Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Review - Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

Publ: 1903 (Large Print edition – G.K.Hall 1999)
Pensby Library
ISBN: 0-7838-8641-1
Genre: Fiction - classic
Pages: 624p
Rating: ***** *

Have I read this before? I cannot recall. If I have it would have been when I was in my late teens or early twenties and I doubt I would have enjoyed it. Even now, whilst I enjoyed it, there have been plenty of Victorian novels I would rate more highly. Completed by Butler in 1885 it was not published until 1903, a year after his death. The edition I read was a large print one in 16pt which made it a lot easier on the eyes than some of the books I’ve tried recently.

A keenly satirical and semi-autobiographical criticism of the English middle class and the clergy. The hero, Ernest Pontifex, is the son of a bullying and unsympathetic clergyman and after an unhappy childhood he struggles with his feelings of inadequacy. Following the traditional route of his kind he is ordained but then things go wrong and he ends up in prison.

The characters are wonderfully delineated but from a modern perspective the book almost lacks any really likeable folk. Ernest is too weak and his godfather, the narrator, is at times too unfeeling. “The fault I feel personally disposed to find with my godson is not that he had wild oats to sow, but that they were such an exceedingly tame and uninteresting crop.” The only delightful character is Ernest’s Aunt Alethea and she has the unkindness to depart this life a third of the way through the book.

Butler was writing for the educated upper middle classes and made free use of Greek, Latin and French and assumed a knowledge of the Greek philosophers, music and religious matters far beyond that of the current reader. Nevertheless his style kept me quite content. I love good Victorian prose and I enjoy the arguing back and forth of little philosophies. Butler showed not only an insight into the thoughts and feelings of his adults but also of the fears and worries of Ernest as child – a skill it is all too easy to dismiss.

Like Trollope, Butler did not think much of Dickens who he obviously classed as little above the penny dreadfuls of the day – “...he had devoured Stanley’s “Life of Arnold”, Dickens’s novels, and whatever other literary garbage was most likely to do him harm....”

As with any book I do dislike an inconsistency or an apparent omission when I find one. In this case one of the servants is sent away for being pregnant but reappears later without the child. Whilst the child may have died or been fostered out it is annoying that Butler totally ignored what happened to it. I think he just forgot that pregnancy usually tends to lead to a child!

One thing the book is not short on is quotable quotes:-

“...we must judge men not so much by what they do, as by what they make us feel that they have it in them to do. If a man has done enough, either in painting, music or the affairs of life; to make me feel that I might trust him in an emergency he has done enough.”

In those days the snow lay longer and drifted deeper in the lanes than it does now, and the milk was sometimes brought in frozen in winter, and we were taken down into the back kitchen to see it. I suppose there are rectories up and down th country now where the milk comes in frozen sometimes in winter, and the children go down to wonder at it, but I never see any frozen milk in London, so I suppose the winters are warmer than they used to be.

Yet when a man is very fond of his money it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also.... His money was never naughty; his money never made any noise or litter, and did not spoill things on the tablecloth at meal times, or leave the door open when it went out. His dividends did not quarrel among themselves, nor was he under an uneasiness lest his mortgages should become extravagant on reaching manhood and run him up debts which sooner or later he would have to pay.

Mrs. Allaby never looked at young man without an eye to his being a future son-in-law. Papas and mammas sometimes ask young men whether their intentions are honourable towards their daughters. I think young men might occasionally ask papas and mammas whether their intentions are honourable before they accept invitations to houses where there are still unmarried daughters.

Growing is not the easy, plain sailing, business that it is commonly supposed to be; it is hard work...

No boy can resist being fed well by a good-natured and still handsome woman. Boys are very like dogs in this respect – give them a bone and they will like you at once.

If it was not such an awful thing to say of anyone, I should say that she meant well.

Whenever his mother wanted what she called a confidential talk with him she always selected he sofa as the most suitable ground on which to open her campaign. All mothers do this; the sofa is to them what the dining-room is to fathers... Once safely penned into one of its (the sofa’s) deep corners, it was like a dentist’s chair, not too easy to get out of again.... Whatever head of a family ever sends for any of its members into the dining room if his intentions are honourable?
...and the mangled bones of too many murdered confessions were lying whitening round the skirts of his mother’s dress...

On this he saw that, provided tobacco did not injure his health – and he really could not se that it did – it stood much on the same footing as tea or coffee. Tobacco had nowhere been forbidden in the Bible, but then it had not yet been discovered, and had probably only escaped proscription for this reason. We can conceive of St. Paul or even our Lord Himself as drinking of a cup of tea, but we cannot imagine either of them as smoking a cigarette, or a churchwarden.

The literary instinct may be known by a man’s keeping a small note-book in his waistcoat pocket, into which he jots down anything that strikes him, or any good passage which he thinks will come in useful to him.

A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage ...

“I have found the Zoological Gardens of service to many of my patients. I should prescribe for Mr Pontifex a course of the larger mammals...” Had the doctor been less eminent in his profession I should have doubted whether he was in earnest... Since this time, whenever I have been a little out of sorts myself I have at once gone up to Regent’s Park, and have invariably been benefited. i mention this here in the hope that some one or other of my readers may find the hint a useful one.

...all granted that the Church professed to enjoin belief in much which no one could accept who had been accustomed to weigh evidence but it was contended that so much valuable truth had got so closely mixed up with these mistakes that the mistakes had better not be meddled with. To lay great stress on these was like cavilling at the queen’s right to reign, on the ground that William the Conqueror was illegitimate.

SAMUEL BUTLER (1835-1902) was an English satirist, translator and amateur biologist, born at Langar Rectory in Nottinghamshire and educated at Cambridge. A Homeric scholar, his prose translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey are still in use today. The son of a clergyman he rejected that life and went to New Zealand as a sheep farmer for four years before returning to England to write. He was one of the most searching critics of his day.

An accomplished artist he exhibited at the Royal Academy. This self-portrait was painted in 1873. His two best known works are Erewhon (published anonymously in 1872), a satire of Victorian society, and the posthumous “The Way of All Flesh”.

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