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The Way of All Fleshby Samuel Butler
Synopses & Reviews
When I was a small boy at the beginning of the century I remember an old man who wore knee-breeches and worsted stockings, and who used to hobble about the street of our village with the help of a stick. He must have been getting on for eighty in the year 1807, earlier than which date I suppose I can hardly remember him, for I was born in 1802. A few white locks hung about his ears, his shoulders were bent and his knees feeble, but he was still hale, and was much respected in our little world of Paleham. His name was Pontifex.
His wife was said to be his master; I have been told she brought him a little money, but it cannot have been much. She was a tall, square-shouldered person (I have heard my father call her a Gothic woman) who had insisted on being married to Mr. Pontifex when he was young and too good-natured to say nay to any woman who wooed him. The pair had lived not unhappily together, for Mr. Pontifex's temper was easy and he soon learned to bow before his wife's more stormy moods.
Mr. Pontifex was a carpenter by trade; he was also at one time parish clerk; when I remember him, however, he had so far risen in life as to be no longer compelled to work with his own hands. In his earlier days he had taught himself to draw. I do not say he drew well, but it was surprising he should draw as well as he did. My father, who took the living of Paleham about the year 1797, became possessed of a good many of old Mr. Pontifex's drawings, which were always of local subjects, and so unaffectedly painstaking that they might have passed for the work of some good early master. I remember them 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. I wonder how they will actually cease and come to an end as drawings, and into what new phases of being they will then enter.
Not content with being an artist, Mr. Pontifex must needs also be a musician. He built the organ in the church with his own hands, and made a smaller one which he kept in his own house. He could play as much as he could draw, not very well according to professional standards, but much better than could have been expected. I myself showed a taste for music at an early age, and old Mr. Pontifex on finding it out, as he soon did, became partial to me in consequence.
It may be thought that with so many irons in the fire he could hardly be a very thriving man, but this was not the case. His father had been a day labourer, and he had himself begun life with no other capital than his good sense and good constitution; now, however, there was a goodly show of timber about his yard, and a look of solid comfort over his whole establishment. Towards the close of the eighteenth century and not long before my father came to Paleham, he had taken a farm of about ninety acres, thus making a considerable rise in life. Along with the farm there went an old-fashioned but comfortable house with a charming garden and an orchard. The carpenter's business was now carried on in one of the outhouses that had once been part of some conventual buildings, the remains of which could be seen in what was called the Abbey Close. The house itself, emblossomed in honeysuckles and creeping roses, was an ornament to the whole village, nor were its internal arrangements less exemplary than its outside was ornamental. Report said that Mrs
Originally written in the 1880s and published posthumously in 1903, a semiautobiographical novel examines the complex relationships that exist in the Pontifex family as they reflect the hypocrisy of middle-class life in Victorian England. Reprint.
Samuel Butler was among the most wide-ranging of the accomplished crew of late Victorian writers to which be belonged — a forceful controversialist in the debates that surrounded Darwin's theory of evolution, apainter who sometimes exhibited at the Royal Academy, an idiosyncratic critic and a gifted travel writer, and even, in his early years, a highly successful sheep farmer in New Zealand. He was also, as The Way ofAll Flesh, his deterministic tale of the havoc wrought by genetic inheritance, suggests, one of the great British masters of the novel of ideas.
About the Author
Samuel Butler, the freethinking Victorian whom George Bernard Shaw deemed 'the greatest English writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century,' was born on December 4, 1835, at Langar Rectory near Bingham, Nottinghamshire. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he was educated at Shrewsbury School, where his grandfather and namesake had been headmaster. In 1858 Butler earned a degree in classics from St. John's College, Cambridge, but after a crisis of faith he refused ordination in the ministry. Following a bitter quarrel with his father over the choice of a career, he immigrated to New Zealand and soon prospered as a sheep rancher, an experience vividly recounted in the letters collected in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863). During this period his study of The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin's newly published work on the theory of evolution, caused him to further question the tenets of Christianity. In 1864 Butler returned to England and settled permanently in London. Having long aspired to a career as a painter, he enrolled in art school and had several paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy.
After years of determined effort, Butler realized his artistic talents were limited at best and, at a friend's suggestion, turned to writing. In 1872 he published Erewhon, a Utopian satire on Victorian society that E. M. Forster later called 'a work of genius.' Though it enjoyed considerable success, Erewhon further strained relations with his parents, and he was banned from their home. His next book, The Fair Haven (1873), a satirical denunciation of Christian doctrines, reveals the religious skepticism that had turned Butler against a career in the church. About this time he began writing The Way of All Flesh, a thinly disguised account of his own upbringing aimed at exposing the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying Victorian family life and its bourgeois values.
Butler subsequently devoted himself to a series of books on the implications of Darwinism. Life and Habit (1877), a highly original essay on evolutionary theory, failed to find a readership. Likewise his other works on the subject--Evolution, Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck or Cunning as the Main Means of Organic Modification? (1887)--aroused only moderate interest. Poor revenues from book sales coupled with disastrous investments left him financially strained and tied to family purse strings until the death of his father in 1886 provided him with an inheritance.
In the final decades of his life, Butler pursued idiosyncratic interests in music, literature, and art history. His most engaging later books include Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881), a leisurely travel guide that pays tribute to the glories of the Italian countryside, and The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler (1896), an admiring biography of his grandfather. Not surprisingly, he continued to oppose mainstream ideas with two more controversial studies: The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) asserts that the great epic poem had been written by a young Sicilian woman, while Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered and in Part Rearranged (1899) contends that the Bard had composed his sonnets for a homosexual lover. Erewhon Revisited (1901), a sequel to his first work, is a final fantasy of ideas on English life and society in the nineteenth century.
Samuel Butler died in London on June 18, 1902. The Way of All Flesh was published the following year. 'The Way of All Flesh is one of the time-bombs of literature, said V. S. Pritchett. 'One thinks of it lying in Samuel Butler's desk for thirty years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel.' Writing in The New Yorker, William Maxwell stated: 'If the house caught on fire, the Victorian novel I would rescue from the flames would be The Way of All Flesh. It is read, I believe, mostly by the young, bent on making out a case against their elders, but Butler was fifty when he stopped working on it, and no reader much under that age is likely to appreciate the full beauty of its horrors. . . . Every contemporary novelist with a developed sense of irony is probably in some measure, directly or indirectly, indebted to Butler, who had the misfortune to be a twentieth-century man born in the year 1835.'
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