The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 53

THE foregoing conversation and others like it made a deep impression upon my hero. If next day he had taken a walk with Mr. Hawke, and heard what he had to say on the other side, he would have been just as much struck, and as ready to fling off what Pryer had told him, as he now was to throw aside all he had ever heard from anyone except Pryer; but there was no Mr. Hawke at hand, so Pryer had everything his own way.

Embryo minds, like embryo bodies, pass through a number of strange metamorphoses before they adopt their final shape. It is no more to be wondered at that one who is going to turn out a Roman Catholic, should have passed through the stages of being first a Methodist, and then a freethinker, than that a man should at some former time have been a mere cell, and later on an invertebrate animal. Ernest, however, could not be expected to know this; embryos never do. Embryos think with each stage of their development that they have now reached the only condition which really suits them. This, they say, must certainly be their last, inasmuch as its close will be so great a shock that nothing can survive it. Every change is a shock; every shock is a pro tanto death. What we call death is only a shock great enough to destroy our power to recognise a past and a present as resembling one another. It is the making us consider the points of difference between our present and our past greater than the points of resemblance, so that we can no longer call the former of these two in any proper sense a continuation of the second, but find it less trouble to think of it as something that we choose to call new.

But, to let this pass, it was clear that spiritual pathology (I confess that I do not know myself what spiritual pathology means -but Pryer and Ernest doubtless did) was the great desideratum of the age. It seemed to Ernest that he had made this discovery himself and been familiar with it all his life, that he had never known, in fact, of anything else. He wrote long letters to his college friends expounding his views as though he had been one of the Apostolic fathers. As for the Old Testament writers, he had no patience with them. “Do oblige me,” I find him writing to one friend, “by reading the prophet Zechariah, and giving me your candid opinion upon him. He is poor stuff, full of Yankee bounce; it is sickening to live in an age when such balderdash can be gravely admired whether as poetry or prophecy.” This was because Pryer had set him against Zechariah. I do not know what Zechariah had done; I should think myself that Zechariah was a very good prophet; perhaps it was because he was a Bible writer, and not a very prominent one, that Pryer selected him as one through whom to disparage the Bible in comparison with the Church.

To his friend Dawson I find him saying a little later on: “Pryer and I continue our walks, working out each other’s thoughts. At first he used to do all the thinking, but I think I am pretty well abreast of him now, and rather chuckle at seeing that he is already beginning to modify some of the views he held most strongly when I first knew him.

“Then I think he was on the high road to Rome; now, however, he seems to be a good deal struck with a suggestion of mine in which you, too, perhaps may be interested. You see we must infuse new life into the Church somehow; we are not holding our own against either Rome or infidelity.” (I may say in passing that I do not believe Ernest had as yet ever seen an infidel — not to speak to.) “I proposed, therefore, a few days back to Pryer — and he fell in eagerly with the proposal as soon as he saw that I had the means of carrying it out — that we should set on foot a spiritual movement somewhat analogous to the Young England movement of twenty years ago, the aim of which shall be at once to outbid Rome on the one hand, and scepticism on the other. For this purpose I see nothing better than the foundation of an institution or college for placing the nature and treatment of sin on a more scientific basis than it rests at present. We want — to borrow a useful term of Pryer’s — a College of Spiritual Pathology where young men” (I suppose Ernest thought he was no longer young by this time) “may study the nature and treatment of the sins of the soul as medical students study those of the bodies of their patients. Such a college, as you will probably admit, will approach both Rome on the one hand, and science on the other — Rome, as giving the priesthood more skill, and therefore as paving the way for their obtaining greater power, and science, by recognising that even free thought has a certain kind of value in spiritual enquiries. To this purpose Pryer and I have resolved to devote ourselves henceforth heart and soul.

“Of course, my ideas are still unshaped, and all will depend upon the men by whom the College is first worked. I am not yet a priest, but Pryer is, and if I were to start the College, Pryer might take charge of it for a time and I work under him nominally as his subordinate. Pryer himself suggested this. Is it not generous of him?

“The worst of it is that we have not enough money; I have, it is true, L5000, but we want at least L10,000, so Pryer says, before we can start; when we are fairly under weigh I might live at the college and draw a salary from the foundation, so that it is all one, or nearly so, whether I invest my money in this way or in buying a living; besides I want very little; it is certain that I shall never marry; no clergyman should think of this, and an unmarried man can live on next to nothing. Still I do not see my way to as much money as I want, and Pryer suggests that as we can hardly earn more now we must get it by a judicious series of investments. Pryer knows several people who make quite a handsome income out of very little or, indeed, I may say, nothing at all, by buying things at a place they call the Stock Exchange; I don’t know much about it yet, but Pryer says I should soon learn; he thinks, indeed, that I have shown rather a talent in this direction, and under proper auspices should make a very good man of business. Others, of course, and not I, must decide this; but a man can do anything if he gives his mind to it, and though I should not care about having more money for my own sake, I care about it very much when I think of the good I could do with it by saving souls from such horrible torture hereafter. Why, if the thing succeeds, and I really cannot see what is to hinder it, it is hardly possible to exaggerate its importance, nor the proportions which it may ultimately assume,” etc., etc.

Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this. He winced, but said, “No, not if it helps you to tell your story: but don’t you think it is too long?”

I said it would let the reader see for himself how things were going in half the time that it would take me to explain them to him.

“Very well then, keep it by all means.”

I continue turning over my file of Ernest’s letters and find as follows —

“Thanks for your last, in answer to which I send you a rough copy of a letter I sent to the Times a day or two back. They did not insert it, but it embodies pretty fully my ideas on the parochial visitation question, and Pryer fully approves of the letter. Think it carefully over and send it back to me when read, for it is so exactly my present creed that I cannot afford to lose it.

“I should very much like to have a viva voce discussion on these matters: I can only see for certain that we have suffered a dreadful loss in being no longer able to excommunicate. We should excommunicate rich and poor alike, and pretty freely too. If this power were restored to us we could, I think, soon put a stop to by far the greater part of the sin and misery with which we are surrounded.”

These letters were written only a few weeks after Ernest had been ordained, but they are nothing to others that he wrote a little later on.

In his eagerness to regenerate the Church of England (and through this the universe) by the means which Pryer had suggested to him, it occurred to him to try to familiarise himself with the habits and thoughts of the poor by going and living among them. I think he got this notion from Kingsley’s “Alton Locke,” which, High Churchman though he for the nonce was, he had devoured as he had devoured Stanley’s “Life of Arnold,” Dickens’s novels, and whatever other literary garbage of the day was most likely to do him harm; at any rate he actually put his scheme into practice, and took lodgings in Ashpit Place, a small street in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane Theatre, in a house of which the landlady was the widow of a cabman.

This lady occupied the whole ground floor. In the front kitchen there was a tinker. The back kitchen was let to a bellows-mender. On the first floor came Ernest, with his two rooms which he furnished comfortably, for one must draw the line somewhere. The two upper floors were parcelled out among four different sets of lodgers: there was a tailor named Holt, a drunken fellow who used to beat his wife at night till her screams woke the house; above him there was another tailor with a wife but no children; these people were Wesleyans, given to drink but not noisy. The two back rooms were held by single ladies, who it seemed to Ernest must be respectably connected, for well-dressed, gentlemanly-looking young men used to go up and down stairs past Ernest’s rooms to call at any rate on Miss Snow — Ernest had heard her door slam after they had passed. He thought, too, that some of them went up to Miss Maitland’s. Mrs. Jupp, the landlady, told Ernest that these were brothers and cousins of Miss Snow’s, and that she was herself looking out for a situation as a governess, but at present had an engagement as an actress at the Drury Lane Theatre. Ernest asked whether Miss Maitland in the top back was also looking out for a situation, and was told she was wanting an engagement as a milliner. He believed whatever Mrs. Jupp told him.

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