The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 26

THE foregoing letter shows how much greater was Christina’s anxiety for the eternal than for the temporal welfare of her sons. One would have thought she had sowed enough of such religious wild oats by this time, but she had plenty still to sow. To me it seems that those who are happy in this world are better and more lovable people than those who are not, and that thus in the event of a Resurrection and Day of Judgement, they will be the most likely to be deemed worthy of a heavenly mansion. Perhaps a dim unconscious perception of this was the reason why Christina was so anxious for Theobald’s earthly happiness, or was it merely due to a conviction that his eternal welfare was so much a matter of course, that it only remained to secure his earthly happiness? He was to “find his sons obedient, affectionate, attentive to his wishes, selfdenying, and diligent,” a goodly string forsooth of all the virtues most convenient to parents; he was never to have to blush for the follies of those “who owed him such a debt of gratitude,” and “whose first duty it was to study his happiness.” How like maternal solicitude is this! Solicitude for the most part lest the offspring should come to have wishes and feelings of its own, which may occasion many difficulties, fancied or real. It is this that is at the bottom of the whole mischief; but whether this last proposition is granted or no, at any rate we observe that Christina had a sufficiently keen appreciation of the duties of children towards their parents, and felt the task of fulfilling them adequately to be so difficult that she was very doubtful how far Ernest and Joey would succeed in mastering it. It is plain in fact that her supposed parting glance upon them was one of suspicion. But there was no suspicion of Theobald; that he should have devoted his life to his children — why, this was such a mere platitude, as almost to go without saying.

How, let me ask, was it possible that a child only a little past five years old, trained in such an atmosphere of prayers and hymns and sums and happy Sunday evenings — to say nothing of daily repeated beatings over the said prayers and hymns, etc., about which our authoress is silent — how was it possible that a lad so trained should grow up in any healthy or vigorous development, even though in her own way his mother was undoubtedly very fond of him, and sometimes told him stories? Can the eye of any reader fail to detect the coming wrath of God as about to descend upon the head of him who should be nurtured under the shadow of such a letter as the foregoing?

I have often thought that the Church of Rome does wisely in not allowing her priests to marry. Certainly it is a matter of common observation in England that the sons of clergymen are frequently unsatisfactory. The explanation is very simple, but it is so often lost sight of that I may perhaps be pardoned for giving it here.

The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday. Things must not be done in him which are venial in the week-day classes. He is paid for this business of leading a stricter life than other people. It is his raison d’etre. If his parishioners feel that he does this, they approve of him, for they look upon him as their own contribution towards what they deem a holy life. This is why the clergyman is so often called a vicar — he being the person whose vicarious goodness is to stand for that of those entrusted to his charge. But his home is his castle as much as that of any other Englishman, and with him, as with others, unnatural tension in public is followed by exhaustion when tension is no longer necessary. His children are the most defenceless things he can reach, and it is on them in nine cases out of ten that he will relieve his mind.

A clergyman, again, can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side; it is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiassed examination of the other.

We forget that every clergyman with a living or curacy is as much a paid advocate as the barrister who is trying to persuade a jury to acquit a prisoner. We should listen to him with the same suspense of judgement, the same full consideration of the arguments of the opposing counsel, as a judge does when he is trying a case. Unless we know these, and can state them in a way that our opponents would admit to be a fair representation of their views, we have no right to claim that we have formed an opinion at all. The misfortune is that by the law of the land one side only can be heard.

Theobald and Christina were no exceptions to the general rule. When they came to Battersby they had every desire to fulfil the duties of their position, and to devote themselves to the honour and glory of God. But it was Theobald’s duty to see the honour and glory of God through the eyes of a Church which had lived three hundred years without finding reason to change a single one of its opinions.

I should doubt whether he ever got as far as doubting the wisdom of his Church upon any single matter. His scent for possible mischief was tolerably keen; so was Christina’s, and it is likely that if either of them detected in him or herself the first faint symptoms of a want of faith they were nipped no less peremptorily in the bud, than signs of self-will in Ernest were — and I should imagine more successfully. Yet Theobald considered himself, and was generally considered to be, and indeed perhaps was, an exceptionally truthful person; indeed he was generally looked upon as an embodiment of all those virtues which make the poor respectable and the rich respected. In the course of time he and his wife became persuaded, even to unconsciousness, that no one could even dwell under their roof without deep cause for thankfulness. Their children, their servants, their parishioners must be fortunate ipso facto that they were theirs. There was no road to happiness here or hereafter, but the road that they had themselves travelled, no good people who did not think as they did upon every subject, and no reasonable person who had wants the gratification of which would be inconvenient to them — Theobald and Christina.

This was how it came to pass that their children were white and puny; they were suffering from home-sickness. They were starving, through being over-crammed with the wrong things. Nature came down upon them, but she did not come down on Theobald and Christina. Why should she? They were not leading a starved existence. There are two classes of people in this world, those who sin, and those who are sinned against; if a man must belong to either, he had better belong to the first than to the second.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31