Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh

"Embryo minds, like embryo bodies, pass through a number of strange metamorphoses before they adopt their final shape."

That's said of our hero, Ernest Pontifex. He's got some growing up to do.

Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh came out in 1903 after Butler's death; he felt the book was too critical of family and organized religion to appear during his lifetime. But it was written in the 1870s and 1880s, being finished and then set aside in 1885.

That's Samuel Butler at the side there--or is it Ernest Pontifex? They're about the same age and both grow up to be iconoclastic writers. 

The story is narrated by Edward Overton, Ernest's godfather. As you see above Overton is capable of being ironic about his godson.
"I may very likely be condemning myself, all the time I am writing this book, for I know that whether I like it or no I am portraying myself more surely than I am portraying any of the characters whom I set before the reader."
The novel is set up as a history of the Pontifex family, though, and begins with Ernest's great-grandfather John, whom Overton knew as a boy. In the next generation it's George, who becomes a publisher of religious books and makes good money doing so. George has five children, one of whom, Theobald, is Ernest's father; another is Alethea, whom Overton is in love with, but who dies young-ish, and they don't marry. Theobald becomes a minister in the Anglican church, but only because he's pressured into it by his father. Theobald reacts to this by becoming especially rigorous and self-righteous in his religious practices.

But as far as I'm concerned the novel doesn't really take off until the arrival of Ernest, about a fifth of the way in.

Ernest first appears on the scene for his baptism, which is...funny? His grandfather:

   "'Gelstrap,' he said solemnly, 'I want to go down into the cellar.'
   Then Gelstrap preceded him with a candle, and he went into the inner vault where he kept his choicest vintages.
   He passed many bins: there was 1803 Port, 1792 Imperial Tokay, 1800 Claret, 1812 Sherry, these and many others were passed...[then] a single pint bottle. This was the object of Mr. Pontifex's search.
   Gelstrap had often pondered over this bottle. It had been placed there by Mr. Pontifex about a dozen years previously...the last chance of securing even a sip of the contents was about to be removed for ever..."
But grandfather George stumbles and the bottle is smashed. George Pontifex prepares to fire his butler Gelstrap for his own clumsiness. Turns out the bottle held water from the river Jordan, saved for the baptism of the first Pontifex grandchild. The quick-witted Gelstrap sponges up the water from the cellar floor, squeezes it out into a new bottle, and this is the water with which Ernest is baptized. "Eventually it was found that half a pint was saved, and this was held to be sufficient."

Ernest gets an education: a good prep school and then Cambridge, but doesn't seem to learn much for a while. Ernest's father Theobald shoves him toward a religious career, just as George had done to Theobald. At first Ernest resists, but then gets religion. Ernest veers between Methodism, a high-church Anglicanism approaching Catholicism, but also scientific atheism. (This is the late 1850s. Wesleyanism is still an active force. But also the high-church Oxford Movement: Newman had converted to Catholicism in 1845. On yet another hand, The Origin of Species comes out in 1859.) Ernest's Aunt Alethea and Overton see other possibilities in him; Alethea moves to Cambridge to keep an eye out, but dies of a fever. But not before she wills her money in trust to Ernest, Overton administering the trust and not saying anything to Ernest, with nothing to be done until Ernest turns twenty-eight.
"...Ernest could not be expected to know this; embryos never do."
Up to this point, Butler's life isn't so different from Ernest's, but Ernest's adventures in his early twenties are melodramatic, and surprising, and I think I won't say anything else. (Spoilers!) Butler himself emigrated to New Zealand and became a sheep rancher, doing quite well at it, before returning to England. Ernest's path is a little rockier...
"He had, in fact, to burn his house down to get his roast suckling pig."
Anyway, Ernest does come round.

Did I mention Butler felt the novel couldn't be published in his lifetime, because of its disregard for Victorian pieties? I did. 😉 In case you didn't believe...

"They would have been equally horrified at seeing the Christian religion doubted, as at seeing it practiced."
"Christianity was true in so far as it had favoured beauty."
Hmm. Not very orthodox that last one.

"Ernest could never stand being spoken to in this way by his mother, for he still believed that she loved him."
"A man first quarrels with his father about three quarters of a year before he was born."

Butler is particularly hard on familial relations, and at times I was irritated by how much he stacked the deck against Ernest's parents. Theobald and Cristina are self-righteous hypocrites. Still Butler over-generalizes a bit. I dunno: there are bad families out there. But I rather liked my parents...


"It was the system rather than the people that were at fault."

I was amused to discover via Wikipedia that the Dr. Skinner of Ernest's prep school (Roughborough in the novel; Shrewsbury School in real life) was the Dr. Benjamin Hall Kennedy of Kennedy's Latin Primer. Still at least sometimes in use, and that's my copy I've taken a photo of. The Dr. Skinner of the novel is portrayed as not very loveable...

All in all, though, a pretty great novel, I thought, even if slow to start. Overton's ironic and knowing telling keeps it moving along pretty well. "It happens that a faithful rendering of contemporary life is the very quality which gives its most permanent interest to any work of fiction,..." Sure. But a little irony doesn't hurt either.

One of the novels on that Modern Library list of the greatest English language novels of the 20th Century, and one off my Classics Club list...


  1. I have this one on my Classics Club list, but I didn't put it on my spin list for the upcoming spin.

    1. Too bad it didn't make it on to your list--I'd have been curious what you thought.

      I need to put together my list, maybe later today.

  2. Congrats on checking another book off of you classics club list! That's awesome. The only Samuel Butler novel I've read is Erewhon.

    1. Thanks!

      I have the feeling that I've read Erewhon, but looking at it just now I'm not sure.

  3. I have yet to read Samuel Butler's. This book is semi-autobiographical, if I remember correctly.
    The name of the protagonist, though - Pontifex - that has something to do with the Pope in Rome, or something like that, right?

    1. I think it is pretty autobiographical, at least until the real disasters, which fortunately weren't autobiographical.

      Pontifex (literally bridge-builder) is the Latin word for priest of any sort, and the Pope became the Pontifex Maximus--the biggest priest...

  4. It's pretty funny, isn't it? The demolition of Victorian values has receded into history, but it is still a goods novel.

    1. I was a little surprised how funny it still is, though Butler is a funny guy. (Just how seriously is one to take The Authoress of the Odyssey?!) Overton as the narrator, with his take it or leave it archness toward young Ernest, is a pretty brilliant approach.