The Way of all Flesh – Samuel Butler
For the modern reader of liberal persuasion this semi-autobiographical novel, written by Butler between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903, a year after his death, is a difficult book to get your head around. It charts Ernest Pontifex’s voyage of self-discovery.
On the plus side it is populated with characters as vibrant, if not more so, as appear in the pages of Dickens at his best. Theobald, Ernest’s father, is a cruel, parsimonious and unfeeling man and his mother, Christina, a stupid and semi-hysterical female. Dr Skinner is a stereotypical brutal public school master and Ernest’s landlady, Mrs Jupp, is a wonderfully comic, barely respectable member of London’s working class. Butler’s ire is reserved for characters representing the various strands of religious thought – Badcock, a repulsive evangelical and the devious Pryer, a closet homosexual who characterises the venality of the High-Church.
And the book is peppered with wonderful aphorisms. To quote just four; “Youth is like spring, an overpraised season”; “It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other”; “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it”; “He has spent his life best who has enjoyed it most..” You can get a sense of the general tenor of the book from just reading these snapshots – it is a paean to self-indulgence and doing your own thing rather than trying to adhere to society’s and your family’s expectations.
On the other hand, there are dense and, frankly, turgid passages of religious and philosophical discussion which disrupt the flow of the narrative and at times almost made me throw the book down. And it is a bit of a slow burner – Ernest doesn’t appear until the seventeenth chapter – and the early part of the book deals with the history of the earlier generation of Pontifexes, essential for the reader to understand the psychological ties that bind Ernest so tightly that it is almost a life’s work for Ernest to break free. But perseverance is rewarded because what we have is a coruscating attack on family, religion and liberalism and which radiates warmth and common sense.
There are two forces at play for Ernest’s soul. In his youth Ernest has drummed into him what he ought to do, say and feel, to know his place and do his duty, to abide by the small-mindedness and petty do-goodery of his parent’s low-church Anglicanism. This upbringing leaves Ernest totally unprepared for the great outside world and in a series of picaresque adventures he is ripped off, incarcerated and enters into a bigamous marriage.
The other force, which ultimately prevails, is all about self-interest and self-indulgence, finding your place in the world without worrying overmuch about others, to discover the animalian desire to enjoy life. The living personifications of these attitudes are Alethea Pontifex, Ernest’s godmother, and Mr Overton, the story’s narrator and whose careful stewardship of Ernest’s legacy gives him the funds to lead the life of a self-indulgent author.
I guess this is my problem with the book. Ernest was only able to escape the ties of conventional life because he had the funds to do so – an option not available for many. And to modern eyes he cruelly cast off his own children – they were probably better off for it – in order to enjoy himself.
I’m not sure I would join George Orwell in saying it was a great book but it was full of insights and common sense. It explored well the fraught relationship between parents and children and probably put down on paper what many were thinking but did not have the courage to say. The irony, of course, is neither did Butler which is why it lay in his drawer until he snuffed it.