About Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler was born on 4 December 1835, at Langar Rectory in Nottinghamshire. His father was the Reverend Thomas Butler, and his grandfather was Dr Samuel Butler (1744–1839), the revered Headmaster of Shrewsbury School who was made Bishop of Lichfield in 1836.

Samuel Butler with his family about 1865
Samuel Butler (left) with his family, about 1865

From an early age the young Samuel was expected to follow the family path into the Church. As recorded in his autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh, Butler’s upbringing was dominated by his father’s strict observance of Old Testament principles, and the harsh punishments that came with transgressing these. Butler always looked back on his childhood as a period of domestic confinement, oppression and misery.

Despite this unhappiness, Butler was a bright boy and had independently mastered both Latin and Greek grammars by age 13 when he joined Shrewsbury School. In 1854 he followed his father and grandfather to St John’s College, Cambridge. He enjoyed being away from his family and participated enthusiastically in College life, writing articles for the College magazine The Eagle and coxing the first boat of the Lady Margaret Boat Club. In 1858 he sat his final exams, and was placed twelfth in the University in the Classical Tripos. He graduated in 1859.

Butler at Cambridge
Samuel Butler at Cambridge

He then moved to London to prepare for his proposed ordination. Yet the six months he spent living and working in a parish proved enough to strengthen his objections to a number of the Christian beliefs that had been drummed into him since birth. Compelled to reject the religious career his father had always intended him for, Butler resolved to become a painter: an alternative career choice which, unsurprisingly, did not win the Reverend’s approval.

To deter his son from his artistic ambitions, Thomas Butler provided him with enough money to move New Zealand and establish himself as a sheep farmer – which he duly did, setting sail for the South Island in 1859.

Sheep brand
Sheep brand used by Samuel Butler in New Zealand

New Zealand gave Butler the freedom he had always craved, along with a degree of financial autonomy and plenty of time and space in which to explore, think, read and write. During his five years there he published numerous articles in The Press of Christchurch, on a range of scientific and religious topics. He studied the New Testament and read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and was an instant convert to the theory of evolution; this was the beginning of his career spent questioning received ideas and proposing alternative answers. Although Butler later changed his mind about the plausibility and originality of Darwin’s notion of natural selection, it remains true that Darwin’s work provoked the ideas that underlie many of Butler’s own works.

Butler returned to London in 1864, having doubled the stake his father had given him, and took rooms at 15 Clifford’s Inn, which he was to keep for the rest of his life. He applied his new-found financial independence to training in art. He studied at Cary’s, Heatherley’s and South Kensington Art Schools, and exhibited a few of his paintings at the Royal Academy between 1868 and 1876. Overall, though, his artistic offerings were not well-received, and he eventually accepted that he would not be remembered for his contribution to painting.

Some of Samuel Butler's published books
Some of Samuel Butler's published books

His first novel, Erewhon, was published in 1872 and immediately made Butler’s name as a writer. Although the book’s setting is recognisable as the New Zealand he had explored extensively for himself, the society found within it represents Butler’s highly imaginative and satirical take on Victorian society and a long tradition of utopian literature. Butler then turned his attention to non-fiction, publishing his diverse thinking in the fields of religion and science in The Fair Haven (1873), Life and Habit (1878), Evolution, Old and New (1879) and Unconscious Memory (1880).

Through the 1880s Butler published a succession of books on art and travel, along with further work on the topic of evolution. He was simultaneously drafting his autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, although he knew he would not be able to publish it while certain family members were still living.

Self portrait c.1873
Self portrait c.1873

Ex Voto, published in 1888, confirmed Butler’s reputation as an original art critic and a pioneer in the field of photography, which was still a relatively new art form. From 1886 (the year his father died) onwards, Butler resided half the year in Italy. His travels here fuelled his imagination, and provided inexhaustible material for his ‘snapshots’ of ordinary and extraordinary people and situations. In Sicily, Butler developed his theories about the classical author Homer, producing new translations of the Iliad and Odyssey as well as a controversial thesis about the author’s true identity.

Butler died on 18 June 1902, at a nursing home in St John’s Wood, London. According to his wishes his body was cremated and his ashes disposed of unceremoniously. His friend and first literary executor, R.A. Streatfeild, oversaw the publication of The Way of All Flesh in 1903, which finally secured Butler’s reputation as one of the great literary men of the later nineteenth century.

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