Samuel Butler, Author of 'Erewhon': A Memoir

by Henry Festing Jones. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1919. 2 vols, 8mo; vol. 1, xxx+448 pp.; vol. 2, x+531 pp. Illustrated $12.50.
‘SPEAK of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor aught set down in malice.’
Samuel Butler would have been unflinchingly at one with Othello as regards the office of a biographer; and in the Memoir Othello’s injunction is scrupulously carried out by Butler’s closest friend. As a result, at the end of the first volume one has much ado to avoid disliking Butler with something of his own intensity in the gentle art of hating (‘It does not matter much what a man hates, provided he hates something’). And then, to one’s surprise, one lays the second volume down with a feeling not far from warm affection. It is like watching the slow mellowing into sweetness of a harsh and astringent fruit.
The Butler of the first volume is the Butler who wrote: ‘I am the enfant terrible of literature and science. If I cannot, and I know I cannot, get the literary and scientific big-wigs to give me a shilling, I can, and I know I can, heave bricks into the middle of them.’ It is the Butler of the sharp attacks upon Charles Darwin—the result of an unhappy misunderstanding — and of the succession of brilliant treatises in which he fell foul of the whole Darwinian circle. In this volume, moreover, appears the full chronicle of the long and bitter antagonism between Butler and his father, which is reflected in the relations between Theobald and Ernest Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh. Here too is the poignant human interest of the letters of Miss Savage, the vivid record of a friendship which Butler, to his lasting grief, could meet with admiration and affection only, not with love. One breathes throughout the volume an atmosphere of strange repugnances. ‘As for the old masters, the better plan would be never even to look at one of them, and to consign Rafaelle, along with Socrates, Virgil [he later substituted Plato and Dante!], Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Goethe, Beethoven, and another, to limbo, as the Seven Humbugs of Christendom.’
But his predilections were as deep and as sincere as his antipathies. ‘ Above all things let no unwary reader do me the injustice of believing in me. In that I write at all I am among the damned. If he must believe in anything, let him believe in the music of Handel, the painting of Giovanni Bellini, and in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians.’ And through the years of which the second volume is the record, the antipathies slip gradually into the background. Music and painting — two loves which, so long as he practised them, had been both comfort and despair — were now a source of satisfaction only. Homer and Shakespeare joined Handel and Bellini among his faiths, and his quest of Nausicaa as the ‘authoress of the Odyssey,’ and his pilgrimages in search of forgotten paintings of Tabachetti, not only gave him the keenest pleasure, but also brought him friends in Italy and Sicily whose devotion warmed his heart. At home, too, the circle of those who understood and cared for him was widening. There was no relaxation of the unsparing intellectual honesty which was the core of his very being, but its asperities were softened by a wider tolerance.
‘I had to steal my own birthright. I stole it and was punished bitterly. But I saved my soul alive.’ That is the key to Butler’s life, as it is the key to The Way of All Flesh. The soul that was saved bore deep scars of the saving. But the unflinching courage which the Memoir discloses was a legacy worth leaving.
J. L. L.