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Rowing Women as Belles des Bateaux,

To Say Nothing of the Cat

by Göran R Buckhorn [1]

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. [2] 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, London. [3]

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:

Mrs. MacEwen 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:

The accomplished 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. [4]

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 goes:

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!”

The Sirens 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 Pecksniff’s Dream, 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.

A “char-a-banc” 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 Three Women.

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 manner.

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. [5]

Blanche goes on by saying that English young women have been rowing for a long time, and in Denmark there are already two rowing clubs for women. But at the same time as Blanche propagates that young women should start rowing clubs to get some healthy physical exercise, he puts the brakes on of the development when he continues:

It is not our intention to create some “sport women” out of the young ladies, a kind of modern amazons. No, it is not our belief that they should be wedged into narrow racing shells and have the pleasure to race against steam launches, nor would we like to see their nice hands with hard and disfigured callous. The sport of rowing for women has another aim. First of all it should be a sound and invigorating physical exercise out in the fresh air; a physical exercise that gives pleasure and delight. And what a beautiful sight it would be on our calm bays and inlets to see elegant pleasure boats with flourishing crews masterly and in good style handle the oars, and without doubt they would be as beautiful as they would be hazardous for the composure of the young men.

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 their charm."

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.” [6] 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.

Nevertheless, Constance 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 years ago.


1)      Göran R 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.

2)      With the 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.

3)      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, etc. 

4)      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. 

5)      Both quotations from Illustrerad idrottsbok are translated from the Swedish by the author of this essay. 

6)      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.

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