten Thunvik’s eminent En
Bok Om Rodd [“A Book on Rowing”], published in 1944 when the Swedish Rowing
Association celebrated its first 40 years. It is not only a book on the history
of Swedish rowing, but the history of Nordic and international rowing, and it
can in a way be called a precursor or a mini-version of Christopher Dodd’s
brilliant The Story of World Rowing (1992). From the rowing enthusiasts’
and historians’ point of view it is a pity that En Bok Om Rodd is written
in a minor language. There is for example the story about the 70-year old widow,
Mrs. Fågelholm, who rowed in a race for gigs outside of Stockholm in 1870. She
and her crew won first prize, a nice coffee set.
Already in 1887, Viktor
Balck, “the father of Swedish sport,” edited several volumes of Illustrerad
idrottsbok [“Illustrated Sport Book”], which best can be explained as a
Swedish equivalent to the British The Badminton Library of Sports and
Pastimes. The volume on Boating was edited by the famous rower,
coach, and rowing authority W. B. Woodgate and published in 1888. Woodgate had
earlier published Oars and Sculls in 1875. The chapters about rowing and
sculling in Illustrerad idrottsbok were written by “five members of
Stockholms Roddförening [Stockholm’s Rowing Club],” among them Balck himself.
Printed in the book is a remarkable document written by the signature “T.B.” [Thore
Blanche]; a piece that one can look in vain for in Woodgate’s Boating -
an appeal for women to start to row and establish rowing clubs. (There had
already existed two rowing clubs for women in Stockholm by the time of the
publication of Illustrerad idrottsbok; one was Annefrids Roddklubb, which
was founded in 1884, and the same year organized a couple of races for women. In
1886, a women crew from the Nykjøbings paa Falster Roklub in Denmark logged in
53 outings for that year.)
Thore Blanche’s piece is
entitled “My Ladies!” and he begins by saying how delighted he is to see men row
in racing shells as rowing is such a healthy and hearty sport. He continues:
But how come that this, and almost any other physical exercise, is left only to
the male sex? Why are not the young ladies engaged in practicing what the old
proverb says: 'a
healthy mind in a healthy body [Mens sana in corpore sano]?
Rowing clubs for ladies!
You smile. Your smile is charming, my dear lady, but I would prefer that you
took it more seriously.
So, from having been
positive in the beginning of his appeal towards women rowing and establishing
rowing clubs, Thore Blance takes the wind out of the racing movement of rowing
for women, and reduces the female rowers to Belles des Bateaux, or
objects for the men to gaze at and languish for.
Blanche also take the
liberty to suggest a suitable dress for women to row in, "a boating costume",
which he says is worn by ladies in a rowing club in Copenhagen at this time.
In Thore Blanche’s appeal in Illustrerad
idrottsbok, he not only suggested that women should start rowing clubs,
he also gave them an idea how they should be dressed, in a “female rowing
costume which is both becoming and practical.”
Three years after
Illustrerad idrottsbok was published, in 1890, Viktor Balck was the editor
for the Swedish athletic paper, Tidning för idrott. In issue number 18
there is a short note, taken from the French rowing magazine L’Aviron,
that sarcasticly informs that there is going to be a 1,000-meter championship
race for women in single sculls in
the eastern suburbs of Paris,
Nogent-sur-Marne. It is not known if these championships were ever held.
However, it seems to be
clear that if women wanted to pull on an oar or two at the end of the 1800s,
they had to do it in the conditions set by men. That is probably why the women’s
competitions in boats at this time, and a couple of decades thereafter, were not
mainly to race to be first over the finish line, but to take part in “style
contests”. In a “style contest” women crews rowed a certain stretch while
umpires used a point system to value their bladework, the boat’s and crew’s
rhythm, motion, and balance, etc.
In his The Story of
World Rowing, Christopher Dodd quotes a statement from one Mr. O. Herms of
Germany who during the 1920s declared that:
"The man looks for definite
qualities in a girl […] the purer and more feminine are the female qualities in
a girl, the more will he be attracted to her. The woman loves the heroic
qualities in a man […]. For ladies, style rowing is the basis for developing
With this quote we have
almost gone a full circle back to Constance MacEwen’s novel. It seems to be a
happy ending in Three Women, especially if we regard the novel as a
“romance”. Selina gets her German duke, Sabina her Calendar, and our story
teller, Phœbe, will hopefully marry Selina’s brother, the Champion; whether she
will change her name from Phœbe (which has a Greek origin and means the “bright
one”) to Rowena (which has an Old German origin and means “fame and happiness”),
we will never know. However, this ending seems to be far away from how Three
Women began, as a propaganda book for women’s equality and freedom, “the
freedom of women’s worth” as the three ladies sing in the “equality song” on the
river. The author Constance MacEwen (or if you prefer, the narrator Phœbe
Winter) raises the question of equality between men and women by using the most
popular, and manly sport of the day, rowing, as her tool. MacEwen demands,
through the voice of Phœbe, that women should have the same right as men to be
out rowing - and racing - on the river.
By writing a counterpart
to the popular Three Men, maybe MacEwen gathered she would receive more
attention to her book and her course - women’s egalitarianism. Whether this is
the case, or not, Mr. Weil’s copy of Three Women, which I had access to
for this study, is the third edition of the book, which indicates that the book
had some success. I have found no reviews or articles about Three Women,
so I can only speculate how the critics received it. Of course, in Jerome K.
Jerome’s case, we know that bad reviews do not necessarily mean that a book
would be a failure.
One of the factors working
against MacEwen’s book is that on its 118 pages it is trying to grasp over too
many themes. I have already mentioned women’s right to social equality and as a
part of that, women’s right to row. It also seems to have another, not that
explicitly outspoken, propaganda mission: England’s (Great Britain’s)
superiority as a nation. Two examples are mentioned: Selina proclamation that
she is “English to the backbone,” and the German nobleman Hereditary Grand Ducal
tribute to England and its heroic people, who “also [is] an athletic people.” In
an attempt to not lose the female readers, who might not be concerned about or
interested in women’s equality, the author dashes in a little romance at the
end. This is of course along the lines of what she had published previously,
“romances” and “love octave”.
Let us not forget that
Three Women is a replication of Three Men, but as such it does not
slavishly follow in its footsteps as much as the reader is lead to believe in
the beginning of the book. Although it might not be correct to say that MacEwen
is mocking Jerome’s book, at least she allows herself to tease it now and then.
The major difference
between Three Men and Three Women is, however, that while the
first-mentioned has stood the test of time, the latter has not. It is
remarkable, now almost 110 years after it was first printed, how fresh Jerome’s
book still feels with its wit and “new humour.”  The ravages of time have not
been kind to Three Women. To a reader of today, MacEwen’s book has an
old-fangled, stuffy Victorian touch and is therefore a little worse for wear.
Although a rowing scholar might find its “rowing parts” interesting, and even
entertaining, it is not a funny book, and has probably never been regarded as
one. Another weakness is how her book has an air of cosmopolitan ostentation
with, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s words, “some fine examples of bad French,” and
some misplaced German phrases, one might add. The way she scatters her text with
philosophers and other learned men – Socrates, Diogenes, and Schopenhauer - does
not lift the text up to a higher literary sphere.
MacEwen shall not be totally guillotined for her book. She ought to receive a
tribute for depicting rowing and racing scenes which at least rowing historians,
scholars, and devotees can appreciate and discuss. That is probably more
attention than most of the authors get who wrote one-shilling novels a hundred
Buckhorn studied literature at University of Lund, Sweden, and at University of
Wales, Lampeter, U.K., and parts of this essay – dealing with the history of
women rowing in the late 1800s – are based on the essay “Från kuttersmycken till
världsstjärnor” [“From ‘boat belles’ to world stars”] in his book En gång
roddare… [“Once a rower…”] (2000). Göran now
resides in Mystic, Connecticut where he is involved with rowing in the area.
help of Tom Weil, one of the world’s leading rowing historians, I have managed
to find the following information about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a
Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), first edition and printing published by J.
W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, September 1899. Green cloth (second edition, changed to
blue), decorated and lettered in black, publisher's
device and lettering to spine in gilt. 315 pp, 3 pp ads. No 11 not in
publisher's address on title page, Quay Street, but 11 Quay Street to ads. “The
ads on the rear pastedown are for Prince Prigio and Jonathan and his Continent,
both ready in October.” Shorter list of novels on first page of ads at rear.
Moon showing in illustration on p. 20. For the true first edition only 1,000
copies were printed.
Three Women in
One Boat – A River Sketch
by Constance MacEwen, published by F. V. White & Co., 31 Southampton St., Strand
W.C., 1891 This is the third edition, soft cover, 1 shilling, misspelling of
author’s name, “Constance McEwen”, on the cover of the book, 118 pp, (3 pp with
ads in front of book, 4 pp with ads in back). It is impossible to know how the
other two editions looked like. Maybe they were hard covers, had illustrations,
I am greatly
indebted to Tom Weil, who very generously shared his copy of Three Women in
One Boat for this study. His copy is held in the rowing exhibit at the
National Rowing Hall of Fame at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.
quotations from Illustrerad idrottsbok are translated from the Swedish by
the author of this essay.
I cannot help thinking of Jerome K. Jerome as a forerunner to P. G.
Wodehouse, whose books about Bertie Wooster and his valet, the gentleman’s
gentleman, Jeeves are some of the funniest series ever written during the 20th
century. But did Wodehouse ever write something about the sport of rowing? Well,
only in two of his Bertie/Jeeves novels, Joy in the Morning (1946) and in
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954; am. title Bertie Wooster Sees It
Through, 1955) is rowing brought up, and not in a very attractive light. In
both books the character G. D'Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright appears and although
he was in the same class as Bertie at Eton and they both went to Oxford,
“Stilton” is not a friend of Bertie’s. As a matter of fact, he spends all his
time threatening to break every bone in poor Bertie’s body, thinking that dim
Bertie is going to snatch his girlfriend. “Stilton”, with very little brain, was
the Captain of the Boats at Eton, rowed for Oxford, and competes every summer at
Henley Royal Regatta for Leander Club. Only rarely, says Bertie, is the oar out
of his hand. When “Stilton” explains how happy he is for Bertie, he uses a
rowing metaphor, “I feel as I just won the Diamonds Sculls at Henley.” When
Bertie in Joy in the Morning explains “Stilton’s” interested in rowing,
it shows that Bertie does not have any high thought about the sport:
[“Stilton’s”] entire formative years, therefore,
as you might say, had been spent in dipping an oar into the water, giving it a
shove and hauling it out again. Only a pretty dumb brick would fritter away his
golden youth doing that sort of thing.
The nearest Bertie Wooster
ever comes to pursuing a sport close to rowing is when he and his comrades from
the Drones Club, on the night before the Boat Race between the Universities of
Oxford and Cambridge, try to pinch a helmet from a policeman.