The Way of All Flesh is one of those books that come down to us trailing a legend. In this case the legend has a real bearing on the nature of the book. One of the features of the legend has to do with the manner of the book’s composition and belated appearance in print. The Way of All Flesh was written in spurts during the years 1873-84. It was not published until 1903, the year following its author’s death at the age of sixty-seven. Once in print The Way of All Flesh was pronounced by Bernard Shaw “a great book.” Alive, Samuel Butler had been known, insofar as he was known at all, as a sort of curiosity-about-town (the town of London). The deceased now became abruptly famous.
In all the English-speaking countries (the book has had no great reputation elsewhere), advanced young men and women devoured The Way of All Flesh. Certain of them went on to write their own novels of adolescence. These novels were mostly inferior imitations of Butler. Only in Sons and Lovers and more directly in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were Butler’s materials—religion and family, repression and freedom—made into finer stuff. These greater books did not “supercede” The Way of All Flesh: supercession is rare in literature, which is ideally made up of entities unique and hence irreplaceable by definition. Butler’s book thrived on what Mr. V. S. Pritchett has called the “parricidal fury” released by the First World War, and its fame continued on into the early 1920s. After that, as I make out, The Way of All Flesh faded somewhat. Fatigued by so much attention, it became a book with a past. It was retired to the sanctuary reserved for minor classics. More complex novels, such as those by Joyce and Lawrence mentioned above, captured the estimation of advanced people. Butler himself, formerly admired for his cranky independence of mind, fell victim to the new tyranny of “tradition,” Marxist or Eliotist.
By the mid-1930s Butler and his works were carrion for the debunker, who appeared in the person of the English writer, Malcolm Muggeridge. Mr. Muggeridge’s biography of Butler, The Earnest Atheist, made of its subject a dreary fool. Butler’s sufferings, which had been extreme, were made to look painfully absurd, like those of some clown, Malvolio or Caliban, whose sensibility exceeds the requirements of his station; while the scandal, as it then was, of Butler’s probable homosexuality was summed up in the image of two gray beards wagging under a single sheet. The Earnest Atheist carried debunking so far that it ended by debunking itself. It excited more disbelief than indignation. For the knowing, moreover, the book concealed an inside joke of some positive consequence for Butler’s standing: the author of The Earnest Atheist was himself in the line of descent from Butler—the Butler, for example, of that remarkable conjuring act, The Authoress of the Odyssey. In both writers was the same relentless hunting instinct, the same mischievous rapture in revealing some awful truth, the same skillfully hewn and hyper-confident prose. The Authoress of the Odyssey is one of the books in the Butler canon that most excites ridicule; and the discipleship of a Muggeridge was not in itself a boon to Butler’s reputation. Readers of The Earnest Atheist were nevertheless reminded of how pervasive the influence of Butler had once been and still was. Traces of his mind and manner were to be found in such writers as Shaw himself, Lytton Strachey, H. L. Mencken, Norman Douglas, Robert Graves, and, in certain moods, Edmund Wilson. Butler, it was seen, had himself helped to father a “tradition” in twentieth-century writing, the tradition of ironic iconoclasm.
Thus began the gradual and partial rehabilitation of Samuel Butler and his writings. The recent critical literature devoted to him is extensive, and much of it is good, taking Butler on his own terms and clarifying those terms in such a way as to make them interesting in themselves. Rarely does one encounter in the Butler literature those methods of instant modernization which have been used on Dickens and other Victorians. Once only, so far as I know, has the method been tried on Butler. Ernest Pontifex has been called by someone a precursor of our contemporary antihero.
IF TRUE, the designation of anti-hero applies equally to Butler. He was by turn, or in perpetual combination, a hero and an ass. But he was a much more formidable figure than Muggeridge makes him out to be, formidable even in his foolishness. And some account of his life and personality is now due here. In Butler’s case a bit of biography can be really useful.
The legend of The Way of All Flesh includes the following considerations: how he came to write the book in the first place; why the writing of it was stretched out over so many years; why, having at last finished off the final third of it in haste and apparently with distaste, he left that part unrevised and also left the whole manuscript to be edited and published after his death by a literary executor; and finally, why the story undergoes such violent changes of substance and quality in the course of its telling. In all this we have one of those mysteries, or cases of deliberate mystification, which in Butler as in other Victorians have aroused the hunting instinct of posterity. With Butler, though, the underlying, the essential, mystery concerns the general relationship of the man Butler to his work and to his very vocation as a writer. Such relationships are proverbially complex. In Butler, the man and the writer were entangled as the drowning man is entangled with his rescuer, that is, with an urgency far beyond the average. And a few, at least, of the reasons for this extreme interdependency can be suggested here in simplified form.
Butler tried to be three different things at once: first, a critical continuator of the clerical tradition embodied in his father and grandfather, distinguished clergymen of the Church of England; second, a get-rich-quick operator; and third, an artist (painter, composer of music, writer). Each of these functions, the clerical, the financial, the artistic, had, we know, a secure existence within the fabric of Victorian society. Butler wasn’t, like such contemporaries as Sir Richard Burton, seeking to create for himself new and outré roles. His oddness consisted in his determination to combine in his own person three established ways of life which, given the increasing fluidity of late Victorian society, were becoming mutually incompatible, even antagonistic. Behind Butler’s ambition to excel in these three occupations was his extravagant ambition to excel in general. Just whom, and what, he sought to excel are much in evidence in The Way of All Flesh. They were, of course, his parents, in particular his father, and their entire mode of life.
Especially gratifying to the reader and presumably to the author of the novel are those occasions on which Theobald Pontifex is put down, whether by the headmaster of Roughborough School in whose affairs Theobald tries to interfere; or, eventually, by Ernest himself as he emerges from prison. For Butler’s reaction against his oppressive upbringing was intensified by the fact that his chief oppressor was a very limited man. Like Theobald, Canon Butler was a zealous authoritarian who proved rather obtuse when it came to exercising his authority.* That a man could be equally bossy but more imaginative, humorous, and flexible about it is shown in The Way of All Flesh, by the figure of the Roughborough headmaster, Dr. Skinner, who with his flagrant yet disarming vanity is one of Butler’s triumphs of characterization: the Victorian Public Man, educator and author in excelsis.
Unlike the tortured Theobald and—we assume—the tortured Canon Butler, Dr. Skinner is a man blessed in his responsibilities. He luxuriates in them and in the attendant habit of giving profound and conspicuous thought to decisions big and little. ” ‘What will you take for supper, Dr. Skinner?” said Mrs. Skinner in a silvery voice. He made no answer for some time, but at last, in a tone of almost superhuman solemnity, he said, first, ‘Nothing,’ and then, ‘Nothing whatever.’ ” But a mind so active as Dr. Skinner’s mind is unable to rest with this initial decision, impressively Spartan though it is. He goes on to apply the whole of his great soul to the question of supper and at length comes up with a qualification, “Stay—“ he says to Mrs. Skinner, “I may presently take a glass of cold water and a small piece of bread and butter.” And of course—the situation is as familiar in comedy as in life—he ends by consuming several substantial dishes and then calling for hot water and gin. Dr. Skinner’s jaunty mastery of life is the despair of Theobald.
The heritage of his family experience was a riot of contradictory impulses on Butler’s part. The authority he detested in his father he also coveted for himself. His distrust of sex and of love was matched by his hunger for sex and love, his hope of success by his anxiety lest success fail to materialize. In the guerrilla warfare that was his life, therefore, strategies of offense mingled curiously with those of defense and simple evasion. He was at once truculent and timid, tender and nasty, furtively feminine and aggressively masculine, brilliant and foolish. The harsher the conflicts in his soul, the more he was driven to resolve them into Ideas. Ideas were manageable as feelings were not. Ideas could be bisected into opposing principles and played off against one another, divided and ruled. In the best parts of The Way of All Flesh such dualities make for more or less realistic drama; Old Pontifex v. his descendants, Theobald v. Dr. Skinner. In the later stretches of the novel the pairing tendency becomes mechanical. The relations of Towneley to Pryer, of Miss Maitland to Miss Snow are those of Morality figures, and the last third of the novel is chiefly parable or didactic allegory.
To see Butler’s situation in this way is to overintellectualize it. Butler suffered. For much of his life he was in Hell, the kind of Hell that we partly make for ourselves. His evasive maneuvers render him at times ridiculous. His torments nevertheless refuse to be scoffed away. So do his very evasions and compromises, even though he did invite the derision of posterity by giving those maneuvers the Darwin-derived term of “adaptations,” thus transferring them from the realm of morals and aesthetics to that of biological necessity.
IN CERTAIN CRITICAL SITUATIONS he was the hero. He performed what Henry James would have called, with appropriate solemnity, “acts of life.” I shall here deal briefly with two such acts, and with a third that seems to me a caricature of the whole procedure. They are, first, his flight from England and its consequences on his return; second, his writing of The Way of All Flesh; and third, his preoccupation in later years with what he expected to be his post-mortem fame.
These acts seem each to have followed upon years of highly charged but heavily controlled emotion on his part. The preparation for the first of them lasted longest. It embraced his whole, largely passive, boyhood and youth, spent either with his parents at Langar Rectory in Nottinghamshire or at Shrewsbury School and Cambridge. The Way of All Flesh is a prolonged demonstration of how children are made capable of suffering without quite knowing it. The elder Pontifexes, and probably the Canon Butlers, were just as repressive of themselves as of their children. Such parents develop peculiar powers of which they are likely to remain unconscious. Their children’s feelings can be manipulated to the point where potential resentment is turned into “harmless” states of guilt, resignation, or numb acquiescence. Young Butler’s feelings seem to have hovered among these alternatives. They exploded into full consciousness only when Butler, who had been prepared for ordination and a church career at his father’s dictation, defied his father and refused ordination. Strong persuasion was applied by that unfortunate gentleman and countered in kind by his son. Young Butler admitted to having lost his faith in dogmatic Christianity. He proposed, moreover, to leave England, settle in New Zealand, and become a sheep rancher. From his shocked father he got a reluctant consent and even some preliminary financial assistance.
Butler’s stay in New Zealand lasted nearly five years—long enough to fill his existence there with the hardships, tediums, and satisfactions of existence anywhere. Essentially, though, his New Zealand life was, and remained for him in memory, an extraordinary adventure in freedom. Au idealized representation of it, with rapture predominating over hardship, is found in Erewhon, especially in the wonderful opening chapters of this satirical romance: the narrator’s tough but enchanting journey through lush mountain forests, his first sight of the mysterious Erewhon (meaning No-where) from afar, his arrival at the ring of musical statues (their music suggests Butler’s favorite composer, Handel) on the country’s frontier. There follows his gradual immersion in the civilization of Erewhon, where the English middleclass values of his time are found to be neatly inverted. Meanwhile, in actual New Zealand, Butler succeeded in the unlikely accomplishment of being the proper young Englishman in the Colonies while at the same time going—in a very special sense—native. He proved a shrewd, hard-working developer and exploiter of colonial resources. He also discovered where his true sexual interests lay. Returning to England, he took back with him a considerable fortune and a handsome young man named Charles Paine Pauli. With Pauli, his companion for many years, he shared his fortune (to the extent of a large yearly allowance), and his heart. Presently, too, the New Zealand adventure brought him some public fame as the author of Erewhon (1870), a story whose delightfulness is not seriously impaired by the blend in it of Swift and Jules Verne.
This, his first act of life, was to be compromised, though not really canceled out, by various troubles. Butler loved Pauli and for a time believed himself to be loved in return. Eventually there was a calculating coldness on Pauli’s part; and on Butler’s there were acute suffering and lasting regret. If homosexuality is the extension of self-love into the physical sphere, the usual problems of the homosexual are worsened when the loved one is made to assume the character of the lover’s ideal alter ego. The tyranny of the ideal helped to make havoc of Butler’s relations with Pauli. It long blinded Butler to the fact that he was being ruthlessly exploited by Pauli, who, as he was to learn after Pauli’s death, in 1897, exploited other susceptible men. For Butler, his friend embodied the perfection of manly poise and worldly elegance—qualities which the prickly, inept, unlovely Butler significantly lacked. In The Way of All Flesh the Pauli affair was to get itself represented in the paired characters of Towneley, the perfect gentleman, and Pryer, the priestly satanist and—it is coyly insinuated—the homosexual (Butler coy is Butler at his worst). He was to have other protégés, and presumably more manageable ones, but he seems to have loved Pauli to the end. A sonnet Butler wrote during the year of his own death and which is generally thought to be about Pauli, has much pathos despite its Petrarchan artifices. The sonnet begins: “We were two lovers standing sadly by/ While our two loves lay dead upon the ground.” But the implication of the whole poem is that Butler’s love is not dead. Other misfortunes accompanied the Pauli affair. While trying to enlarge his fortune Butler made bad investments and lost most of it. He was again partly dependent on his capricious “will-shaking” father. Nevertheless his spiritual gains remained intact. He had had New Zealand, Pauli, the satisfaction of writing Erewhon and of seeing it delight or outrage many readers. The year after Erewhon he was to publish The Fair Haven, an ironic attack on the Christian cult of miracles. The Fair Haven is introduced by a mock biography of its alleged author. This forty-page “Memoir of John Pickard Owen” is Butler’s most perfect single performance.
IN RETROSPECT, the “Memoir” looks like a preliminary sketch for The Way of All Flesh. Butler had decided to attempt a novel and was casting about for a subject. Unknowingly, he was also approaching the hour of his second large victory, or partial victory, over his father, his society, and the elements of contention in his own soul. His writing thus far had already antagonized his parents. After Erewhon his father had literally shown him the door. Now in 1873 his mother died. Loving, in his divided way, both parents and especially his mother, Butler traveled to the scene. But Canon Butler’s mood was bitterly unforgiving. Annoyed by his son’s presence, he resorted to one of those absurdly all-inclusive charges peculiar to the madder participants in family quarrels at their maddest. He accused Butler of having killed his mother with his writings. We know Butler to have been almost as divided about his writer’s vocation as he was about his parents. The father had thus dealt the son a double blow and the son again recoiled in kind. Within weeks he had affirmed the worth of his vocation by deciding upon a subject for his projected novel. The subject would be the somewhat stylized history of his family and himself. With serio-comic logic, Canon Butler had shown that the essence of the family situation, as he knew it, was a mutual hostility verging on the murderous. Butler need have no scruples about writing his father’s revelation into his serio-comic novel. This he proceeded to do.
For nearly a year he worked at what was to be The Way of All Flesh, completing a first draft of—roughly speaking—the first thirty chapters. The next thirty or so chapters were not written until five years later, and the concluding chapters had to wait several more years (till 1883-84) before he was in a position or in a mood to finish them off. Then followed the mystifying entombment of the manuscript.
What interrupted his work on the novel during those periods of neglect? Business trips, worry over business losses, concern with other literary projects, and inertia born of doubt concerning his powers as a novelist. And why the final entombment? He had been more or less reconciled with his father but still had reason to dread his father’s anger and, with it, possible retaliation by way of disinheritance. But his father died in 1886, Butler came at last into a large part of the considerable family fortune, and still there was no exhumation of the novel. Yet Hardy and others were then creating an audience for a deadlier realism in the English novel, and to that audience The Way of All Flesh could scarcely have failed to appeal. The truth seems to be that the later Butler was a changed man—changed as only a man so susceptible to the attraction of opposites could have been. Having his father’s money was one thing. The fact that he owed it to the persistence of the paternal instinct in his father, despite all their differences, was another and, emotionally, more impressive consideration.
Other evidence exists—we needn’t go into it here—of the workings in the later Butler of sentiments reborn and of values released from the depths of his being. And no human force is stronger than that contained in the reawakened pieties of the aging. Besides, with a good income, a servant, and faithful younger companions he had other things to do than labor at an old manuscript. He could indulge his generosity toward the faithful, his love of travel, his detective’s zest for hunting down the truth about the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the authorship and the locale of the Odyssey. The books that came out of these and other similar quests are often called brilliant, or provocative, or simply Good Fun. To paraphrase Max Beerbohm, they are the kind of books that people like who like that kind of books. Butler’s concerns in them seem to me disturbing. They are the concerns, generally speaking, of hangers-on of the arts, individuals who haven’t themselves made it as artists, or who fear they can’t, and who therefore turn with added zeal to the scrutiny of the makers of art, searching them for instances of plagiarism and forgery, for coded messages to posterity, and above all for false claims of authorship. To such individuals, artists are at best mystifiers, at worst impostors. As I see it, Butler could not have joined such circles unless he had come to feel, rather deeply, the after-effects of some grand opportunity bungled, something lost in the shuffle of life or refused out of fear, perversity, or whatever. Whether this something was the buried Way of All Flesh itself, or, more broadly, the feelings, convictions, and powers implicit in that novel, is probably an academic question.
IF HE HAD LOST something important, he had hit upon a sort of replacement. This was his ever-deepening conviction of post-mortem fame. His Notebooks and other literary remains are occasionally eloquent on the subject. He lived with it as he had once lived with his “prospects”—inheritance of the Butler money—although there was now less worrying. At his most confident, this fame was for him a large substantial fact, like some actual mausoleum designed by himself and built at his orders. He could visit the thing at will and walk all around it, admiring, criticizing. It is not too extravagant to say that this projection of himself into the future, grotesque as it looks, was the last of his acts of life.
In performing the act he had the advantage of a substantial body of precedents. Literature since the Renaissance had been greatly modified by the resurrectionary principle—modified alike in spirit and substance. Remarkable works—original, germinating—had been added to the known territory of literature by writers who in their lifetimes had been neglected or wholly unknown. Blake, Stendhal, and the rest, these great resurrected Lazaruses or small unmuted Miltons had come to constitute a significant phenomenon, almost an institution, of the literary life. To obscure writers, this phenomenon or institution held out the dream of eventual recognition, to readers, the expectation of buried treasure. What may have excited Butler most was the impact of the whole thing on literary officialdom, whose authority it was always tending to undermine. It helped to show up the precariousness of established critical standards and of sanctified reputations. It revealed the folly of those attempts by officialdom to organize literary history according to arbitrary conceptions of Zeitgeist: of what constituted the peculiar identity of a given cultural “age,” past or present, and therefore (in Ezra Pound’s words) of what “the age demanded” of its writers. For Butler the single talent counted for more than the collectivity of talents, just as in biology the occurrence of the “sport” signified more than the existence of species.
As usual, however, he made something uniquely, even absurdly, his own out of the common dream of literary resurrection. In this situation, just as in others, his mental processes combined wild fantasy with stringent logic. He literalized the fantastic or fantasticated the literal. These mental processes have made him peculiarly vulnerable to ridicule. To write about him without irony has never been easy. But the same mentality kept him going while he lived and has since fascinated both his sympathetic and his hostile critics—all but the merely churlish ones (Muggeridge was vicious but not churlish).
He was as vigilant of his future fame as he was of his investments in those railway securities which he believed were bound to boom. Or to put it another way: he treated the prospective members of that alleged audience as Victorian Volpones treated their hopeful heirs. He teased them, indulged in “reputation shaking,” subjected them to the divide-and-rule policy, and generally sought to impose his will on posterity. To my knowledge he did not do what the neglected Stendhal had done: calculate the exact date of his resurrection. Nor did he, as Stendhal did, cherish his future admirers, call them by the pet name of “the Chosen Few,” and project upon them all that was magnificent in himself and in his greatest creations—the dying Julien Sorel, the Sanseverina, Fabrice del Dongo, the Abbess of Castro. Definitely not. Compared to Stendhal’s relations with posterity, Butler’s were what good low comedy is to good opéra bouffe. Butler’s relations with posterity were summed up in a poem he confided to his Notebooks. “To Critics and Others” is in free verse and sounds like a soured Walt Whitman. “O Critics, cultured Critics!/ Who will praise me after I am dead…Oh! How I should have hated you!” His reason for these exclamatory execrations? The cultured critics “will see in me both more and less than I intended.” They will over-praise him, thus causing a reaction against him in subsequent generations of critics. These later critics “will go for some future Butler as your fathers have gone for me.” He therefore gives his affection not to critics but to those “Nice People” who will be sickened by all the fuss about him. He invites them to “neglect me, burlesque me,” and ends by associating himself with the Bard. “There is nothing that even Shakespeare would enjoy more than a good burlesque of Shakespeare.” Thus did Butler in his strangely pragmatic visions try to rule the roost of the future.
BECAUSE The Way of All Flesh is so entangled with its legend—its true legend—I have left the detailed discussion of the work to these final pages of the essay. The novel requires, I think, no very extensive or intensive consideration. It speaks for itself, and bluntly.
There are in it no pockets of ambiguity or symbolism inviting exploration by the curious critic. Its virtues, too, are as obvious as its faults, and the faults are many. The Way of All Flesh is not for those “lovers of perfection alone” to whom Ezra Pound directed his poems and James Joyce his novels. Nor is it for the lovers of, or apologists for, imperfection—those who are inclined to see in faulty workmanship an assertion of the primacy of “life” over “art.” In The Way of All Flesh there is a lot of “life” but no more than is to be found in Pound’s best poems or the novels of Joyce, Conrad, James, and so on back to the chief founder of the novel-as-art line, Flaubert. True, present-day readers have been mainly nurtured on the works in that line and on the criticism arising from it. Faced with The Way of All Flesh, those readers may have to make certain concessions to its unmannerly conduct—unless they happen to be wearied by the excesses of the modernist novel in its present state of intermittent decadence and therefore turn to Butler’s novel with uncritical relief.
As social history the book is certainly not the bombshell it originally was. Our war with the Victorian age was long ago won. That quarrel has died down in proportion as our quarrel with ourselves has grown more bitter. Profound changes have occurred in the nature of family relationships. The present situation, with children tyrannizing over their parents rather than the reverse (as parents may see it!) could have been invented by Butler himself, since his irony thrived on the literal inversion of existing values. What guarantees the book’s continuing interest is, partly, the truth and the vivacity of the formula underlying his picture of Victorian manners. In satirizing them he is satirizing the very phenomenon of manners. Manners, he shows, are forms of behavior in which the members of a given class participate more or less unconsciously in whatever period of history. Manners therefore exemplify an element of automatism that remains constant in human behavior. “Stay—I may presently take a glass of cold water and a small piece of bread and butter.” The first part of Dr. Skinner’s little speech is Victorian gentility at its most precious; it sounds like Matthew Arnold’s prose at its most precious. The second part is the give-away: Dr. Skinner is moved by simple animal hunger. The hunger and the impulse to broach it elegantly, as if tipping his hat to a lady he coveted, are both forms of automatism in an individual who, as a headmaster and a distinguished intellectual, has every reason to think himself superior to mere habit or animal appetite. For Butler, manners, when observed from the outside or in retrospect, are seen to be necessary, yet in their extreme forms laughable. For Butler as for Proust, the more superior a person thinks he is, the more striking and funny are the manifestations in him of the automation.
In the rigor of his formula and the relentless irony it gives rise to, The Way of All Flesh was in its time exceptional among novels in English. I say “English” because in certain other ways, and ignorant or contemptuous as Butler was of English fiction, it is very much in the English vein. It tempers the severity of its social psychology with overt idealism. The novel begins and ends with what are really Utopian parables: the picture of Old Pontifex’s world and the picture of the world of the mature Ernest Pontifex. The former is made believable by a great deal of affectionate detail. The latter is pure didactic allegory. In both, however, the Butlerian irony is largely in abeyance. A natural harmony reigns in Old Pontifex’s life, so far as he is concerned. His drawings (“always of local subjects”) are remembered by Overton as “hanging up framed and glazed in the study at the Rectory, and tinted, as all else in the room was tinted, with the green reflected from the fringe of ivy leaves that grew around the windows.” Similarly with Old Pontifex as a man of property. For him his possessions extend beyond his house, his workshops, and his grounds to include the distant greenwood and the setting sun. Once this natural harmony is shattered, the troubles begin and the irony sets in with a vengeance. Nature, ignored or perverted, avenges itself on most of the Pontifexes, subjecting them to the tyranny of social and biological necessity. George Pontifex, of the second generation, is an agent rather than a victim of this tyranny. Theobald and Cristina, of the third generation, are wholly victims and are therefore enveloped by a certain pathos. Their marriage is the result of a union of pure chance (the card game at which she wins from her sisters the right to woo Theobald) and of virtual necessity (the pressures of family, profession, money, etc.). The marriage remains loveless, static, sterile. Cristina and Theobald co-operate in preserving domestic order. Each is otherwise locked up in the private world of his own preoccupations, Theobald in his concern with maintaining his position in the world and his authority in the family; Cristina in her daydreams of glories beyond such immediate realities. Thus encased, neither of them can do any lasting harm to themselves or others. In the end their actions meet, not with large successes or disastrous failures, but simply with rebuffs.
As applied to Ernest’s parents, Butler’s irony is thus of a subtle kind. It is not unique with Butler but it is one of his specialties. It distinguishes himself from his English predecessors, Dickens, and to a considerable extent George Eliot, for both of whom decisive acts must have their decisive consequences. The evaporating of this irony is largely fatal to the concluding chapters of the novel. Ernest is exempted from it when he comes into money and embarks on his planned existence. Without underrating the benefits of money in reasonable amounts and to reasonable people, we can’t help noting that Ernest has endured much only to learn what his father and grandfather might have told him: that money, especially inherited money, is absolutely vital to the good life. Butler’s psychological determinism here vanishes with his irony. Ernest’s treatment of his children is notorious among readers of the book. He gives his children into the care of a bargeman’s family living on the lower Thames. Butler presents this transaction as a straight-faced parable of the good life, and “experiment in family living.” Psychologically interpreted its different meaning is unmistakable. Ernest has simply inverted the family pattern, abandoning his children rather than, like the older Pontifexes, smothering them with self-serving care and righteousness. The Way of All Flesh ends up by being as loveless as it is—except slyly—sexless. Butler evidently lacked the artistic means or the courage to represent sex and love in the intense degree that he had known them himself. But at least he had the sense not to try to attempt what he couldn’t do and what, if he had attempted it, would probably have come out mawkish and unreal, wrecking the cold but not frigid irony that gives The Way of All Flesh its peculiar distinction.
AS NARRATIVE ART, The Way of All Flesh requires further concessions, although these may again be made by some readers quite willingly. The story bumbles along agreeably while defying many of the novelistic refinements that were in force as far back as 1873, when he commenced work on the book. His inexperience in novel-writing may be blamed for some of its faults: after all, The Way of All Flesh was Butler’s “first novel” as well as his only one. But there may also be a certain element of deliberation in his defiance of sophisticated novelistic procedures. His known opinions on art encourage this assumption. He preferred Giotto’s simple solidity to the work of later painters equipped with the sciences of perspective and chiaroscuro. He preferred Handel’s open musical forms to the grandiose syntheses of Wagner. And when we look in The Way of All Flesh for the “artist” who looms in most novels of adolescence, we don’t find him in the ultimate products of family history, the Little Hannos or Stephen Dedaluses or Marcels, but in Old Pontifex, the family’s founder and, as we have seen, “natural” exponent of artistic creation.
Whether Butler had a theory about “the novel” or was simply following his instincts is immaterial. What he did in The Way of All Flesh was to disintegrate the novel form into what had originally been its constituent elements; the narrative of romance or allegory, the stage play, and the essay or aphorism. What other novelists had labored to fuse he more or less broke up, or at least let fall more or less apart of their own volition. Thus The Way of All Flesh has a far-off resemblance to old chronicles of national or local history—episodic, anecdotal, full of documents, real and invented. The documents, such as Cristina’s death letter and Theobald’s bill of particulars regarding the misconduct of the pupils at Roughborough School, are striking in themselves and an innovation on Butler’s part. It was taken up by Joyce, say in the “Hell Fire Sermon” of the Portrait, and so passed on into modernist fiction and poetry. In this case instant modernization of Butler is possible.
Elsewhere it is not. Butler’s use of Overton as narrator looks sophisticated. It promises to put needed distance between the author’s personality, which we know was insistent, and the materials of the novel, which were largely autobiographical. But Butler’s use of his narrator is capricious. Overton’s credentials, including his mysterious affair with Alethea Pontifex, are transparent fabrications. He fades in and out, useful only as a mouthpiece for Butler’s wisdom and as a fairy godfather to the plot. The narrative, too, is shaky, tending to lapse into single episodes or sequences of episodes or into impromptu performances of virtuosity on the author’s part. He was a wonderful mimic, a wonderful miniaturist in the representation of character and action. These relatively isolated passages are among the best things in the novel.
There is in The Way of All Flesh, despite the general grimness of it, a great deal of simple but exquisite “fun,” as when Theobald’s tendency to think of himself as a martyr to responsibility culminates in his being actually burned—in effigy—by Theobald’s schoolmates. And Butler’s performances in the art of mimicry are expert, even when they become ends in themselves, interrupting the narrative. Having hit upon the idea of reproducing George Pontifex’s recorded travel impressions, he develops them into a full-scale burlesque of the mawkish impressions of all sentimental travelers in that Byronic age. True, George’s sensibility is peculiarly at odds with his real nature, which is severely practical. So his effusions are correspondingly ghastly. George visits the Great St. Bernard in the Alps, one of the standard stops on the nineteenth-century Grand Tour. There he writes, among other things: “The thought that I was sleeping in a convent and occupied the bed of no less a person than Napoleon, that I was in the highest inhabited spot in the old world and in a place celebrated in every part of it, kept me awake some time.”
George also composes some verses for the visitor’s book of the Great St. Bernard. Butler manages shrewdly the shift in tone from George’s labored poetic solemnity—
These are thy works, and while on them I gaze
I hear a silent tongue that speaks thy praise—
to the rude prose of Butler’s own ensuing comment: “Some poets always begin to get groggy about the knees after running for seven or eight lines,” etc. This might be Huckleberry Finn remarking on the posthumous works of Emmeline Grangerford; and in fact Butler has more affinities, fortunate and unfortunate, with Mark Twain than with any of his English contemporaries. But The Way of All Flesh is no such unintentional masterpiece as Huckleberry Finn is. The artistic insouciance that Mark Twain shared with Butler seems to have submitted, in Mark Twain, to the control of some angel of relevance who presided over Huck’s mental and physical wanderings and kept them firmly in the picture. It was not in Butler’s character to invite, or submit to, dictations from above or, for that matter, from below: the “Unconscious” is recognized and called by name in The Way of All Flesh but only as an Idea, one of Butler’s many Ideas. It didn’t supply the author with any subliminal and unifying passion comparable to the passion excited by the realities of Death in the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn.
Butler adds to George’s travel impressions some actual outpourings of Mendelssohn’s in the Uffizi. These are prodigiously funny in their self-congratulatory spirit. But they have stalled the narrative, forcing from Butler—or Overton—as he resumes the story one of his jolting and, here, grammarless transitions: “Returning to Mr. Pontifex, whether he liked it or not what he believed to be the masterpieces,” etc.
Butler’s transitional vehicles often sag ominously, as if the whole narrative were about to break down. At one point he briefly describes Mr. Allaby’s relief at finally getting Cristina married to Theobald and the bridal couple off on their wedding journey. Then Butler writes: “And what were the feelings of Theobald and Cristina when the village was passed and they were rolling quietly by the fir plantation? It is at this point that stoutest heart must fail,” etc. He couldn’t have done it better if he had been deliberately parodying the labored locutions of inept novelists. What follows is, nevertheless, one of the great passages in the novel: the long wearisome ride in the carriage, the muted contest of will between the two occupants, poor Theobald’s too easy triumph over poor Cristina, and the celebration of this triumph by way of the cheery little supper at the inn. The episode might be something out of the artful Flaubert or Maupassant, except that in Butler there is no denouement in the bedroom.
August 24, 1967
Butler’s correspondence with his father, much of which survives, shows Canon Butler to have been distinctly lacking in affection but generally more patient and reasonable than his embattled son realized. ↩