Samuel Butler (4 December 1835 – 18 June 1902) was an iconoclastic Victorian-era English author who published a variety of works.
Two of his most famous pieces are the Utopian satire Erewhon and a semi-autobiographical novel published posthumously, The Way of All Flesh.
He is also known for examining Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, and works of literary history and criticism. Butler made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, which remain in use to this day.
Butler was born on 4 December 1835 at the rectory in the village of Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, to the Rev. Thomas Butler, son of Dr. Samuel Butler, then headmaster of Shrewsbury School and later Bishop of Lichfield.
Dr Butler was the son of a tradesman and descended from a line of yeomen, but his scholarly aptitude being recognised at young age, was sent to Rugby and Cambridge, where he distinguished himself and launched his successful career.
His only son Thomas wished to go into the Navy, but succumbed to paternal pressure and entered the Church, in which he led a wholly undistinguished career, all the more so in contrast with his father’s.
It has been suggested that this family dynamic had some impact on Samuel, insofar as it created the oppressive home environment (chronicled in The Way of All Flesh) which formed his approach to the world. Thomas Butler, states one critic, “to make up for having been a servile son, became a bullying father.”
In any event, Samuel Butler’s relationship with his parents, and especially with his father, was largely antagonistic.
His education began at home and included frequent beatings, as was not uncommon at the time. Samuel, however, found his parents particularly “brutal and stupid by nature,” and their relationship to him never progressed beyond the adversarial.
He later recorded of his father that, “He never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him…. I have never passed a day without thinking of him many times over as the man who was sure to be against me.” Under his parents’ influence, he was set on course to follow his father into the priesthood.
He was sent to Shrewsbury at the age of twelve (where he did not enjoy the hard life under its then headmaster, Benjamin Hall Kennedy, whom he later drew as “Dr Skinner” in The Way of All Flesh). Then in 1854 he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a First in Classics in 1858 (the graduate society of St John’s is named the Samuel Butler Room (SBR) in his honour).
Butler never married, and although he did for years make regular weekly visits to a female prostitute, Lucie Dumas, he also “had a predilection for intense male friendships, which is reflected in several of his works.”
His first significant male friendship was with the young Charles Pauli, son of a German businessman in London, whom Butler met in New Zealand; they returned to England together in 1864 and took neighbouring apartments in Clifford’s Inn.
Butler had made a large profit from the sale of his New Zealand farm, and undertook to finance Pauli’s study of law by paying him a regular pension, which Butler continued to do long after the friendship had cooled, until Butler had spent all of his savings. Upon Pauli’s death in 1892, Butler was shocked to learn that Pauli had benefited from similar arrangements with other men and had died wealthy, but without leaving Butler anything in his will.
After 1878, Butler became close friends with Henry Festing Jones, whom Butler persuaded to give up his job as a solicitor to be Butler’s personal literary assistant and travelling companion, at a salary of £200 a year.
Although Jones kept his own lodgings at Barnard’s Inn, the two men saw each other daily until Butler’s death in 1902, collaborating on music and writing projects in the daytime, and attending concerts and theatres in the evenings; they also frequently toured Italy and other favourite parts of Europe together. After Butler’s death, Jones edited Butler’s notebooks for publication and published his own biography of Butler in 1919.
Another significant friendship was with Hans Rudolf Faesch, a Swiss student who stayed with them in London for two years, improving his English, before departing for Singapore. Both Butler and Jones wept when they saw him off at the railroad station in early 1895, and Butler subsequently wrote a very emotional poem, “In Memoriam H. R. F.,” instructing his literary agent to offer it for publication to several leading English magazines.
However, once the Oscar Wilde trial began in the spring of that year, with revelations of homosexual behaviour among the literati, Butler feared being associated with the widely reported scandal and in a panic wrote to all the magazines, withdrawing his poem.
Tellingly, in his Memoir Jones describes this as a “Calamus poem”; both men would have been aware of Walt Whitman’s homoerotic poems of the same name, as well as the very famous but less directly homoerotic In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson lamenting the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. Jones adds that Butler chose that title because “he had persuaded himself that we should never see Hans again.”
Beginning with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1937, a number of literary critics have discussed Butler’s sublimated or repressed homosexuality, comparing his lifelong pose as an “incarnate bachelor” to the very similar bachelorhoods among his contemporaries of other writers assumed to be homosexual but closeted, such as Walter Pater, Henry James, and E. M. Forster. As Herbert Sussman speculates:
There can be little doubt as to the intensity of Butler’s same-sex desire, and the intensity with which he deployed the bachelor mode to regulate it. Victorian bachelorhood enabled a middle-class man who rejected matrimony to remain distinctly middle-class…. For Butler, as for Pater and James, the aim of bachelordom was to contain the homoerotic within the respectable…. With Pauli, and with Jones and Faesch, Butler most likely kept within the homosocial boundaries of his time. There is no evidence of genital contact with other men, although the temptations of overstepping the line strained his close male relationships.
Regarding the visits to Lucie Dumas (Jones was also a client of hers, and Butler paid for his visits), Sussman says, “Even the scheduled excursions into heterosexual sex functioned less to relieve the sexual tension of bachelorhood than to act out the intense same-sex desire for one’s daily companions…. In characteristic Victorian fashion, then, these men… perform[ed] their sexual bond through the body of a woman.”
Butler’s friend Henry Festing Jones wrote the authoritative biography: the two-volume Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (1835–1902): A Memoir (commonly known as Jones’s Memoir), published in 1919 and reissued by HardPress Publishing in 2013. Project Gutenberg hosts a shorter “Sketch” by Jones.
More recently, Peter Raby has written a life: Samuel Butler: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1991). The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler’s death by his literary executor, R. Streatfeild, in 1903. This version however altered Butler’s text in many ways and cut important material. The actual manuscript was edited by Daniel F. Howard as Ernest Pontifex, or The Way of All Flesh (Butler’s original title) and published for the first time in 1965.
For a critical study, mostly about The Way of All Flesh, see Thomas L. Jeffers, Samuel Butler Revalued (University Park: Penn State Press, 1981).