Much like its idealized vision of nature, Three Men in a Boat presents an escapist vision of history and heritage. One of the titular men’s main reasons for taking their trip is to break away from their own cultural moment, using the journey as a route from present to past. While some passages inspired by the setting of the river do indeed bring to life specific aspects of English history, it is a fundamentally selective history, incapable of offering genuine release from what J. sees as the confinements of his time. Contemporary concerns never stop rearing their heads throughout the book, interrupting J.s’ nostalgia for “the good old days” before the perils of modern life. This suggests that the romanticization of history, like that of nature, is an overly-simplistic retelling that fails to convey the past in all its messy, complicated truth.
By going up the river, the men intend to remove themselves from signs of industry and urbanization and return to a purer England. J. specifically frames the trip as an escape from their own time. He wants “some half-forgotten nook, hidden away by the fairies, out of reach of the noisy world—some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.” J. believes that the men’s time away from the city will enable them to reconnect with an idealized past, and the journey does indeed enable J.’s imagination to connect, in some ways, with English history. For example, when he and Harris collect their boat in the old market town of Kingston (named so because it was once the site of kings’ coronations), J. muses, “the glinting river [and] the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.”
History, then, is not a pursuit of an accurate, detailed description of the past for J. and his cohorts. Instead, J.’s language suggests he is drawn to history because he can lose himself in it; the English past doesn’t seem to be encumbered with the “lumber of life” he claims to loathe. This is, of course, a romantic way of looking at the past that requires a degree of fantasy—indeed, J. has already said he wants to be “hidden away by the fairies”. For J., The river specifically has the power to facilitate this kind of imaginative time travel because it has been flowing since the earliest days of Britain, bearing witness to all the different kings and queens on which J.’s fantasies of the past are based.
J. chooses to focus only on certain moments in history, however, and this selectivity underscores the narrowness of his vision and refusal to fully engage with the difficulties of life before his own time. His history musings go no later than the 17th Century, and J. tends to focus on stories that embody ideals of nobility and heroism. Take, for example, the passage inspired by the three men’s visit to Runnymede. This is the place where in the year 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta, a pivotal historical document that enshrined certain rights and principles for British subjects. Upon arrival, J. talks in gushing prose, imagining that “King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.” laid.” He skips over the fact that King John was widely considered a cruel tyrant upon who the Magna Carta was forced, of course, because such details would impede J.’s escapism.
Because J. is only interested in history that contributes to his romantic vision for their trip, he is frustrated by those objects that break the spell of the imagined return to a simpler time. The history that J. conjures up is never more recent than the 17th century, meaning that notably missing from his nostalgia is the Industrial Revolution. This suggests that it’s not history in general that interests J., but the world before modern technology (technology that, ironically, surely enables much of the leisure time J. holds dear). In keeping with this thinking, one of the sights that most annoys the men while on the river is the steamboat. Such boats didn’t exist before the 19th century, and as such this technology shatters the illusion of their journey into the past. The men take great pride in blocking the way of the steamers, considering their boat to be a more authentic—or a more historical—mode of transport.
Yet even as J. idolizes and idealizes the past, he questions the way in which value is ascribed to objects based solely on their age. “Why, all our art treasures of today are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago,” he says toward the beginning of the book. “I wonder if there is any real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes.” J. applies the same logic to his own contemporary objects: “Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before?” That is, will the things he considers to be cheap and unimportant become more valuable as they pass into the future? The irony, of course, is that J. seems to see such objects as “lumber” whilst packing as many as he can. By pointing out the trivial nature of many prized historical objects, J. also unwittingly undermines his own idealistic vision of the past. Those moments that seem to him to be gloriously noble and pure were likely, in fact, just as messy, complicated, and full of drudgery as the present.
History and Heritage ThemeTracker
History and Heritage Quotes in Three Men in a Boat
The river, playing around the boat, prattles old tales and secrets, sings low the child’s song that it has sung for so many years … and we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream the world is young again … sweet as she was in bygone days, ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands of years ago.
The quaint back-streets of Kingston, where they came down to the water’s edge, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges, the wooded towpath … the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors, all made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that, early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.
I mused on Kingston, or ‘Kyningestun’, as it was once called in the days when Saxon ‘kinges’ were crowned there.
Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runnymede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Carta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.
Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water’. In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here … It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.