For many members of the English working and middle classes, the Victorian era offered opportunities for fun and leisure that had never been available before. For the first time, public holidays were standardized, and employers began to offer vacation time. Although laborers still worked long hours (often in miserable conditions), they were now able to enjoy the occasional holiday with their families.
The advent of the railroad popularized recreational travel, since visiting another city was now inexpensive and could be done in a few hours. Steamships opened up an even wider variety of destinations to vacationers. Among the most popular were seaside towns, which offered opportunities for bathing and boating. The sea air was considered to be good for one’s health, so it attracted people from England’s crowded, polluted cities. Other destinations included the countryside and river towns like the ones Jerome visits in Three Men in a Boat.
Although Victorians worked hard, many of them felt an obligation to improve themselves in their leisure time. This self-improvement took a variety of forms, including physical exercise and intellectual pursuits. Recreational sports, including football, rowing, and tennis, became extremely popular during this period, and the middle classes often joined sports clubs with dedicated courts and equipment. Educational activities were also popular. ‘Friendly societies’ and employers often hosted lectures and debates for their workers. A few companies were even known to give their employees free musical lessons (Clark).
This drive to improve oneself can be seen clearly in Three Men in a Boat. The friends make many stops at locations of historical importance which, then as now, often offered small museums or tours. George also attempts to learn the banjo. And while Jerome gently mocks his characters’ hypochondria, Victorians were very serious about the notion that spending time outdoors improved a person’s health, and the men do seem to stop worrying about their purported illnesses when they spend time on the river.