Samuel Butler’s posthumous The Way of All Flesh (1903) became, by chance, a Victorian tombstone, a novel-long critique of Victorianism published just after the fact. He wrote the novel in the 1870s and 1880s, amidst published books on Darwinism and religion, as well as his amusing satirical Utopian novel Erewhon (1872).
Butler was not really a novelist, though – more of a controversialist – so it must have been a surprise that he had such an accomplished novel in the drawer. It is something of a family saga, a rare genre for Victorians, it has an unusual narrator, and is psychologically sharp. Visually, the book does not do much. The insights are social and personal.
It is a novel of ideas that attacks the Victorian family, church, and schools. Cambridge comes off well, but not the education that “had been an attempt, not so much to keep him [Ernest, the protagonist] in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether” (Ch. 61). This is just before poor Ernest does something so dumb he goes to prison for six months. Long, long, long ago I asked where the English prison novels were, since it was such a common theme in French fiction. Here it is, not where I expected.
The first fifth of the novels covers Ernest Pontifex’s ancestors, as personally known to the elderly narrator. Ernest’s great-grandfather is a kindly craftsman, an 18th century figure, his grandfather a vulgar merchant (“Yet when a man is very fond of his money it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also,” Ch. 5), his father a narrow and cruel Anglican priest. “The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday” (Ch. 26).
Ernest is sensitive and artistic, loving music especially. The principle of the central three-fifths of the novel is to grind Ernest down to powder, expunging all of the false Victorianism from him. Father, school, and church are the first means of punishment, then prison and a noble but bad marriage. Ernest emerges as a perfect – what – a perfect gadfly. A perfect idealist, who publishes controversial books about Darwinism and religion. My favorite bit of grinding is incidental, Ernest’s attendance at a comic burlesque of Macbeth: “’What rot Shakespeare is after this,’ he exclaimed, involuntarily” (Ch. 70). Even Victorian bardolatry has to be purged to make the new man. In the last fifth he builds himself back up.
Autobiography, obviously, but with the clever addition of the narrator, who is writing up Ernest’s story with his permission, and even presence:
Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this. He winced, but said, “No, not if it helps you to tell your story: but don’t you think it is too long?” (Ch. 53)
The narrator, who freely expresses his opinions about everything, is the constant narratorial voice, which is a clever way to split the author between the narrator and protagonist, allowing more irony and tamping any self-pity. Both are Butler, so neither are Butler, and they can disagree on things.
It's a good novel. I can see how The Way of All Flesh, published when it was, felt like a necessary novel to many readers.