Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

David Clifford, Ph.D., Cambridge University.

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Butler c. 1865Samuel Butler was the second child and first son of Thomas Butler (1806-86) and Fanny (neé Worsley, d.1873), born on 4 December 1835 at Langar Rectory in Nottinghamshire, where his father had his parish. He came from a line of clerics — his grandfather, also called Samuel, was Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry — and a career in the church looked a likely prospect for the young Samuel. Or so his father planned.

Butler went to Shrewsbury School, where his grandfather had been headmaster before he retired; then in 1854 he went up to St John's College, Cambridge (his father's alma mater), collecting a First in Classics in 1858. To the age of twenty-three his career was strikingly ordinary for a young man whose father had so carefully crafted his eldest son's passage to the priesthood. Thomas Butler, of course, is reputedly the model for the vicious bully Theobald Pontifex in Butler's masterwork The Way of All Flesh, and it would seem that Butler senior was not disinclined to put pressure, both physical and psychological, on his son as he matured. The two men were never close, although by the time Butler left Cambridge he was fairly sure in his own mind of his wish to take orders.

As preparation for ordination, Butler spent 1858 and 1859 living in a poor parish in London, as he has Ernest Pontifex do in his novel. It was there, working in a poor school, that he discovered for the first time that there was no detectable difference in the morals or behaviour between boys who had been baptised, and those who had not — a scenario he recreates in his earlier satire The Fair Haven. This event planted the first doubts about his faith in him, and he innocently began to correspond with his father on the matter, seeking answers to his doubts. His father was furious that his son should even entertain doubt about faith, or his 'chosen' career, but Samuel persisted, unconvinced, in the hope that his father could set his mind at peace. He failed. Butler, despite his financial dependence on his father, gave up his plans for ordination, and sought a new career.

He wanted to be a painter. His father would have none of it. After much acrimonious negotiation he decided to put as much distance between himself and his family as possible, by sheep-farming in New Zealand. It had the added advantage of perhaps offering him a degree of financial independence. He set sail on 30 September 1859, taking with him Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on the long journey.

He was a reasonably successful sheep farmer. He wrote while he was in New Zealand, a few articles for the Christchurch Press including 'Darwin among the Machines,' the nucleus of his first satire Erewhon. He also re-read his Scripture, and applied the analytical method he found in Gibbon to the readings of the Resurrection for a pamphlet he would publish in 1866. He also wrote back to his father, who published his letters home in 1863 as A First Year at Canterbury Settlement. And he read, too. Most importantly, he read Darwin's On the Origin of Species. He was an instant convert to the theory of evolution, and began a brief correspondence with the venerable old scientist. Butler returned to Britain in 1864, having doubled his father's initial outlay (about £4,000) for the project.

He took rooms for himself at 15 Clifford's Inn, London, where he would live until his death. Still hankering after an artistic career, he took a series of courses in painting. At one of these, in 1867, he met Eliza Savage for the first time. Miss Savage was to be Butler's closest confidante and critic until her death 1885, and they maintained a lively correspondence which he eventually published in her honour. Butler was evidently extremely fond of Miss Savage, and was devastated when she died unexpectedly, but the relationship has only fuelled speculation on her feelings for him, his for her, and on Butler's sexuality itself. There is talk of a mistress, a young woman 17 years his junior called Lucie Dumas, but nothing written, and no record of any affection as there appeared to have been between Butler and Miss Savage. It is often assumed that she was in love with him and he failed to see it; others have drawn the conclusion that he was homosexual and that Lucie Dumas was Butler's Ellen Turnan ... in other words, there might have been an affair, but no-one really knows.

Butler was a dreadful painter (his style would be called 'naïve' today), but somehow he managed to have several paintings hung in the Royal Academy over the next few years. He still dallied with writing (and, as it happens, musical composition), and in 1872 produced the first book to make his name known, the extraordinary Swiftian satire Erewhon. It was a huge success, although it was the only one of Butler's works to make him money until Erewhon Revisited was published in 1900. He followed it with The Fair Haven, a somewhat misjudged assault on the Four Gospels in the voice of a firm believer. The critics did not understand it, unsure whether it was satirical or not — and Butler's authorial success went into decline as quickly as it had risen.

Butler's mother died in 1873, but although she is notionally the model for the horrible Christina Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh, very little is written about her influence on Butler throughout his whole life. And that's why, since I'm only working from other sources and my own research, she doesn't feature more significantly here. I'm sure she should, if you've got anything on her then let me know.

His New Zealand money was not lasting as he had hoped it would, on account of a number of bad investments he had made. New dependency on his father loomed. He began his novel, The Way of All Flesh, in 1874, and passed chapters to Miss Savage for approval — she approved. Yet this was just an on-going project, and Butler was becoming more interested in other questions. During the 1860s everyone had been discussing 'The Species Question', and various people had criticized Darwin and his theory. But not Butler. He set out to offer his own ideas about evolution which he believed would supplement Darwin's work, in a book called Life and Habit. Butler contended that much of inheritance was based on habit making a feature ingrained, to the extent that it could pass between generations and reappear in the next — or later. The idea of 'use-inheritance' was part of Darwin's original theory, where he could not account for variations by natural selection, and Butler felt that he was adding something important to Darwin.

He then discovered for the first time that an earlier scientist — Lamarck — had proposed such a theory of inheritance fifty years earlier. He read St.George Jackson Mivart's book Genesis of Species, with its powerful critique of natural selection, and concluded that Darwin was a charlatan. He had taken all his good ideas from Lamarck, and added only natural selection himself — which Butler described as 'a rope of sand'. Although Butler and Darwin's son Frances were quite good friends, Butler precipitated a rather one-sided feud with Darwin over this, and over what he felt was a snub regarding a biography of Erasmus Darwin for which Charles wrote the introduction ... Life and Habit appeared in 1878, having converted from a companion piece to Darwin's Origin into a fierce attack on Darwin and his theory.

Ultimately Butler objected to what he regarded as Darwin's exclusion of Mind from the universe. He wanted to reinstate a model where the individual had some modicum of control over what form they took as a consequence of their actions. Over the next few years he continued writing books and letters to the Athenaeum about Darwin (Darwin wisely ignored them). He dedicated the next decade, as his finances tumbled around him, to philosophical works on evolution: Evolution, Old and New appeared in 1879, Unconscious Memory in 1880, and Luck, or Cunning? In 1887. All championed (his version of) Lamarck's theory of evolution and put Darwin down. All were hopelessly unsuccessful. He continued writing The Way of All Flesh in the meantime, but when Miss Savage died in 1885 he was too depressed to continue without her comments, and he put it aside forever. It was to be edited and revised by his friend R.A. Streatfeild on his death in 1902.

His father's death in 1886 resolved his financial problems for the last six years of his own life. He indulged himself, holidaying in Italy every summer and producing while he was there his works on the Italian landscape and art, as Alps and Sanctuaries and Ex Voto. The new life of leisure his father's inheritance gave him allowed this kind of lifestyle which, when not spent abroad, was spent between his rooms at Clifford's Inn and the British Museum Library, and in the evenings at his friend (and posthumous biographer) Henry Festing Jones, dallying in musical composition (Butler lacked any talent in this field as well).

He applied for a professorship in art at Cambridge in 1886, but was unsuccessful, and he continued his eclectic pieces of writing throughout the 1880s and 90s. He reconsidered his grandfather's documents with a view to publishing them; but in the course of doing so he reversed his perception of the tyrannical old patriarch who was to be immortalized as George Pontifex, and wrote an affectionate memoir entitled The Life of Samuel Butler, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1896. He was always a great admirer of Homer (Butler's heroes were few, and included Shakespeare and Handel. Almost everyone else he despised), and towards the end of his life became convinced that the writing was that of a woman. He wrote a popular translation of The Iliad in 1898, another of The Odyssey in 1900, and before that a book called The Authoress of the Odyssey in 1897. He wrote Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered in 1899, and the sequel to Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited, in 1901. This last volume finally turned a profit. After a brief spring holiday in 1902 he returned to Clifford's Inn, and died shortly afterwards in hospital on 18 June. He was cremated at Woking.

Had it not been for the incomplete manuscript of The Way of All Flesh tucked away in a drawer in Clifford's Inn, Butler would have remained an exceptionally minor figure of Victorian letters. But it was revised as instructed, and published in 1903 to tumultuous acclaim. It was inevitably followed by a reassessment of Butler's life and works, and others of his books were suddenly reconsidered. However, it was the extracts from his notebooks, full of acerbic observation and irony, which excited attention to compare with The Way of All Flesh. Butler's status as a late Victorian iconoclast of the first order was complete.

Further reading

Breuer, Hans-Peter. 'The Source of Morality in Butler's Erewhon' Victorian Studies 1973, 16, 317-28.

Breuer, Hans-Peter. 'Samuel Butler's "Book of the Machines" and the argument from design' Modern Philosophy 1975, 72, 365-83.

Breuer, Hans-Peter. Introduction to The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (edited by Hans-Peter Breuer) volume I (1874-1883) New York, 1984.

Carey, Glenn O. 'Samuel Butler's Theory of Evolution: A Summary', English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 1964:7, pp.230-33.

Very short paper outlining some of the events which led Samuel Butler to abandon his belief in Darwinian natural selection in favour of Lamarckism. Suggests that when Butler read Mivart's On the Genesis of Species (1871) he considered that Darwin was wrong, and that he was dishonest in allowing a general view to prevail that he was the 'discoverer' of evolution, when he knew he had antecedents. It is suggested that from Mivart, Butler saw that Lamarckism was a much more satisfactory theory. Carey's description of events is only partially right: Mivart did not endorse Lamarck (quite the opposite), so Butler looked elsewhere for references to Lamarckism.

Coleman, B. 'The writings of Samuel Butler with reference to the relations between science and humanism in the nineteenth century' PhD UCL 1970-71 Publ no 21-431.

Copland, R.A. 'A side light on the Darwin-Butler quarrel' Notes and Queries for Readers and Writers 1977, 24, 23-4.

Culler, A. Dwight. 'The Darwinian Revolution and Literary Form', in Levine, George Lewis, and Madden, William Anthony (eds), The Art of Victorian Prose. London, 1968.

[Argues that Darwin's influence in late Victorian literature, from Butler to the cult of decadence, was a tendency to subvert the status quo.]

Goodhew, Douglas. 'A study of Samuel Butler's contribution to the theory of evolution', Dissertations Abstracts International 1978, 38.

Gounelas, R.M. 'Some influences on the work of Samuel Butler, 1835-1902', DPhil Oxford 1977 Publ no 27-4613.
Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler New York, 1964.

Jones, H. Festing. Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon: A Memoir (2 vols, London, 1920). Useful source of published letters by Butler, recollections by his friend, and rather limited biography.

Langlet, Mark E. Samuel Butler's ambivalent protest: fathers and sons and the reproduction of patriarchy.

[Mostly looks at SB's father-hate syndrome and how it emerges in his works. Argues that father-hate/authority hatred may have caused him to reject Darwin and take un a highly unconventional viewpoint.]

Lasner, Mark Samuels. 'Samuel Butler's Unconscious Memory, an unrecorded 'trial copy' dated 1888? Book Collector, London 41:1 1992, 113-16.

Levin, Gerald 'Shaw Butler and Kant' Philological Quarterly 1973, 52, 142-56.

Pauly, Philip 'Samuel Butler and his Darwinian Critics' Victorian Studies Vol. 25 (1982) pp.161-80.

A condensation of all the important events surrounding the big split between Darwin and Butler. It includes the input from Darwin's circle concerning such incidents as whether or not Darwin should reply at all to Butler's open letter in the Athenaeum. It was on Huxley's advice that Darwin destroyed all his prepared drafts, and made no reply.

Stillman, Clara G. Samuel Butler: A mid-Victorian modern London, 1932.

Of historical interest as much as for the secondary analysis it contains. Tries to tie Butler in with the Modernist movement. Covers the same old ground about Butler, Darwin and Mivart.

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Last modified 1 October 2007