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17 SAMUEL BUTLER'S NOTEBOOKS¡ THE OUTLOOK OF A VICTORIAN BLACK SHEEP By Hans-Peter Breuer (University of Delaware) The nineteenth century, in England as elsewhere in Europe, was from a literary point of view an increasingly self-conscious age, when writers more apparently than before became their own subject matter and literature was more recognizably autobiographical , or marked by an often intensely Rousseauistic voice. It was the time when confessional literature came into its own¡ autobiographies, memoirs, "lives and letters" appeared in ever greater number; the prominent and not so prominent collected family memorabilia, published family trees, confided to diaries, kept notebooks. In some part at least, this self-consciousness was the symptom not simply of the universal desire to record observations of people and events, as in earlier times, but of the characteristically modern impulse to examine independently all inherited traditions, beliefs, and assumptions which the intersection of the ascending curve of empirical science and the falling one of Western Christian humanism had awakened, an intersection that took place in the mind of every significant English thinker of the last century. In Butler's life certainly this intersection of outlooks played a decisive role·, when a young man he confidently embraced the new scientific empiricism as a welcome means of freeing himself from the older tradition, and for launching his whimsical but bitter attacks upon it that were to earn him the posthumous reputation as the first great satirist of Victorian earnestness. Of course, as challenger of an established tradition he would have many strong opinions to record, but his urge to do so was further strengthened when his published works (except Erewhon) went all but unnoticed in his lifetime, and he quite understandably wished to leave as much of himself behind as possible for a posterity that could (and would, he doubted not) give him his due once the heat of the controversies he had been embroiled in had dissipated. His whole career as writer - as controversialist really - was essentially both a sustained battle against his real father and his symbolic representation in society, as well as a justification for his own break-away moral and intellectual independence. He had grown up in the often oppressive atmosphere and severe routines of his father's rectory home at Langar and the public school. It seemed quite natural he should follow his father and grandfather (the late Bishop of Lichfield) into the Church, and his studies at Shrewsbury School and St. John's College, Cambridge , were directed to this end - were directed because he appears never to have given the matter much thought. The Church's 18 teachings he accepted passively, on trust, for he moved in almost exclusively clerical circles, and, diffident by nature, would have been easily frightened into submission, should rebellion or skepticism have stirred within him, by bullying masters or his stern, brow-beating father. He experienced serious doubts about his goal only when he had already left St. John's and was working as lay assistant to the curate of St. James's, Piccadilly: then, at the eleventh hour, he shrank back from ordination, sparking a violent struggle between father and son over alternative professions. It was Butler's first bitter battle with intransigent authority, for haveing now turned away from what he so long had been preparing for, he was very much dependent upon his father's good will and money to help him in whatever new direction he chose to strike out. His own suddenly realized ambition to become a painter was morally repugnant to the father; only emigration to New Zealand in the end proved to both an acceptable alternative for a fresh start. So from i860 to 1864 Butler worked as successful sheep farmer in the rugged back-country of Canterbury Province, in an atmosphere free from the moral strictures of a clerical milieu, among vigorous, independent, practical men. In this "exile" his way of life was so disjunct from what once it had been that he was bound to see his past in a new light; furthermore, financial independence would give him the courage of new-found convictions. On the voyage out he had prepared the way for a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 17-37
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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