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The Way of All Flesh (1903)

First edition title page (BII WAY 1903.1)
Donia Nachshen's illustration in the 1936 edition
1966 edition, with Butler's 'Family Prayers' on the cover

 

The Way of All Flesh is a semi-autobiographical novel. The narrative follows the development and tribulations of Ernest Pontifex, a weak boy starved of familial affection, who grows up to reject the tenets of his formal education and his father’s authoritarian brand of Christianity. As Ernest struggles to make his own way in the world, he learns to recognise the foibles in human nature, and at the end of the book he becomes an author of controversial literature aimed at correcting a flawed society.

Although Butler wrote it between 1873 and 1884, the ferocity of his attack on the Victorian era generally and, by implication, his own parents, made Butler fearful of publishing the work while his relatives were still living. In 1903, a few months after Butler’s death, his literary executor R.A. Streatfeild arranged for the book’s publication, and it was soon acknowledged as one of the most important critiques of Victorianism of its time.

Many emerging and established writers were affected by the book, which is now seen as a precursor to early twentieth-century modernist fiction. The young Leonard Woolf, at Trinity College, Cambridge, commented on its appeal for his generation: ‘We read it when it came out and felt at once its significance for us.’ Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster were also vocal advocates, with the latter asserting: ‘If Butler had not lived, many of us would now be a little deader than we are, a little less aware of the tricks and traps in life, and of our own obtuseness. His value, indeed, resides not in his rightness over this or that, not in his happy hits, not even in the frequent excellence of his prose and verse, but in the quality of his mind. He had an independent mind.’

George Bernard Shaw, who couldn’t fathom why ‘so extraordinary a study of English life’ hadn’t caused more of a stir among the public, declared Butler ‘the greatest English writer of the latter half of the 19th century’.

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