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Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh: Rewriting the Family But after all... it ain't you and it ain't me, and it ain't him and it ain't her. It's what you must call the fortunes ofmatterimony, for their ain't no other word for it. —Mis. Jupp Annette R. Federico James Madison University "IT IS ALL VERYWELL but I cannot settle down to writing a novel and trying to amuse people when there is work wants doing which I believe I am just the man to do, and which it seems to me is crying to be done."1 So wrote Samuel Butler in reply to a letter from Miss Eliza Mary Anne Savage, Butler's close friend, correspondent, and literary advisor from 1871 until her death in 1884, and the model for Alethea in The Way of All Flesh.2 In the letters written during the first years of their correspondence, she repeatedly urged Butler to write more fiction, a suggestion he dismissed while engrossed in The Fair Haven, an attack on religion. Miss Savage, however, was canny: Butler's literary reputation rests largely on his novels, and especially upon The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously in 1903. V. S. Pritchett famously designated it one of the time-bombs of literature, "lying in Butler's desk at Clifford's Inn for thirty years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel."3 The explicit connection between these two influential and prevailing institutions , the Victorian family and the Victorian novel, suggests that the collapse of one precipitates the collapse of the other, that fictional discourse whose aim is to "amuse people" is socially incriminating. From the standpoint of Pritchett's modernist critique, and indeed from our own postmodernist position, Butler's serious books, those on Christian466 FEDERICO : BUTLER ity, Darwinism, and literary history are, in comparison, assailable. As it turns out, it is the novel that is the time-bomb. Mid-Victorian political stability to a large degree depended upon maintaining women's subordinate status, and Butler was strongly aware that the future possibly depended upon rethinking issues that fell under the all-pervasive Woman Question.4 Any critique of the bourgeois family must begin with the doctrine of separate spheres. The implicit and urgent message of The Way of All Flesh is the need to revise, if not demolish, this ideology, and to rewrite the traditional novelistic plot which reflects it. The point is made explicit in Chapter 84. The narrator, Mr. Overton, asks Ernest, "what question he felt a special desire to burn his fingers with," and Ernest promptly rejoins, "Marriage. ... The question of the day now is marriage and the family system." "A hornet's nest indeed," is Overton's apt response.5 To recognize that the "family system" is a social and economic model that can be modified is, in one important sense, the beginnings of political consciousness: Ernest 's personal experience of oppression is placed in a larger social framework. He resents being used to procure suitors for his sister, fights the assignments of power and subordination within the strongly patriarchal Pontifex families, and challenges conventional arrangements for children's education. And he writes books which consist of philosophical discussions on religion, literature, and "marriage systems of the world."6 But the much older narrator, himself a writer of burlesques, is not much interested in Ernest's ideas and does not bother to give the reader lengthy excerpts from his godson's books. Ernest's theories remain out there for future generations. His radical texts are not our radical text. Joseph Allen Boone has argued that "the idea of a genre [novels] that is potentially noncanonical, inherently multivocal, and profoundly invested in the ideological dismantling of a unitary worldview is ... a feminist dream."7 In this context, it is important again to emphasize that it was a woman, a spinster and a bluestocking, who helped determine the shape of the book Butler worked on intermittently over twelve years, beginning in 1873—a woman who was a great reader of novels. "[Njovels are all the comfort...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 466-482
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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