The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 12. The Way of all Flesh; The Pontifex cell
Butler thought contemptuously of the fiction of his day, especially in comparison with that of the eighteenth century, The Way of all Flesh owes practically nothing to any tradition; though its prodigality of idea and suggestion and wit has enabled later authors to quarry from it books, novels and essays ever since its publication. Butler claimed for it that “it contains records of the things I saw happening rather than imaginary incidents”; it contained, also, things which he had undergone in his own experience. It is like a book of the reign of queen Anne, inspired by a controlled passion of hatred, which surges up with embittered unassuaged memories of youth. As always, Butler breaks down common classification; he had already obliterated the distinctions between machinery and humanity, and between life and death; in his novel, he tells the story not so much of a character as of a family organism, insinuating its nature in the name Pontifex (a more successful effort of nomenclature than the mere inversions of Erewhon). The Pontifex cell is transmitted with modifications until it establishes itself in the English country rectory. Theodore Pontifex, at first a victim, and, afterwards, an inquisitor, is the unifying character; the study of the formalised relationship of parents and children is the central theme. Theodore and Christina take up throughout the pontifical attitude of parents; this premises, in the father, infallibility, and, in the mother, a recurring state of “self-laudatory hallucination,” which finds consummate expression in Christina’s letter, a brilliant piece of imaginative divination. The native iniquity of the child Ernest is to be trained until it evolves the “virtues convenient to parents.” Ernest’s boyhood, schooling with ordination proceed under this superimposed morality, which, like the system in Richard Feverel, bears the strain until adolescence bursts disastrously through it to get at the fresh air of reality. Ernest’s misdemeanour and trial are the counterparts of those of the tuberculous youth in Erewhon. We learn without surprise that Ernest finally leaves his children in the charge of parents not their own. In these characterisations, there is an incisiveness of satirical effect which leaves a sting upon the memory and feeling; for the sense of cynical disillusionment with which the first part of Theodore’s honeymoon is drawn, we must seek a parallel in de Maupassant. There are more genial elements in the portraits of Alethea (Butler’s friend Eliza Mary Ann Savage) and of Mrs. Jupps, a pagan of the lower world, free from any shadow of scruple, and mistress of “the oldë daunce.” Nevertheless, after a time, in spite of its range and fearlessness and truth, the book strikes us as one-sided; we feel as we do sometimes with Meredith’s comic spirit that the pursuit is too relentless, the victim is in a hopeless case and the element of sport has out of the hunt.
A juster conception of Butler’s nature is to be derived from Alps and Sanctuaries, in which sensitiveness to the genius of the place and people, humour, enthusiasm and love of beauty blend with the sharp flavour of his wit and clear sense, to produce a travel-book inimitable in its engaging idiosyncrasy. The same genial mind is at play in his brief essays, especially in one entitled Quis Desiderio…? in which he laments with airy and irreverent wit the disappearance from the shelves of the British Museum of Frost’s Lives of Eminent Christians, a book which had served him for many years in the office of a desk.
Butler strove incessantly to irritate thought out of its inertness and convention and credulity, to challenge stifling authority and to undermine hypocrisy. For these purposes, he prepared and stored in his note-books “little poisonous microbes of thought which the cells of the world would not know what to do with.” He applied them to society in book after book; but, as it seemed to him, in vain; in his own words, “he was allowed to call his countrymen life-long self-deceivers to their faces, and they said it was quite true, but that it did not matter.” He has not the highest gifts of poetry or emotion, but he is very far from being a mere undiscriminating wit; he has, in the end, a constructive intention, not mockery, but the liberation of the spirit.