Paul Kelver, by Jerome K. Jerome
by Mark Wallace
Paul Kelver, first published in 1902, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman (that is, novel detailing the growth and development through youth into adulthood of a character) by Jerome Klapka Jerome, an author less known for this than for the comedic Three Men in a Boat. Indeed, before stumbling across it for reasons connected to my current research, I had never heard of Paul Kelver, notwithstanding my pretensions to knowledgeability on literature of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nor is there much information on the book around the web. In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Jerome, Kelver is not one of the books mentioned, so it was not one of his more well-known books to his contemporaries. On Goodreads’ page for the book, there is not one single review, and Amazon.com’s page is also reviewless, even though the book is available in Kindle Free format (which is the format in which I read it); Amazon.co.uk does have a single review, albeit of only 2 lines. There is an interesting piece in this review of a biography of Jerome, linking an incident in the book to a young Jerome’s meeting with his hero, Dickens.
The inclusion of a meeting with Dickens is indeed appropriate, for the influence of David Copperfield, in particular, hangs over Kelver throughout – it is the inescapable strong precursor, as Harold Bloom would put it. Some incidents, like Paul’s first experience of drunkenness, rewrite similar scenes in David Copperfield. And, like in Dickens’ book, the best of Jerome’s novel is in the early childhood sections. Paul and David both recount the growth into manhood – and this state of manhood is not only contrasted with the boyhood that precedes it, but also with a certain girlishness that both characters evince. For example, Paul on his relationship to his more “alpha” friend Dan:
I can understand a little how a woman loves. He was so solid. With his arm round me, it was good to feel weak. (Kindle Free edition, loc 1055)
The coming to manhood for the protagonist of Jerome’s novel is presented as the creation of a second Paul and imposition of this creation over the childish/ feminine self (“Paul the Dreamer”, loc 5135). One this is accomplished, the childish self is not annihilated but suppressed, and looked back on and down on with nostalgia, but with a complacent sense of the necessity and rightness of the transformation.
Often my other self, little Paul of the sad eyes, would seek to lure me from my work. (loc 5190)
The journey, then, is not only from youth to adulthood, but from dreamer to worker, from girlishness to manliness, from emotivity to stoicism. Various social structures aid Paul in arriving at this new self, but the philosopher of this conception of self is none other than this blog’s favourite, Thomas Carlyle. Paul’s mentor is the decidedly Carlylean Dr. Washburn, who advises the young man:
Put your Carlyle in your pocket: he is not all voices, but he is the best maker of men I know. The great thing to learn of life is not to be afraid of it. (loc 2518)
We later find that Paul has indeed been reading Sartor Resartus:
Reduce your denominator – you know the quotation. I found it no philosophical cant, but a practical solution to life. (loc 2653)
The original quote from Sartor, the reader is reminded, is:
[T]he fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra Deceive me, Unity itself divideed by zero will give Infinity. (Sartor Resartus, Bk. 2, Ch. 9)
So this Bildungsroman provides a good snapshot of the functioning of Carlyle in the psyches of the young men of the time (“a solution to life”!), among which group he was widely influential. This blog post is not the place to try and analyze or evaluate the operation of Carlylean ideals among his readers, a task that will be undertaken in my academic thesis proper (for which this post is a sort of aide mémoire). In a more general sense, Paul Kelver is a book I would somewhat recommend. I have a particular interest in the Bildungsroman genre for personal reasons, and Jerome’s book has some nice passages on schoolyard interactions, post-adolescant angst and loneliness and other perennials of the young person’s growth and adjustment to society. Towards the latter part of his career, Paul, much like David Copperfield, becomes somewhat trite in his reflections on life and the self – occasionally rather a bore, indeed. But perhaps that is more or less the condition of all well-adjusted persons, and if we judge it at its best, Jerome’s book is well worth a read, as a belated addition to the ranks of the classical Bildungsroman.