Monday, December 04, 2017

Born Today in 1835: English Author Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler was born today, December 4, in 1835. He was the iconoclastic English author of the Utopian satirical novel Erewhon (1872) and the semi-autobiographical coming of age novel, The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously in 1903. Both have remained in print ever since.  He was also an artist.

Samuel Butler's relationship with his parents, especially with his father, was largely antagonistic. His education began at home and included frequent beatings, as was not uncommon at the time. Samuel wrote later that his parents were "brutal and stupid by nature." He later recorded that his father "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 12, 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.

After Cambridge he went to live in a low-income parish in London 1858–59 as preparation for his ordination into the Anglican clergy; there he discovered that baptism made no apparent difference to the morals and behaviour of his peers and began questioning his faith. This experience would later serve as inspiration for his work The Fair Haven

Correspondence with his father about the issue failed to set his mind at peace, inciting instead his father's wrath. As a result, he emigrated in September 1859 to New Zealand. Butler went there like many early British settlers of privileged origins, to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. He wrote of his arrival and life as a sheep farmer on Mesopotamia Station in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), and made a handsome profit when he sold his farm, but the chief achievement of his time there was the drafts and source material for much of his masterpiece Erewhon.

Butler returned to England in 1864 where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1872, the Utopian novel Erewhon appeared anonymously, causing some speculation as to the identity of the author. When Butler revealed himself, Erewhon made him a well-known figure.

Butler indulged himself, holidaying in Italy every summer and producing, while he was there, his works on the Italian landscape and art.

Butler never married, and although he did for years make regular visits to a woman, 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. 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. Although Jones kept his own lodgings, 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.

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 railway station in early 1895.

Butler died aged 66 on June 18, 1902, at a nursing home in St John's Wood Road, London.

No comments: