12 Books of Boyhood. #4
The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a searing indictment of Victorian (era) thought and parenting. Apparently. Which had to wait until after the author’s death to be published. I say apparently because it is hard for us at this distance to understand what a profound effect Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), in particular, had on Church of England orthodoxy, though maybe not so hard for those living in America’s bible belt.
Commenting on her own blog recently, Melanie (Grab the Lapels) wrote “if I look at a character like Mrs. Jellyby [Dickens, Bleak House], I might assume all Victorian parents were horrible, neglectful religious zealots.” If you read The Way of All Flesh, you would be certain of it.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), the freethinking Victorian whom George Bernard Shaw deemed “the greatest writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century” was … the son of an Anglican clergyman … In 1858 he 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 … he immigrated to New Zealand and soon prospered as a sheep rancher … During this period his study of The Origin of the Species caused him to further question the tenets of Christianity.introductory bio.
Butler returned to England in 1864, studied without great success to be a painter, then “in 1872 published Erewhon, a Utopian satire on Victorian society that EM Forster later called a work of genius”, but which led to him being banned from his parents’ home. “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.”
He wrote no other fiction, rather concentrating on a series of works on the implications of Darwinism.
I read The Way of All Flesh for my matric, at a time when my relations with my ambitious, remote father were frosty to say the least, and it reinforced everything I felt.
The central character of the novel is Ernest Pontifex born in 1835, the same year as the author. But the author sets up the story by having the narrator, Edward Overton, b.1802, grow up, the vicar’s son, in the same village as Ernest’s great-grandfather, John Pontifex, an old man by the time Overton remembers him. John Pontifex, a carpenter, had prospered and become a land owner. His son, George, had been sent to be apprenticed to a publisher of religious works, had inherited the business, and he too had prospered. So that George’s children, all around Overton’s age, and whom he knew from their infrequent visits to the older Pontifexes, felt themselves to be rather above their grandparents.
George’s wife dies early on and his children – Eliza, Maria, John, Theobald and Althea – have only a remote relationship with their father who all their lives holds over them the threat of censure and disinheritance. Eventually John is taken into the business and Theobald goes up to Cambridge to become a clergyman. Eliza and Maria become spinsters and in old age are quite poor. Althea is loved by Overton, but she insists on being ‘just friends’. She doesn’t marry, but is well off.
So Butler’s first step is to build up a picture of Theobald – who will eventually be our hero, Ernest’s, father – as brought up without a mother, by a stern and effectively, unloving parent; sent off to a boy’s boarding school and then Cambridge; and knowing little of either affection or women; “… he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not his ways, nor their thoughts as his thoughts.” Which was pretty well the conclusion I had reached about both the author and his narrator by the end of the book.
Theobald, after a number of years of being engaged to Christina, the daughter of another vicar, is finally brought to the altar. He takes a living, and Christina bears him three children – Ernest, Joseph and Charlotte. And so, from pages 60-200, we deal with Ernest’s unhappy childhood and school days. (Studying for the clergy at university takes another 50 pages, and the remaining 180 or so take us through the first decade of his adulthood).
Until he was old enough to go away to school, Ernest was taught by his father, who made rules in the expectation and hope that they would be broken and who rewarded all infractions with whipping (I assume the author means caning).
Christina did not remonstrate with Theobald concerning the severity of the tasks imposed upon their boy, nor yet as to the continual whippings that were found necessary at lesson times. Indeed, when during any absence of Theobald’s the lessons were entrusted to her, she found to her sorrow that it was the only thing to do, and she did it no less effectually than Theobald himself; nevertheless she was fond of her boy, which Theobald never was, and it was long before she could destroy all affection for herself in the mind of her first-born. But she persevered.
My case wasn’t so bad, but reading this you could weep for the author.
Christina is pictured as silly and sly, getting on Ernest’s good side only to betray him to his father. Ernest goes away to school and isn’t popular. Many pages later Overton says, “I may spare the reader more details about my hero’s school days” and I will too.
At university Ernest starts off with the Evangelicals and ends up with the High Church. The arguments that go with this no doubt reflect Butler’s own at the same time, but the secular reader will find them hard going. Ernest is ordained, and chooses to live in the slums in the parish (in London) where he is one of two curates. He is fleeced of the money he had from his father; feeling his oats and coming belatedly to understand that the young women in the rooms above him in his boarding house are prostitutes, he propositions/assaults a young women who isn’t; is sent to jail; and emerges to find that he is destitute.
He has more to bear, quite a bit of which is driven by Butler’s dislike of women it seems to me; but eventually Ernest finds his way through; comes into an inheritance and settles to a life of bachelorhood writing on science and philosophy.
Stuck as I was at 17 with a distant and autocratic father, and looking for a way out of the Church of England which religion my father preached but rarely practiced (he was a lay preacher), I can why The Way of All Flesh appealed so strongly, but I can’t see that its relevance has extended into the twenty first century.
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, first pub. 1903. My ed. The Modern Library/Random House, New York, 1998. 430pp.
Book #5, to be reviewed at the end of May will be: Jack London, The Iron Heel
For future months I will select from:
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative