Wednesday 4 December 2019

Unhappy Scenes from Clerical Life

On this day in 1835, the novelist and critic Samuel Butler was born. Readers of The Mother of Beauty will recall that he was born at Langar in the Nottinghamshire wolds, where his father was Rector of St Andrew's, and where he spent a desperately unhappy childhood. St Andrew's church houses the Scroope monument, one of the finest of its time, and it was this, rather than the Samuel Butler connection, that first drew me to Langar. The church itself, alas, is sadly over-restored... In this exclusive extract from the chapter Scenes from Platonic England, I take up the story:

'Pevsner describes the exterior of St Andrew’s as being ‘unfortunately so vigorously restored by Thomas Butler that little of its original surface remains’. This Thomas Butler, vigorous restorer, was the Rector of Langar – and father of the late-Victorian writer Samuel Butler. Thomas, the son of a very distinguished father – headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield – had been pressed into the Church against his inclinations and had a far from stellar ecclesiastical career. He would be quite forgotten today, had he not had the misfortune to be immortalised in his son’s autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh.
  This is one of the most savage accounts of an oppressed childhood ever written, and Butler Senior, a physical and emotional bully, comes out of it very badly indeed, as does his wife, Samuel’s mother. The author considered both of them ‘brutal and stupid’, and wrote of his father that ‘he never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him’. The unhappy Thomas Butler might well have been taking out the frustrations of his own failed life on his son, re-enacting his own father’s dominance over him in still harsher form – but that, of course, was no consolation to the son on the receiving end, who was never reconciled with his parents.
  Surprisingly, the young Samuel Butler allowed himself to be steered towards the same career as his father and grandfather. However, after Cambridge, his religious doubts began to prevail – much to his father’s wrath – and, to make a radical break with his parents and the future that had been laid down for him, Samuel emigrated to New Zealand, where his experiences inspired his first literary success, the satirical novel Erewhon.

  The Way of All Flesh was considered too incendiary to be published in his lifetime, but after its posthumous publication came to be seen as a minor classic. As a novel, it’s a bit of a mess, but the earlier chapters offer an unforgettably vivid picture of the life of gloomy and stultifying piety, reinforced by brutal punishment, that was once lived in Langar rectory. Platonic England, house of solitudes, had – no doubt still has – its dark side.'


  1. My good friend nige, I've just bought Halifax memoir, fullness of days. It cost me a quid( five reais) good bargain?

  2. I'm sure it is Ricardo – but what is it this Halifax memoir?

    1. When I finish I can tell you. My wife ask me the same question...

  3. So sorry I forget the s when my wife asked ,last comment kkkk

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.