Samuel Butler (1835-1902): a memoir by Henry Festing Jones – volume 1

Volume 1 of Jones’s memoir of Butler was delightful. Jones lets Butler’s letters do most of the talking, interspersing with explanations and backstory where necessary.

Miss Savage

Especially useful was the extensive correspondence between Butler and Miss Savage, the prototype for the Alethea character in The Way of all Flesh (although Jones is quick to point out how physically ugly Savage was). She was clever, witty, kind, his confidant for many years through frequent letters; they both lived in London but saw each other rarely.

Savage plied him with books and encouraged him endlessly in his writing. At her suggestion he reads Middlemarch, and his opinion: “I call it bad and not interesting: there is no sweetness in the whole book, and though it is stuffed full of epigrams, one feels that they are lugged in to show the writer off. The book seems to me to be a long-winded piece of studied brag, clever enough I daresay, but to me at any rate singularly unattractive.”

Butler could indulge his catty opinions to Miss Savage, which he did re: Goethe and Carlyle: “[Wilhelm Meister] seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read… I cannot remember a single good page or idea, and the priggishness is the finest of its kind that I can call to mind. Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German. What a wretch Carlyle must be to run Goethe as he has done.” Later he and Savage snicker about Carlyle: “it was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead
of four, besides being very amusing.”

His fight with Charles Darwin

Too many pages are devoted to this battle wherein Butler discovers that Darwin wasn’t the first to propose evolution. Books attacking one side or the other fly back and forth, as well as letters. Of note for me is that before the hoopla began, Darwin was on good terms with Butler and wrote saying that Leslie Stephen had known that Butler was the author of the anonymous work (Stephen being VW’s dad, of course). I get irrationally excited when accidentally bumping up against the Stephen clan anywhere I don’t expect them to be. Later we learn that Stephen was ordained in 1855 but he left Cambridge for London in 1864 “where he engaged in literary pursuits and we hear no more of him as a clergyman.”

His bizarre and complicated relationship with Pauli

I really don’t understand this bit. He became friends with a man, Charles Paine Pauli, in New Zealand, and was instrumental in helping him return to London. In exchange for a promise of repayment once Pauli came into his inheritance, Butler paid him an allowance of £200 a year out of his own dwindling capital, even after it became clear that Pauli would never be able to pay him back. Butler provided for Pauli for 30 years, but Pauli wouldn’t even tell Butler where he lived or whether he was making any money lawyering at the Bar. They “never met except when Pauli came over to lunch at Butler’s early dinner in Clifford’s Inn.”

Sunday walks

Butler would take the train out to the country and go on long walks on Sunday. “He used to take something to eat in a sandwich box and get his beer in a public-house.” He was accompanied by his cousin Worsley, Jones, and sometimes Jones’s brother and a few others. On one of these walks “he had a homoeopathic medicine bottle full of Worcester sauce in his watch pocket. In getting over a stile he slipped and fell so that the bottle cracked one of his ribs, and it was a long time before he was able to breathe freely.”

Seeing London get electricity

[March 1879]- “I went the other night to see the British Museum lit with the electric light, the superintendent of the Reading Room having offered me a ticket; it looked very well; and I also went last night to the Albert Hall… and there I found more electric light, but not so good as at the British Museum.”

And yet only a few years later, Jones is still noting hearing the watchman, Tom, “going his rounds and calling the hours: ‘Past three o’clock and a stormy morning.'” Later Jones meets Tom who tells him that between midnight and six AM he doesn’t call very loud for fear of disturbing the gentlemen.

Other notes

“When I was going over to America with [Lord Houghton] he asked me what I thought of the Americans. I said I did not know ; but I had seen them eating rhubarb in the month of July, and it had made a great impression on me.” (Butler lives in Montreal for a few years trying to save a company he’s invested lots of money in from going under, unsuccessfully).

I highly approve of the format of the memoir where every page has a small notation of what year is being discussed and the abbreviation “Aet.” to show what age Butler was. I have had to do the quick math myself countless times when reading bios so appreciate this previously common technique which has fallen out of favor.

Butler quotes his cousin’s laundress about how things will eventually turn out ok: “It will all come right in the wash.”

Butler was also a talented painter; his Mr. Heatherley’s Holiday was in the National Gallery before being acquired by the Tate in 1911:

Butler’s room, from a photograph he took
A corner of his sitting room