The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 85

ERNEST, being about two-and-thirty years old and having had his fling for the last three or four years, now settled down in London, and began to write steadily. Up to this time he had given abundant promise, but had produced nothing, nor indeed did he come before the public for another three or four years yet.

He lived as I have said very quietly, secing hardly anyone but myself, and the three or four old friends with whom I had been intimate for years. Ernest and we formed our little set, and outside of this my godson was hardly known at all.

His main expense was travelling, which he indulged in at frequent intervals, but for short times only. Do what he would he could not get through more than about fifteen hundred a year; the rest of his income he gave away if he happened to find a case where he thought money would be well bestowed, or put by until some opportunity arose of getting rid of it with advantage.

I knew he was writing, but we had had so many little differences of opinion upon this head that by a tacit understanding the subject was seldom referred to between us, and I did not know that he was actually publishing till one day he brought me a book and told me that it was his own. I opened it and found it to be a series of semitheological, semi-social essays, purporting to have been written by six or seven different people, and viewing the same class of subjects from different standpoints.

People had not yet forgotten the famous “Essays and Reviews,” and Ernest had wickedly given a few touches to at least two of the essays which suggested vaguely that they had been written by a bishop. The essays were all of them in support of the Church of England, and appeared both by implied internal suggestion and their prima facie purport to be the work of some half-dozen men of experience and high position who had determined to face the difficult questions of the day no less boldly from within the bosom of the Church than the Church’s enemies had faced them from without her pale.

There was an essay on the external evidences of the Resurrection; another on the marriage laws of the most eminent nations of the world in times past and present; another was devoted to a consideration of the many questions which must be reopened and reconsidered on their merits if the teaching of the Church of England were to cease to carry moral authority with it; another dealt with the more purely social subject of middle class destitution; another with the authenticity or rather the unauthenticity of the fourth gospel; another was headed “Irrational Rationalism,” and there were two or three more.

They were all written vigorously and fearlessly as though by people used to authority; all granted that the Church professed to enjoin belief in much which no one could accept who had been accustomed to weigh evidence; but it was contended that so much valuable truth had got so closely mixed up with these mistakes that the mistakes had better not be meddled with. To lay great stress on these was like cavilling at the queen’s right to reign, on the ground that William the Conqueror was illegitimate.

One article maintained that though it would be inconvenient to change the words of our prayer book and articles, it would not be inconvenient to change in a quiet way the meanings which we put upon those words. This, it was argued, was what was actually done in the case of law; this had been the law’s mode of growth and adaptation, and had in all ages been found a righteous and convenient method of effecting change. It was suggested that the Church should adopt it.

In another essay it was boldly denied that the Church rested upon reason. It was proved incontestably that its ultimate foundation was and ought to be faith, there being indeed no other ultimate foundation than this for any of man’s beliefs. If so, the writer claimed that the Church could not be upset by reason. It was founded, like everything else, on initial assumptions, that is to say on faith, and if it was to be upset it was to be upset by faith, by the faith of those who in their lives appeared more graceful, more lovable, better bred, in fact, and better able to overcome difficulties. Any sect which showed its superiority in these respects might carry all before it, but none other would make much headway for long together. Christianity was true in so far as it had fostered beauty, and it had fostered much beauty. It was false in so far as it fostered ugliness, and it had fostered much ugliness. It was therefore not a little true and not a little false; on the whole one might go farther and fare worse; the wisest course would be to live with it, and make the best and not the worst of it. The writer urged that we become persecutors as a matter of course as soon as we begin to feel very strongly upon any subject; we ought not therefore to do this; we ought not to feel very strongly even upon that institution which was dearer to the writer than any other — the Church of England. We should be churchmen, but somewhat lukewarm churchmen, inasmuch as those who care very much about either religion or irreligion are seldom observed to be very well bred or agreeable people. The Church herself should approach as nearly to that of Laodicea as was compatible with her continuing to be a Church at all, and each individual member should only be hot in striving to be as lukewarm as possible.

The book rang with the courage alike of conviction and of an entire absence of conviction; it appeared to be the work of men who had a rule-of-thumb way of steering between iconoclasm on the one hand and credulity on the other; who cut Gordian knots as a matter of course when it suited their convenience; who shrank from no conclusion in theory, nor from any want of logic in practice so long as they were illogical of malice prepense, and for what they held to be sufficient reason. The conclusions were conservative, quietistic, comforting. The arguments by which they were reached were taken from the most advanced writers of the day. All that these people contended for was granted them, but the fruits of victory were for the most part handed over to those already in possession.

Perhaps the passage which attracted most attention in the book was one from the essay on the various marriage systems of the world. It ran:

“If people require us to construct,” exclaimed the writer, “we set good breeding as the corner-stone of our edifice. We would have it ever present consciously or unconsciously in the minds of all as the central faith in which they should live and move and have their being, as the touchstone of all things whereby they may be known as good or evil according as they make for good breeding or against.

That a man should have been bred well and breed others well; that his figure, head, hands, feet, voice, manner, and clothes should carry conviction upon this point, so that no one can look at him without seeing that he has come of good stock and is likely to throw good stock himself, this is the desiderandum. And the same with a woman. The greatest number of these well-bred men and women, and the greatest happiness of these well-bred men and women, this is the highest good; towards this all government, all social conventions, all art, literature, and science should directly or indirectly tend. Holy men and holy women are those who keep this unconsciously in view at all times whether of work or pastime.”

If Ernest had published this work in his own name I should think it would have fallen still-born from the press, but the form he had chosen was calculated at that time to arouse curiosity, and as I have said he had wickedly dropped a few hints which the reviewers did not think anyone would have been impudent enough to do if he were not a bishop, or at any rate someone in authority. A well-known judge was spoken of as being another of the writers, and the idea spread ere long that six or seven of the leading bishops and judges had laid their heads together to produce a volume, which should at once outbid “Essays and Reviews” and counteract the influence of that then still famous work.

Reviewers are men of like passions with ourselves, and with them as with everyone else omne ignotum pro magnifico. The book was really an able one and abounded with humour, just satire, and good sense. It struck a new note, and the speculation which for some time was rife concerning its authorship made many turn to it who would never have looked at it otherwise. One of the most gushing weeklies had a fit over it, and declared it to be the finest thing that had been done since the “Provincial Letters” of Pascal. Once a month or so that weekly always found some picture which was the finest that had been done since the old masters, or some satire that was the finest that had appeared since Swift or some something which was incomparably the finest that had appeared since something else. If Ernest had put his name to the book, and the writer had known that it was by a nobody, he would doubtless have written in a very different strain. Reviewers like to think that for aught they know they are patting a duke or even a prince of the blood upon the back, and lay it on thick till they find they have been only praising Brown, Jones, or Robinson. Then they are disappointed, and as a general rule will pay Brown, Jones, or Robinson out.

Ernest was not so much up to the ropes of the literary world as I was, and I am afraid his head was a little turned when he woke up one morning to find himself famous. He was Christina’s son, and perhaps would not have been able to do what he had done if he were not capable of occasional undue elation. Ere long, however, he found out all about it, and settled quietly down to write a series of books, in which he insisted on saying things which no one else would say even if they could, or could even if they would.

He has got himself a bad literary character. I said to him laughingly one day that he was like the man in the last century of whom it was said that nothing but such a character could keep down such parts.

He laughed and said he would rather be like that than like a modern writer or two whom he could name, whose parts were so poor that they could be kept up by nothing but by such a character.

I remember soon after one of these books was published I happened to meet Mrs. Jupp to whom, by the way, Ernest made a small weekly allowance. It was at Ernest’s chambers, and for some reason we were left alone for a few minutes. I said to her: “Mr. Pontifex has written another book, Mrs. Jupp.”

“Lor’ now,” said she, “has he really? Dear gentleman! Is it about love?” And the old sinner threw up a wicked sheep’s eye glance at me from under her aged eyelids. I forget what there was in my reply which provoked it — probably nothing — but she went rattling on at full speed to the effect that Bell had given her a ticket for the opera. “So, of course,” she said, “I went. I didn’t understand one word of it, for it was all French, but I saw their legs. Oh dear, oh dear! I’m afraid I shan’t be here much longer, and when dear Mr. Pontifex sees me in my coffin he’ll say, ‘Poor old Jupp, she’ll never talk broad any more’; but bless you I’m not so old as all that, and I’m taking lessons in dancing.”

At this moment Ernest came in and the conversation was changed. Mrs. Jupp asked if he was still going on writing more books now that this one was done. course I am,” he answered; “I’m always writing books; here is the manuscript of my next”; and he showed her a heap of paper.

“Well now,” she exclaimed, “dear, dear me, and is that manuscript? I’ve often heard talk about manuscripts, but I never thought I should live to see some myself. Well! well! So that is really manuscript?”

There were a few geraniums in the window and they did not look well. Ernest asked Mrs. Jupp if she understood flowers. “I understand the language of flowers,” she said, with one of her most bewitching leers, and on this we sent her off till she should choose to honour us with another visit, which she knows she is privileged from time to time to do, for Ernest likes her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter85.html

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