The Human Frown

John Bayley

  • Samuel Butler: A Biography by Peter Raby
    Hogarth, 334 pp, £25.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 7012 0890 2

Samuel Butler might be seen as one of those liberators who escort readers and admirers into a new airy sort of cell, and turn the key with an air of bestowing on them perfect freedom and emancipation of mind. So effective a freedom fighter was he, at least on one front, that his message and his books may now seem not much more than literary curiosities. He settled down in his own lifetime to being a well-known brand of licensed English eccentric, rearranging evolution and Shakespeare’s sonnets, proving that the author of the Odyssey was a woman, crossing swords in Shavian style with Bernard Shaw. An admirable, indeed an indispensable, literary sub-species, but not the sort who leaves behind either little masterpieces or great works of art.

And yet Virginia Woolf, writing in 1916, not only called him a rare spirit, ‘one of those whom we like, or it may be dislike, as we do the living, so strong is their individuality’, one whose success lay in being ‘a master of his life’, sticking to a point of view and achieving ‘freedom of soul’ by treating living as an art. She also praised ‘the peculiar accent and power of his style’, perceiving that it depended upon ‘not writing well’. Yeats made the same point, and it is illuminating to find two such conscious stylists, who flourished in an era of ‘good writing’, envying Butler his lack of it.

The answer seems to be that Butler’s manner is very well fitted to the ragbag use he best made of it. But Kipling or even Rider Haggard could have written his utopia, Erewhon, better than Butler did – in the manner of an exotic tale. Everyone remembers the unnerving scene at the top of the pass, with the giant statues and the wind booming through the backs of their heads. But the reader also forgets how remarkably inadequate is the writing, even allowing for the fact that Higgs, the narrator, is not Butler himself. ‘However brave a man might be, he could not stand such a concert, from such lips, and in such a place. I heaped every invective upon them that my tongue could utter as I rushed away from there into the mist.’ Surely this is neither fine writing nor plain writing, but just bad writing?

But if Kipling or Wells might in their own ways have done Erewhon better, and E.M. Forster The Way of All Flesh, that does not affect Butler’s influence and individuality, his power to create himself as ‘master of his life’. It is significant that Virginia Woolf’s praise was for what was to become – had already become – the Bloomsbury way of life. ‘Erewhon dinners’ were being held, at first under the auspices of Butler’s great friend Henry Festing Jones (the last dinner was in July 1914), and Forster was offered £25 by his publisher as an advance for a book about Butler. Lytton Strachey, who also found Butler immensely ‘cheering’, wanted to write on him in the Edinburgh Review; and Forster, who acknowledged himself as chief among the liberated, chose Erewhon for a radio talk on ‘books that have influenced me’. There is more than a touch of it in The Celestial Omnibus, and P.N. Furbank remarks of Howards End that ‘the Schlegel frankness about money that so shocks the Wilcoxes owed much to Butler.’ Old Mr Emerson in A Room with a View may well be based on him, while Felix Bacon in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s More Women than Men is certainly a variant on the Pontifex prototype. In her copy of Butler’s Notebooks, below the entry on those whose life is mostly death, she wrote: ‘I am a living witness of this crushing lifeless stagnation of the spirit.’

Butler not only liberated Wells and Forster and Compton-Burnett but helped them to a new kind of inspiration in the way of novel-writing. But the counter-revolution was not long in coming. In 1936 Malcolm Muggeridge published The Earnest Atheist, which Cape had turned down after commissioning it. The title speaks for itself, and Muggeridge was additionally unfair, in a characteristically Muggeridgean way, by calling Butler a closet homosexual and a snob who was fixated about money. Muggeridge was himself more than a little obsessive about getting idols he disapproved of into exploratory categories, claiming in his review of a biography of Max Beerbohm that he was Jewish and homosexual when he happened to be neither. Muggeridge’s brand of impeachment would make anyone not only glad but anxious to be included under it; and both Furbank’s admirable critical study of 1948, and Philip Henderson’s biography a few years later, trenchantly redressed the balance. Forster’s observation that ‘if Butler had not lived many of us would be a little deader than we are’ is just and rational, but Butler was much too odd to be ‘on the side of life’ in Dr Leavis’s sense. He was himself a genuine independent: but the effect he had on his admirers was of course to put them in a ‘one of us’ fold of some kind, a Bloomsburian, a sexual or even a political enclave, although Butler himself was – perhaps rather surprisingly – the most apolitical of men. His credo was briefly stated in the Notebooks: ‘The Three Most Important Things a man has are his private parts, his money, and his religious opinions.’

Whether that applied to women as well is less easy to say. Nor does Peter Raby, in an admirably balanced and judicious biography, have much light to throw upon the question. However unusual he was as an individual, Butler belonged to a well-defined Victorian male grouping, whose representatives in literary terms would range from Mr Pickwick through Holmes and Watson and Kipling’s The Light that Failed to Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows. Such men could be benevolent towards women, and prepared to admit that they had a raw deal from society: but they could not allow females to disturb their independence or ruffle the surface of their emotional lives. Their male friendships were sexless and essential: their female ones contingent and biological. Highly sexed from his youth, Butler made a point of finding out what facilities existed in whatever town he happened to be; and he was irritated once in his Italian travels to be thrown back on the services of an almost imbecile elderly creature, the companion of a lady in reduced circumstances, to whom he was referred by his hotel, and whom he later met at a local church service. What was Butler doing in church? Foreign ones counted as tourism, and besides he was always curious to find out what the enemy were up to, and how they conducted themselves. Butler’s businesslike dealings with the opposite sex were certainly gruesome. The lady in the Italian town ‘he had to put up with as the only thing that was to be got’, but his normal arrangement in London was with a respectable establishment some way from where he lived in the Inns of Court. At first he did not disclose his address, but it became his practice later to invite the proprietress to an occasional lunch.

Butler’s speech and behaviour in these matters greatly offended the susceptibilities of the chivalrous young Robert Bridges, who from then on avoided him. And yet there is a curious resemblance between the pattern of Butler’s behaviour and that of the exponents of courtly love in the Middle Ages: the same rigid separation between sex, on the one hand, and adoration, tenderness or sacrifice, on the other: and the same desire to foster a comparable pattern of life among a few close friends. Butler was greatly agitated if he thought that his beloved Henry Festing Jones (who incidentally shared his weekly woman) might be contemplating marriage, and he had similar fears about his previous relationship with the more enigmatic Charles Paine Pauli. With countries and individuals liberation can be a dubious concept, implying a repetition of old rigidities in a new form. Forster himself highly disapproved of lesbian attachments, feeling (though he might have put it differently) that women did and should exist for men’s benefit: a point of view not so different from Butler’s own, not so different, either, from that of Lytton Strachey or Henry James. Malcolm Muggeridge expressed the view that Butler was one of those benign old Victorian gentlemen (his father, the Canon, was in his own way such another) who are ogres flourishing among their buried or unburied victims. It is true that ogres can come in highly emancipated forms, but Ivy Compton-Burnett’s art – far less crude than Muggeridge’s dicta – perceived that not only is there an ogre and victim in most of us but that victims usually have some way of looking after themselves.

That was certainly true of Butler’s sisters, May and Harriet, who lived at home at the Rectory with their father the Canon, and did well out of being holier than the Pope. Butler cordially hated both of them. His ne’er-do-well younger brother Tom married and escaped; ran a series of mistresses, absconded from Brussels leaving a nestful of bad debts, died young. Canon Butler seems on balance to have been rather patient than otherwise with both his sons, and they were both something of a trial. He encouraged and financed Samuel’s New Zealand venture, which seems to have been oddly lacking in risk or hardship. Samuel travelled a good bit in the South Island, bought and sold land, and made a respectable amount of money. Shrewd in many ways but also impractical, he was remembered for having tiled the roof of his dwelling the wrong way, so that the rain ran down inside it. Back home he resumed the financial war with his father and inherited a comfortable amount of property after the latter’s death. He had his losses and his large donations to Jones and Pauli, nor did he profit from his books, often published at his own expense; but he kept meticulous and minute accounts and was worth more than £50,000 when he died in 1902, an enormous sum in those days. Erewhon had enjoyed a brilliant but very brief success. The Way of All Flesh and the Notebooks were published posthumously.

Langar Rectory near Nottingham where Butler was born looks an idyllic Georgian residence, appropriate for concealing what Butler would call the horrors beneath. Peter Raby also includes a superb family portrait in which the Canon as Pontifex senior has a downcast, deprecating and kindly look; the ruffian Tom towers over him, attended by his long-suffering spouse. Samuel, with his bushy head and immense black eyebrows, stands gloomily but civilly to one side. Touching, and also significant, that he should have striven all his life to find and attach to himself siblings to replace these natural ones, first encountering the egregious and evasive Pauli in New Zealand. This seemingly prosperous young man from Winchester and Oxford, with a German businessman father, appealed to Butler through his worldly charm and nice manners. Back in London, he gave him quite large sums, even an allowance, without finding out what he did with it or even where he lived. Obviously he was a superior con man, but one sees why Butler was so desperately attracted, and impelled to enact a family ritual of generosity and gratitude, requiring only that Pauli should lunch with him at set times. Henry Festing Jones, a solicitor, was much more amenable; and late in life Butler, like Henry James, possessed an enchantingly droll and faithful young manservant. For sister he acquired a Miss Savage, an energetic and humorous spinster with views apparently similar to his own. They met at painting school, visited regularly and corresponded, and she died painfully of cancer without troubling him or letting him know. Again a Henry James situation – very like his Constance Fenimore and his story ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ – and Butler was deeply stricken when he thought of Miss Savage, and what she might have wanted but never asked for.

Peter Raby tells the story very well and has written a much more level-headed account of the life than Butler’s own. What rather sadly but also movingly emerges is the recurring pattern that attends on all human relations, public and private: countries and persons re-enact their past. Raby has some acute pages on Erewhon, pointing out that the society depicted is a reversal and a distortion of Victorian ideas, ‘as though one views Victorian England through distorting mirrors that distort in different ways’. Evolution itself is distorted into a dire metaphor, not a discovery; and one of the best comic-sinister touches is the Erewhonian horror of a watch, for possession of which the narrator is sent to prison. Paley had presented the watch as proof of God’s existence, and the Erewhonian magistrate is dismayed and horrified by the thing as the possible ‘designer of himself and of the universe ... one of the first great causes of all things’. Butler’s words evoke what he must himself have felt at the discovery that removing God did not emancipate man but condemned him to the sense of how his own existence was determined. It is this realisation which seems to give macabre life to the memorable image of the statues that guard the pass to Erewhon, and whose demeanour and sound had been imitated for the narrator’s benefit by the savage, Chowbok. They seem to have represented for Butler the horror of human behavioural conditioning, and his own struggle with his father, a highly metaphoric and internal affair that went far deeper than the comparatively mild and commonplace family process which he caricatured into awesome tyranny and severity in The Way of All Flesh. No wonder Frazer’s image in The Golden Bough of the haunted priest of Nemi, condemned to guard himself endlessly from the usurper who would slay him as he had slain his predecessor, held such fascination for its audience, and probably for Butler too. Like those of Wells and Frazer, his image of our condition is a man with a drawn sword and an anxious expression.