Samuel Butler 1835-1902
Samuel Butler was the iconoclastic English author of the Utopian satirical novel ‘Erewhon’ (1872) and the semi-autobiographical ‘The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously in 1903. In other works he examined Christian orthodoxy, evolutionary thought and Italian art and made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey that are still consulted today. He was also an artist.
Butler was born on 4 December 1835 at the rectory in the village of Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, to the Rev.Thomas Butler and his wife, Fanny. Samuel was the eldest and had three siblings, Thomas, Henrietta and May.
His father was rector of Langar and canon of Lincoln. Samuel’s immediate family created for him an oppressive home environment ,chronicled in ‘The Way of All Flesh’. His father, Thomas Butler, it has been suggested became a bullying father, to make up for having been a servile son’. 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’. Under his parents’ influence, he was supposed to follow his father into the Anglican priesthood, so he was sent to Shrewsbury at the age of twelve, where he did not enjoy the hard life under its then headmaster, Benjamin Hall Kennedy, whom he later caricatured as “Dr Skinner” in ‘The Way of All Flesh’. 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 poor part of London as preparation for his ordination into the Anglican clergy, but began questioning his faith. This experience would later serve as inspiration for his work ‘The Fair Haven’. This attitude only enraged his father, so he emigrated in September 1859, to New Zealand, 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). He 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’, which revealed Butler’s long interest in Darwin’s theories of biological evolution . In 1863, four years after Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’, Butler wrote under a pseudonym, a letter to ‘The Press’ a New Zealand newspaper, comparing human evolution to machine evolution, prophesying that machines would eventually replace man in the supremacy of the earth.
Butler returned to England in 1864, settling in rooms in Clifford’s Inn, near Fleet Street, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1872, his Utopian novel ‘Erewhon’ appeared anonymously, but when Butler revealed himself as the author, the book made him a well-known literary figure.
Due to a legacy from his grandfather and his father’s death in 1886, Butler’s financial problems for the last sixteen years of his life were resolved so Butler indulged himself, holidaying in Italy every summer and while he was there, producing his works on the Italian landscape and art. He wrote a number of other books, but his semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Way of All Flesh’ did not appear in print until after his death, as he considered its tone of satirical attack on Victorian morality too contentious.
Butler died aged 66 on 18 June 1902 at a nursing home in St John’s Wood Road, London. By his wish he was cremated at Woking Crematorium, and his ashes dispersed.
George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster were great admirers of Samuel Butler, who brought a new tone into Victorian literature and began a long tradition of New Zealand utopian/dystopian literature.