The Revolt of Samuel Butler

Critic, short-story writer, and novelist, ANGUS WILSON is regarded as one of the most vigorous writers to come out of World War II. His collection of short stories, SUCH DARLING DODOS, and his first novel, HEMLOCK AND AFTER,won him enthusiastic acclaim both in the United States and in Britain. Mr. Wilson has recently returned from a two-months trip to Japan and is now working on a novel. His latest book of stories, A BIT OFF THE MAP,has just been published by Viking.


IT is almost impossible now to imagine the claustrophobia which people of imagination and sensibility felt in mid-Victorian England. Its social injustices, the brutal squalor of its submerged population, are still apparent through the rosy hue which our nostalgia has given to an age which offered so much greater security and certainty than our own apocalyptic times. Nevertheless, for almost every major writer or artist of high Victorian times their age seemed a prison house of dreariness and falsity.

Dickens’s high spirits were reduced to nihilism by contemplation of society by the time he came to write Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. Tennyson, the great Victorian panjandrum, turned to a sort of Fascism in Maud out of his hatred of English society. Trollope, who had spent a lifetime in accepting his world, turned upon it savagely in The Way We Live Now. Ruskin, George Eliot, the Pre-Raphaelites, looked back to the past; William Morris to a medieval Utopia. They would all look anywhere rather than dwell on the world around them.

Young writers in England today are in revolt against what they feel to be the solemnity, the self-satisfaction, and the decay of the established order; England today, however, is an open prairie beside the fog-choked cell of the established order of mid-Victorian England. By the last decade of Victoria’s reign a great part of the intellectual and artistic energies of her writers had gone into the simple iconoclasm of “ Anti-Victorianism” a storming of the Bastille. To free the vision of Progress, which had sustained men since the eighteenth century, from the corrupting weeds and decaying debris with which mid-Victorianism had encumbered it, to rescue man’s future from the hypocrisy and drabness which had broken the hearts of Dickens and Trollope, became the gospel of the new prophets — of Shaw and Wells, of Galsworthy and Bennett, of E. M. Forster and the young Maugham, and of Norman Douglas.

This new optimistic Anti-Victorian progressivism which sought to destroy the false optimism and the basic despair of Victorian progressivism dominated Edwardian England and upheld a large part of middle-class England down to the Second World War. It is easy now to see that its optimism in turn was built upon evasions and fears which easily succumbed to the open horrors of the nineteen-thirties and -forties, but it was a most vital and deep-felt revolution and its echoes are still with us. It was perhaps so vital because it was founded upon an intense hatred of Father and Mother and all that they had stood for. The earliest and most violent of these father-haters and parricides was Samuel Butler, the John the Baptist of the Shavian Gospel.

In the England of my adolescence, in the late nineteen-twenties and early nineteen-thirties, there existed a type of middle-class cultured family whose mainspring of action was still Anti-Victorianism. These families have now gone entirely. They were not very rich, but they were very comfortably off. Some of them were professional men, some were in business; but their incomes were derived principally from inherited dividends. They sometimes came of gentry stock, but more often they were the second or third generation of families that had risen in the social scale through commerce or industry.

They were not intellectual, as a rule, and certainly not avant-garde. The womenfolk probably read the novels of Virginia Woolf, but the cult of sensitivity and all that is now classed under the vague name “Bloomsbury” would have seemed a little anemic to them. The men might perhaps have read a novel of D. H. Lawrence but certainly without comprehending the telling indictment of the age which we now see in his work. Experimentalism in the arts — abstract painting, the aestheticism of the Sitwells and the Russian Ballet, stream of consciousness and Joyce — all these were outside, not perhaps their knowledge, but their interest, although of course they would have disliked the philistine attitude of Punch toward such things, because they believed above all in being tolerant and broad-minded.

Religion they had packed away with the Victorian bric-a-brac of their parents, but they were far enough from the great religious controversies of the last century to regard ostentatious atheism as a trifle comic. Churchgoing, in general, they thought of as a fusty bygone, though many of them still remembered the family prayers and strict Sabbaths of their childhood as a wicked tyranny. They were not usually scientific, although they took scientific progress for granted as they did Evolution. Nevertheless Darwin ranked with them as one of the Victorian shams which Shaw had banished with his wit and healthy laughter; the less thinking of them probably had an idea that Lamarck had written the Origin of Species anyway. In politics most of these families were progressive and would have called themselves Socialists, which meant, in practice, a certain vague feeling that they need not be distressed by their money because it would in course of sensible progress be taken away from them anyway, but that they must take great pains to create a friendly relationship with the servants and with the tradesmen.

Their main concern, however, was to conduct their lives with common sense, no nonsense, straightforward realism, and plenty of hygiene. They disliked ugliness, sordid surroundings, disease, hypocrisy, pessimism, and sentimentalism above everything; and they were conscientiously determined that their children should be brought up in a world where these things didn’t exist. It was, of course, a well-nigh impossible assignment. The First World War they had met with high hearts, but its aftermath — especially as the nineteen-thirties brought the Depression and Hitler — wore them down. Cruelty, violence of emotion, humorlessness — everything that was grubby and smutty came to invade their hygienic world. It was intended that the children should never know guilt or fear; but, of course, they did and began to turn to all sorts of improbable excesses Communism, Roman Catholicism, and what have you.

In addition, the banishment of Victorian nursery tyranny and parental hypocrisy and the establishment of straightforward, “good friend" relationships had not somehow removed all the emotional difficulties of home life so easily as had been expected. Numerous tangles of possessiveness and hostility between parents and children existed beneath the sensible, offhand exterior; Freud could have predicted this, but although these people were familiar with Freud’s name and had read at second hand of his views, their AntiVictorian attitude to sex came from a pre-Freudian era. By the outbreak of the Second World War they were dying on their feet. For all the naïveté and evasion of their impossible ideal, it was a good one; subtler though we may have been in bringing back sin, guilt, and an imperfectible world, our amusement at them should be tinged with admiration.

If they were muddled, however, it was not a little because their prophets had been muddled also. Anti-Victorianism had been intended as a straight from the shoulder tidy-up of a muddled, blinkered world; but if we return to its gospels — to Shaw and Wells, Forster, Douglas, and the Maugham of Of Human Bondage, to name only those who owed debts to Samuel Butler — we shall find often brute force muddled up with freedom, class prejudices accepted as honesty, optimistic generalization masking despair, and personal quirks generalized into universal dogmas. To say all this is not to deny their achievement — they were one and all brilliant demolition men, skilled parricides — where the buildings were ratinfested and had stood too long, where the fathers were corrupted and ripe for death.

The greatest father-hater, and in his own tenacious, obsessive way the most skilled demolisher of the great Victorian Bastille, was Samuel Butler. An examination of his curious personality and of the row of uneven, brilliant, and boring books he wrote explains much of the success and insufficiency of And-Victorianism.

SAMUEL BUTLER was born in 1835. His father was the Reverend Thomas Butler, a rich, somewhat ineffectual country clergyman. His grandfather was Dr. Samuel Butler, one of the famous Victorian headmasters of public schools, who had brought one of the old grammar schools, Shrewsbury, into the line of high Christian manliness and liberal classical learning set by Dr. Arnold at Rugby as the ideal for the education of the sons of the rich Victorian middle class. Thomas Butler was no fool; he attained a classical fellowship at Cambridge, but his character was not strong enough to stand up to Dr. Butler’s. He was forced into orders against his will and compensated for the rest of his life by rather amateur botanizing and family tyranny. He married Fanny Worsley, the daughter of a sugar refiner, who brought more money and a loving but weak and fanciful character to the vicarage.

The Butlers had four children; the two daughters were all that a churchman could wish, the sons everything most undesirable. Tom was an uninteresting and conventional black sheep, but Samuel was one of the best-hating sons of all time. Butler’s hatred for his parents is everybody’s gain, for to it we owe The Way of All Flesh. The story of Theobald and Christina Pontifex is substantially that of Butler’s parents, It would be possible to say that Butler’s attitude toward his mother showed some relenting were it not for one thing — he incorporated into The Way of All Flesh a sentimental exhibitionistic letter she left for her sons and he incorporated it immediately after her death, which from his letters he truly seems to have mourned. About his father, there was no relenting.

The conflicts of childhood that produce works of art are difficult to measure. It seems probable that home life for Butler was unpleasant, but certainly a good deal less unpleasant than for many other boys of his class and time; but as with Dickens and the blacking factory to which his mother apprenticed him, Butler never forgot. His hatred of his father and of his mother as his father’s instrument sufficed for a lifetime of literary work in which he attacked every father figure in sight. God, the Risen Christ, Beethoven, Gladstone, Tennyson, Darwin, Raphael, Michelangelo — every figure that the Victorian age held sacred came under his fire.

The strange religious aspect that he gave to his own sufferings as a child is revealed in a passage in The Way of All Flesh. Theobald Pontifex beats his small son Ernest for, as he declares, willfully refusing to pronounce the word “come,” and his action is described as follows: “A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the diningroom, across the hall which separated the drawingroom from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten. ‘I have sent him up to bed,’ said Theobald, as he returned to the drawing-room, ‘and now, Christina, I think we will have the servants in to prayers,’ and he rang the bell for them, red-handed as he was.”

Now corporal punishment of children is not pleasant, and unjust corporal punishment less so; but it was not unusual in Butler’s day, and there is something strangely excessive in the words “red-handed as he was,” something suggestive of ritual and sacrifice. And Samuel Butler was the victim. The act, too, is associated with family prayers; and one can tell lrom this moment that the victim will be revenged on family prayers and the Church of England and Christianity and even God; and so, of course, he was. Butler’s life was committed to destroying every stone, every ideal on which life was built in that rectory at Langar where the wicked, sacrificial deed took place.

TO OBTAIN the revenge he planned, he was willing to acquire sufficient information on all the arts and sciences to enable him to compose his brilliant and paradoxical destructive attacks on Victorian ideals; but since even a lifetime of sixtyseven years is hardly sufficient to become a serious polymath, he remained forever an amateur and his attacks rest too often on very insecure learning. To devote his life to this destruction, he needed too a sufficient income and here comes an ironic and vicious circle, for an adequate income depended upon his father’s death, so that to destroy his father in print he had eagerly to await the mortal destruction of his father in the flesh. Only once or twice did he spare any Victorian idol, and then usually only after he had outraged Victorian opinion. Homer he was prepared to revere, but only when he had proved to his satisfaction that the Odyssey was written by a woman. Shakespeare he respected, but only by publishing a book suggesting that the sonnets depended upon an oddly improbable joke aimed at the Great Bard’s homosexual instincts. The single exception to Butler’s iconoclasm is an interesting one; all his life he worshiped Handel with an almost absurd reverence, and Handel he had found for himself as a youth.

“Found for himself” — in this lies the key to much of Butler and of those who came after him. To this determined belief in the mastery of his own destiny is owed his whole attack on Darwin and Natural Selection, from which stems the Creative Evolution which Shaw and Wells tried to set up as a substitute for the exploded dogmas of Christianity. This determination to be your own master, to be absolutely free of all masters, was to be echoed in many an early twentieth century novel. For, as Butler pointed out, the young man of upper-middle-class background was tied by his expensive education to his father’s wishes — public school and university, for what do they suit you? “A public school education cuts off a boy’s retreat,” he says in The Way of All Flesh; “he can no longer become a labourer or a mechanic, and these are the only people whose tenure of independence is not precarious — with the exception of course of those who are born inheritors of money.” So Mr. Pontifex must die, Butler’s father must die. The same story is echoed in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage; Philip, like Ernest Pontifex, is not free to find himself until his uncle the rector dies and leaves him a small income.

Of course, this view of the Victorian laborer or mechanic as free is palpably ridiculous, but to the late Victorian middle-class young man the life of the proletariat, or at any rate the individualist workingman, the London coster, had something of the eighteenth century license which was the antithesis of the moral prison of his own family life. E. M. Forster echoes it, but with a realization that such freedom could only belong to the rural districts, in the character of Stephen in The Longest Journey. Along with this freedom, of course, went a certain physical health and animal beauty which seemed the antithesis of Victorian sickly gentility. “I suppose,” Butler says in his notebook,"an Italian peasant or a Breton, Norman or English fisherman, is about the best thing nature does in the way of men.” Norman Douglas might well have echoed this. It seems now a sentimentalism, with something of the absurdity of A Shropshire Lad. But to it we owe Butler’s paradox of making ill health a crime and crime a curable disease in Erewhon, and in that paradox may be found what we now believe about morality which the Victorians would not have accepted.

However, if one could not be a Breton fisherman, but had unfortunately been born a middleclass young man dependent upon one’s parents, the most important thing was to have some private means. Without them one would have to obey the father’s will or, unsuited by a classical education to perform any craft, one would be forced into what we now call “the white-collar class” — to be a shop assistant or a clerk. How dreadful was the life of shop assistants Maugham shows in Philip’s most agonizing shame in the whole of Of Human Bondage. How contemptible was a clerk and his genteel aspirations Forster suggests in the character of Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. There is a strange combination of realism and snobbery about all this; for distasteful as this emphasis on dividends may be as a basis for the great truth of progress, it is a truer estimation of money power than many later progressives have allowed themselves.

THERE is an aspect of Butler’s advice to young men who wish to be free that is even more disturbing than his realistic assessment of the powers of money and of social class: his warning against following the dictates of the heart. The danger of a young man of talent and means being entrapped into marriage with a girl of the lower classes as Ernest Pontifex was trapped into marriage with Ellen, the country girl turned prostitute, was not new to Victorian readers. Mrs. Pendennis had saved her beloved son Arthur from such a marriage, when his heart and honor were more fully engaged than the goose Ernest; Trollope had warned his hero Johnnie Eames off entanglements with barmaids and landladies’ daughters. The danger was no doubt a real one, and Butler unnecessarily weakens the case by making Ellen a drunken tart.

Maugham draws the distinction more satisfactorily in Of Human Bondage when Philip has to avoid being sucked down by the waitress turned prostitute, Mildred; yet Mr. Athelney, the bohemian gentleman, has won his freedom in life by marrying a farmer’s daughter. In any case Philip opts for marriage. But there was to be no marriage for Ernest Pontifex, and even his children by Ellen are put out to a bargeman foster father for a pound a week; nor did Butler care for marriage for any of the young men he knew in actual life.

If his homosexual tendencies alone explained this, we could recognize the cause and pass on; but it is impossible not to think that the freedom for which Butler fought was in any case a selfcentered and isolated one. In his own life he paid dearly for any emotional attachments he formed to men, and he got out of Miss Savage’s emotional attachment to him with a deserved bad conscience. The truth is, I think, that Butler’s fight against his parents was logically more than just parricide: it was a denial of the family as a unit at all. The family for Butler was the essence of the Victorian prison house. Capitulation to family life was the end of Butlerian freedom; only perhaps a marriage like Shaw’s, which brought one solid dividends, would really win Butler’s approval.

Even for the artist this distrustful view of freedom might prove ambiguous: it was exactly the wandering dilettante, bachelor bohemianism of Butler himself and of Norman Douglas that made them in the end clever amateurs of literature rather than great writers. More importantly, however, it was an odd foundation for a brave new world, for the sensible, future-looking citizenship which Butler puts forward in Erewhon Revisited. It is one of the contradictions which, as I suggested earlier, lay beneath the culture of the progressive middle-class families who were the eventual heirs of Butler’s teaching. Good comradeliness and straight speaking may be the most satisfactory basis for an old bachelor’s emotional friendships; they do not suffice for the subtle and intricate blood ties of family relationship.

THE other deep contradiction that underlay the oversimplicity of Anti-Victorianism, which the early twentieth century inherited from Butler through Bernard Shaw, is also implicit in what appears to be the sensible, worldly maxim of avoiding entanglements with the lower classes. One of the Victorians’ deepest sentimentalities which Butler exploded was the concept that poverty and disease were in themselves virtuous an idea that vitiates even the best of Dickens’s work. In Erewhon and in The Way of All Mesh there is no compromise with this hypocrisy, and Butler’s personal taste for health and strength in the male fortified this view. The sick and the poor are unlikely to be masters of their own fates to be “unlucky” in life was one of the sins against the life force in Butler’s code. His attacks on Darwin’s Natural Selection — put forward in three large volumes, disregarded by the scientific world because of their amateurish foundation - were actuated partly because Darwin was the great Victorian father figure, partly because Butler rightly saw the tyranny that science was assuming over the popular mind, but, mainly because the whole idea of an evolution, controlled not by man’s will but by chance, was repulsive to his obsessive need to believe that the rejection of his past was in his own hands. To Butler it must have seemed that he had demolished the blackness and morbidity of the Christian concept of Sin and Atonement only to see a worse black pessimism return with Darwin’s evolutionary materialism.

To banish this, to assert the supremacy of man’s will and intelligence over Evolution, he was prepared to walk boldly into the realms of biology, to resurrect Lamarck, Buffon, and Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus to speak against blind chance. It was this evolutionary concoction that so attracted Shaw. From it sprang the Creative Evolution of Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah that Colin Wilson has recently tried to revive. That scientific fact is on the side of Darwin does not deter those who emotionally need to make of Evolution a religion under their own control.

None of this, of course, would matter if, under the aegis of Shaw and Wells, Butler’s ideas, which were essentially aristocratic, had not become attached to the doctrines of Socialism and so married to other channels of liberalism, tolerance, and philanthropy. Butler had no use for liberalism; he detested Gladstone as the personification of Victorian falseness. He would have accepted the name of reactionary willingly. Nevertheless his contempt for the unlucky in life became joined in Shaw with a reformist Socialism concerned to assist exactly these unlucky; and this contradiction was inherited by the progressives of the early twentieth century without their realizing it. Thus arose Shaw’s admiration for Hitler and Stalin which so puzzled his old progressive admirers; hence arose the latter-day pessimism of Wells; hence, I think, arose the compromise with the efficiency of the business world of the Wilcoxes in Howard’s End which has so troubled critics of Forster.

It is a lesson which many of the younger writers in England today might well study; on the one hand they speak boldly for the changed social order which has given their class a status in society, on the other hand they inveigh against the restrictions on individual success which smother their talents. Creative Evolution demands the deification of man’s will; it leads to the tyranny of the superman, or in practice the demagogue; it is incompatible with liberal social welfare or gradual social change. Like Butler and his successors, however, the main wish of the contemporary “angry young men” is to be rid of the confusion and clutter of the established order of contemporary England. Like Butler and his successors they are performing a very needed act of destruction, with which one will not quarrel, so long as they realize that their solutions in turn will inevitably be confused and cluttered.

The gravest defect, in fact, of Anti-Victorianism was its surface appearance of simplicity. Life, it said, could be healthy, clean, sensible, if men only took it into their own hands; mysteries, subtleties, contradictions — all these were simply part of the Victorian refusal to face facts, of puritan morality and hypocrisy, of pomposity and vested interest. No nonsense and plenty of healthy humor were all that was needed to blow the fog away.

Much of this was due to Butler’s own character and circumstances. He was a weak man obsessed with the need for absolute personal freedom; he was also a man whom parental Victorianism had made abnormally suspicious of any rhetoric or embroidery in thought. Imagery, poetry, extravagance of language, all these seemed to him the evasions, the casuistry of Victorian preaching.

We have only to read the grotesques of Dickens Pecksniff, Chadband, Micawber — to see how the Victorians could inebriate themselves with words. Butler was determined to avoid this worddrunkenness. Clarity and simplicity of style was his aim and he achieved it. He is one of the masters of English prose. Shaw and Norman Douglas and Maugham are all equal masters ol this direct, clean English language. It will ensure them a place among the minor great of English letters; but, alas! clarity of style is often achieved by oversimplification of thought, by the avoidance of the obscurities of life. Butlerian Anti-Victorianism was too straightforward to be adequate to the needs of man’s complex nature.