The present version of Samuel Butler's celebrated Note-Books is an impressive effort to bring order to the long succession of comments on his life and thoughts put together by Butler in his lifetime. Materials from these records have in the past been put together by various editors, beginning with Butler's lifelong friend Henry Festing Hones. In his "General Note on the Text" the present editor, Hans-Peter Breuer, speaks respectfully of the efforts of the earlier editors—Jones, Francis Hackett, and others—to attempt a most difficult task: a task that Breuer is bringing to successful completion. (The title page of this new edition represents Breuer as the editor. A note following the title page lists Mr. Roger E. Parsell as coeditor, but the introductory materials of the first volume are signed by Breuer alone.)
Be that as it may, Volume One is an impressive editorial exercise. There is an Introduction of forty-eight pages that is a sketch of Butler's life and, even more useful, a careful weighing of Butler's personality and fluctuating opinions. Quite as useful are the eighty pages of notes at the end of the book; these notes clarify all the references, literary and personal, which in the passage of time have become opaque to late twentieth-century readers. The Introduction and notes lift the curtain on forgotten and remembered conflicts with Darwin and others; they also identify all of Butler's personal acquaintances who may have sat for figures in The Way of All Flesh: the landlady Mrs. Bos who seems to be the model for Mrs. Jup in the novel and the various blue-stockinged ladies who may live on as Ernest Pontifex's beneficent Aunt Alethea in the famous novel,
The Note-Books themselves contain entries that run to some thirteen hundred items in this edition by Breuer and make up a fascinating and sometimes not attractive portrait of the famous Victorian nay-sayer. Like flotsam and jetsam, the various interests of Butler's thought rise and fall—demand attention and are [End Page 341] displaced as the years pass and the tireless record increases in size. Indeed, there are several Butlers who come forward to center stage and then retire: Butler the self-elected antagonist of Darwin and other scientists; Butler the devoted friend of a select few and the determined foe of personal involvements, including marriage; and Butler the coiner of moral proverbs.
In consequence of this variety, the Note-Books can be put to various uses—and have been. Butler's Lamarckian attacks on the evolutionary theories of his time can point to modern counterparts. His disquisitions on the close linkage of matter and mind and the record of this linkage in each man's conscious and unconscious being can remind one of unending twentieth-century efforts to say what man really is. And those whose mode of critical analysis starts with the author and returns to him can have a field day with the Note-Books. Ernest Pontifex's bitter family history is a rearranged version of Butler's troubles with his clergyman father and his siblings, and Ernest's adult history is a repetition of much in Butler's own adult life: his seeking out of a select few, chiefly male but also some privileged women; his mocking but incomplete rejection of the moral and religious codes of his time; his easy rejection of the obligations of marriage and fatherhood; and his ambiguous attitude toward the lower orders, (Sometimes the ignorance of the poor is laughed at, and just as often—particularly if they are Italian or French peasants—their unshakable common sense is admired.) And it is clear that the strange lands of Erewhon are not very strange indeed; their streets are the slightly modified streets of London with Butler wandering along them and asking, "what if things were otherwise?" And about as often, "what if they were not?"
But these biographical references and validations will perhaps take a back seat to readers of...