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A Criticism of Samuel Butler

by J. Middleton Murry

The appearance of a new impression of The Way of all Flesh[10] in Mr Fifield's edition of Samuel Butler's works gives us an occasion to consider more calmly the merits and the failings of that entertaining story. Like all unique works of authors who stand, even to the most obvious apprehension, aside from the general path, it has been overwhelmed with superlatives. The case is familiar enough and the explanation is simple and brutal. It is hardly worth while to give it. The truth is that although there is no inherent reason why the isolated novel of an author who devotes himself to other forms should not be 'one of the great novels of the world,' the probabilities tell heavily against it. On the other hand, an isolated novel makes a good stick to beat the age. It is fairly certain to have something sufficiently unique about it to be useful for the purpose. Even its blemishes have a knack of being sui generis. To elevate it is, therefore, bound to imply the diminution of its contemporaries.

[Footnote 10: The Way of all Flesh. By Samuel Butler, 11th impression of 2nd edition. (Fifield.)]

Yet, apart from the general argument, there are particular reasons why the praise of The Way of all Flesh should be circumspect. Samuel Butler knew extraordinarily well what he was about. His novel was written intermittently between 1872 and 1884 when he abandoned it. In the twenty remaining years of his life he did nothing to it, and we have Mr Streatfeild's word for it that 'he professed himself dissatisfied with it as a whole, and always intended to rewrite, or at any rate, to revise it.' We could have deduced as much from his refusal to publish the book. The certainty of commercial failure never deterred Butler from publication; he was in the happy situation of being able to publish at his own expense a book of whose merit he was himself satisfied. His only reason for abandoning The Way of all Flesh was his own dissatisfaction with it. His instruction that it should be published in its present form after his death proves nothing against his own estimate. Butler knew, at least as well as we, that the good things in his book were legion. He did not wish the world or his own reputation to lose the benefit of them.

But there are differences between a novel which contains innumerable good things and a great novel. The most important is that a great novel does not contain innumerable good things. You may not pick out the plums, because the pudding falls to pieces if you do. In The Way of all Flesh, however, a compère is always present whose business it is to say good things. His perpetual flow of asides is pleasant because the asides are piquant and, in their way, to the point. Butler's mind, being a good mind, had a predilection for the object, and his detestation of the rotunder platitudes of a Greek chorus, if nothing else, had taught him that a corner-man should have something to say on the subject in hand. His arguments are designed to assist his narrative; moreover, they are sympathetic to the modern mind. An enlightened hedonism is about all that is left to us, and Butler's hatred of humbug is, though a little more placid, like our own. We share his ethical likes and dislikes. As an audience we are ready to laugh at his asides, and, on the first night at least, to laugh at them even when they interrupt the play.

But our liking for the theses cannot alter the fact that The Way of all Flesh is a roman à thèses. Not that there is anything wrong with the roman à thèses, if the theses emerge from the narrative without its having to be obviously doctored. Nor does it matter very much that a compère should be present all the while, provided that he does not take upon himself to replace the demonstration the narrative must afford, by arguments outside it. But what happens in The Way of all Flesh? We may leave aside the minor thesis of heredity, for it emerges, gently enough, from the story; besides, we are not quite sure what it is. We have no doubt, on the other hand, about the major thesis; it is blazoned on the title page, with its sub-malicious quotation from St Paul to the Romans. 'We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.' The necessary gloss on this text is given in Chapter LXVIII, where Ernest, after his arrest, is thus described:—

'He had nothing more to lose; money, friends, character, all were gone for a very long time, if not for ever; but there was something else also that had taken its flight along with these. I mean the fear of that which man could do unto him. Cantabit vacuus. Who could hurt him more than he had been hurt already? Let him but be able to earn his bread, and he knew of nothing which he dared not venture if it would make the world a happier place for those who were young and lovable. Herein he found so much comfort that he almost wished he had lost his reputation even more completely—for he saw that it was like a man's life which may be found of them that lose it and lost of them that would find it. He should not have had the courage to give up all for Christ's sake, but now Christ had mercifully taken all, and lo! it seemed as though all were found.

'As the days went slowly by he came to see that Christianity and the denial of Christianity after all met as much as any other extremes do; it was a fight about names—not about things; practically the Church of Rome, the Church of England, and the freethinker have the same ideal standard and meet in the gentleman; for he is the most perfect saint who is the most perfect gentleman….'

With this help the text and the thesis can be translated: 'All experience does a gentleman good.' It is the kind of thing we should like very much to believe; as an article of faith it was held with passion and vehemence by Dostoevsky, though the connotation of the word 'gentleman' was for him very different from the connotation it had for Butler. (Butler's gentleman, it should be said in passing, was very much the ideal of a period, and not at all quod semper, quod ubique; a very Victorian anti-Victorianism.) Dostoevsky worked his thesis out with a ruthless devotion to realistic probability. He emptied the cornucopia of misery upon his heroes and drove them to suicide one after another; and then had the audacity to challenge the world to say that they were not better, more human, and more lovable for the disaster in which they were inevitably overwhelmed. And, though it is hard to say 'Yes' to his challenge, it is harder still to say 'No.'

In the case of Ernest Pontifex, however, we do not care to respond to the challenge at all. The experiment is faked and proves nothing. It is mere humbug to declare that a man has been thrown into the waters of life to sink or swim, when there is an anxious but cool-headed friend on the bank with a £70,000 life-belt to throw after him the moment his head goes under. That is neither danger nor experience. Even if Ernest Pontifex knew nothing of the future awaiting him (as we are assured he did not) it makes no difference. We know he cannot sink; he is a lay figure with a pneumatic body. Whether he became a lay figure for Butler also we cannot say; we can merely register the fact that the book breaks down after Ernest's misadventure with Miss Maitland, a deplorably unsubstantial episode to be the crisis of a piece of writing so firm in texture and solid in values as the preceding chapters. Ernest as a man has an intense non-existence.

After all, as far as the positive side of The Way of all Flesh' is concerned, Butler's eggs are all in one basket. If the adult Ernest does not materialise, the book hangs in empty air. Whatever it may be instead it is not a great novel, nor even a good one. So much established, we may begin to collect the good things. Christina is the best of them. She is, by any standard, a remarkable creation. Butler was 'all round' Christina. Both by analysis and synthesis she is wholly his. He can produce her in either way. She lives as flesh and blood and has not a little of our affection; she is also constructed by definition, 'If it were not too awful a thing to say of anybody, she meant well'—the whole phrase gives exactly Christina's stature. Alethea Pontifex is really a bluff; but the bluff succeeds, largely because, having experience of Christina, we dare not call it. Mrs Jupp is triumphantly complete; there are even moments when she seems as great as Mrs Quickly. The novels that contain three such women (or two if we reckon the uncertain Alethea, who is really only a vehicle for Butler's very best sayings, as cancelled by the non-existent Ellen) can be counted, we suppose, on our ten fingers.

Of the men, Theobald is well worked out (in both senses of the word). But we know little of what went on inside him. We can fill out Christina with her inimitable day-dreams; Theobald remains something of a skeleton, whereas we have no difficulty at all with Dr Skinner, of Roughborough. We have a sense of him in retirement steadily filling the shelves with volumes of Skinner, and we know how it was done. When he reappears we assume the continuity of his existence without demur. The glimpse of George Pontifex is also satisfying; after the christening party we know him for a solid reality. Pryer was half-created when his name was chosen. Butler did the rest in a single paragraph which contains a perfect delineation of 'the Oxford manner' twenty years before it had become a disease known to ordinary diagnosis. The curious may find this towards the beginning of Chapter LI. But Ernest, upon whom so much depends, is a phantom—a dream-child waiting the incarnation which Butler refused him for twenty years. Was it laziness, was it a felt incapacity? We do not know; but in the case of a novelist it is our duty to believe the worst. The particularity of our attitude to Butler appears in the fact that we are disappointed, not with him, but with Ernest. We are even angry with that young man. If it had not been for him, we believe,The Way of all Flesh might have appeared in 1882; it might have short-circuited Robert Elsmere.

[JUNE, 1919.

* * * * *

We approach the biography of an author whom we respect, and therefore have thought about, with contradictory feelings. We are excited at the thought of finding our conclusions reinforced, and apprehensive less the compact and definite figure which our imaginations have gradually shaped should become vague and incoherent and dull. It is a pity to purchase enlightenment at the cost of definition; and it is more important that we should have a clear notion of the final shape of a man in whom we are interested than an exact record of his phases.

The essential quality of great artists is incommensurable with biography; they seem to be unconsciously engaged in a perpetual evasion of the event. All that piety can do for them is beside the mark. Their wilful spirit is fled before the last stone of the mausoleum can be got in place, and as it flies it jogs the elbow of the cup-bearer and his libation is spilt idly upon the ground. Although it would be too much and too ungrateful to say that the monumental piety of Mr Festing Jones has been similarly turned to derision—after all, Butler was not a great man—we feel that something analogous has happened. This laborious building is a great deal too large for him to dwell in. He had made himself a cosy habitation in the Note-Books, with the fire in the right place and fairly impervious to the direct draughts of criticism. In a two-volume memoir[11] he shivers perceptibly, and at moments he looks faintly ridiculous more than faintly pathetic.

   [Footnote 11: Samuel Butler, author of 'Erewhon' (1835-1902): a
. By Henry Festing Jones. 2 vols. (Macmillan.)]

And if it be said that a biography should make no difference to our estimate of the man who lives and has his being in his published works, we reply that it shifts the emphasis. An amusingly wrong-headed book about Homer is a peccadillo; ten years of life lavished upon it is something a good deal more serious. And even The Way of all Flesh, which as an experimental novel is a very considerable achievement, becomes something different when we have to regard it as a laborious and infinitely careful record of experienced fact. Further still, even the edge of the perfected inconsequence of certain of the 'Notes' is somewhat dulled when we see the trick of it being exercised. The origin of the amusing remark on Blake, who 'was no good because he learnt Italian at over 60 in order to read Dante, and we know Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him—well, Tennyson goes without saying,' is to be found in 'No, I don't like Lamb. You see, Canon Ainger writes about him, and Canon Ainger goes to tea with my aunts.' Repeated, it becomes merely a clever way of being stupid, as we should be if we were tempted to say we couldn't bear Handel, because Butler was mad on him, and Butler was no good because he was run by Mr Jones, and, well, Mr Jones goes without saying.

Nevertheless, though Butler lives with much discomfort and some danger in Mr Jones's tabernacle, he does continue to live. What his head loses by the inquisition of a biography his heart gains, though we wonder whether Butler himself would have smiled upon the exchange. Butler loses almost the last vestige of a title to be considered a creative artist when the incredible fact is revealed that the letters of Theobald and Christina in The Way of all Flesh are merely reproduced from those which his father and mother sent him. Nor was Butler, even as a copyist, always adequate to his originals. The brilliantly witty letters of Miss Savage, by which the first volume is made precious, seem to us to indicate a real woman upon whom something more substantial might have been modelled than the delightful but evanescent picture of Alethea Pontifex. Here, at least, is a picture of Miss Savage and Butler together which, to our sense, gives some common element in both which escaped the expression of the author of The Way of all Flesh:—

'I like the cherry-eating scene, too [Miss Savage wrote after reading the MS. of Alps and Sanctuaries], because it reminded me of your eating cherries when I first knew you. One day when I was going to the gallery, a very hot day I remember, I met you on the shady side of Berners Street, eating cherries out of a basket. Like your Italian friends, you were perfectly silent with content, and you handed the basket to me as I was passing, without saying a word. I pulled out a handful and went on my way rejoicing, without saying a word either. I had not before perceived you to be different from any one else. I was like Peter Bell and the primrose with the yellow brim. As I went away to France a day or two after that and did not see you again for months, the recollection of you as you were eating cherries in Berners Street abode with me and pleased me greatly.'

Again, we feel that the unsubstantial Towneley of the novel should have been more like flesh and blood when we learn that he too was drawn from the life, and from a life which was intimately connected with Butler's. Here, most evidently, the heart gains what the head loses, for the story of Butler's long-suffering generosity to Charles Paine Pauli is almost beyond belief and comprehension. Butler had met Pauli, who was two years his junior, in New Zealand, and had conceived a passionate admiration for him. Learning that he desired to read for the bar, Butler, who had made an unexpected success of his sheep-farming, offered to lend him £100 to get to England and £200 a year until he was called. Very shortly after they both arrived in England, Pauli separated from Butler, refusing even to let him know his address, and thenceforward paid him one brief visit every day. He continued, however, to draw his allowance regularly until his death all through the period when, owing to the failure of Butler's investments, £200 seems to have been a good deal more than one-half Butler's income. At Pauli's death in 1897 Butler discovered what he must surely at moments have suspected, that Pauli had been making between £500 and £800 at the bar, and had left about £9000—not to Butler. Butler wrote an account of the affair after Pauli's death which is strangely self-revealing:—

'… Everything that he had was good, and he was such a fine handsome fellow, with such an attractive manner that to me he seemed everything I should like myself to be, but knew very well that I was not….

'I had felt from the very beginning that my intimacy with Pauli was only superficial, and I also perceived more and more that I bored him…. He liked society and I hated it. Moreover, he was at times very irritable and would find continual fault with me; often, I have no doubt, justly, but often, as it seemed to me, unreasonably. Devoted to him as I continued to be for many years, those years were very unhappy as well as very happy ones.

'I set down a great deal to his ill-health, no doubt truly; a great deal more, I was sure, was my own fault—and I am so still; I excused much on the score of his poverty and his dependence on myself—for his father and mother, when it came to the point, could do nothing for him; I was his host and was bound to forbear on that ground if on no other. I always hoped that, as time went on, and he saw how absolutely devoted to him I was, and what unbounded confidence I had in him, and how I forgave him over and over again for treatment which I would not have stood for a moment from any one else—I always hoped that he would soften and deal as frankly and unreservedly with me as I with him; but, though for some fifteen years I hoped this, in the end I gave it up, and settled down into a resolve from which I never departed—to do all I could for him, to avoid friction of every kind, and to make the best of things for him and myself that circumstances would allow.'

In love such as this there is a feminine tenderness and devotion which positively illuminates what otherwise appears to be a streak of perversity in Butler; and the illumination becomes still more certain when we read Butler's letters to the young Swiss, Hans Faesch, to whom Out into the Night was written. Faesch had departed for Singapore.

'The sooner we all of us,' wrote Butler, 'as men of sense and sober reason, get through the very acute, poignant sorrow which we now feel, the better for us all. There is no fear of any of us forgetting when the acute stage is passed. I should be ashamed of myself for having felt as keenly and spoken with as little reserve as I have if it were any one but you; but I feel no shame at any length to which grief can take me when it is about you. I can call to mind no word which ever passed between us three which had been better unspoken: no syllable of irritation or unkindness; nothing but goodness and kindness ever came out of you, and such as our best was we gave it to you as you gave yours to us. Who may not well be plunged up to the lips in sorrow at parting from one of whom he can say this in all soberness and truth? I feel as though I had lost an only son with no hope of another….'

The love is almost pathetically lavish. Letters like these reveal to us a man so avid of affection that he must of necessity erect every barrier and defence to avoid a mortal wound. His sensibility was rentrée, probably as a consequence of his appalling childhood; and the indication helps us to understand not only the inordinate suspiciousness with which he behaved to Darwin, but the extent to which irony was his favoured weapon. The most threatening danger for such a man is to take the professions of the world at their face value; he can inoculate himself only by irony. The more extreme his case, the more devouring the hunger to love and be loved, the more extreme the irony, and in Butler it reached the absolute maximum, which is to interpret the professions of the world as their exact opposite. As a reviewer of the Note-Books in The Athenæum recently said, Butler's method was to stand propositions on their heads. He universalised his method; he applied it not merely to scientific propositions of fact, but, even more ruthlessly, to the converse of daily life. He divided up the world into a vast majority who meant the opposite of what they said, and an infinitesimal minority who were sincere. The truth that the vast majority are borderland cases escaped him, largely because he was compelled by his isolation to regard all his honest beliefs as proven certainties. That a man could like and admire him and yet regard him as in many things mistaken and wrong-headed was strictly incomprehensible to him, and from this angle the curious relations which existed between him and Dr Richard Garnett of the British Museum are of uncommon interest. They afford a strange example of mutual mystification.

Thus at least one-half the world, not of life only (which does not greatly matter, for one can live as happily with half the world as with the whole) but of thought, was closed to him. Most of the poetry, the music, and the art of the world was humbug to him, and it was only by insisting that Homer and Shakespeare were exactly like himself that he managed to except them from his natural aversion. So, in the last resort, he humbugged himself quite as vehemently as he imagined the majority of men were engaged in humbugging him. If his standard of truth was higher than that of the many, it was lower than that of the few. There is a kingdom where the crass division into sheep and goats is merely clumsy and inopportune. In the slow meanderings of this Memoirwe too often catch a glimpse of Butler measuring giants with the impertinent foot-rule of his common sense. One does not like him the less for it, but it is, in spite of all the disconcerting jokes with which it may be covered, a futile and ridiculous occupation. Persistently there emerges from the record the impression of something childish, whether in petulance or gaminerie, a crudeness as well as a shrewdness of judgment and ideal. Where Butler thought himself complete, he was insufficient; and where he thought himself insufficient, he was complete. To himself he appeared a hobbledehoy by the side of Pauli; to us he appears a hobbledehoy by the side of Miss Savage.