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Friday, July 1, 2011

Samuel Butler, Utopian

Utopian novelist with close links to Victorian New Zealand

I was intrigued recently to see the online Oxford Dictionary of Biography feature Samuel Butler as one of its lives of the week, mostly because Butler also featured in lessons back in my school days.

Born in Nottinhamshire in December 1835, Butler began his life of self-questioning as a lay preacher at St James's, Piccadilly, where he got fed up with patriarchal Victorian hypocrisy, and expressed his views in a novel, The Way of All Flesh.

Then he aspired to become an artist, despite the disgust of his father, who declared to him that following such a course would "throw you into very dangerous company."  So, he headed off for New Zealand, the most distant British colony, with four thousand pounds from his father, who approved of the idea, believing that the rough real world downunder would knock all that artistic nonsense out of his head.

Butler, therefore, boarded the Roman Emperor at Gravesend (September 30, 1859) with his father's blessing.  After arriving in Canterbury, he set up as a sheep farmer, that kind of occupation being a popular one in that place at that time.  He wrote lots of letters home describing his new life, and his father was so impressed with them that he collected them together and had them published as A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, in 1863, with a preface written by himself.

An energetic young man, Samuel Butler engaged himself in the cultural life of the colony, wrote a utopian novel, organized the first art exhibitions at the Canterbury Club, and had essays published in the Christchurch Press.  The most famous of these is an amusing piece called "Darwin among the machines," where he imagines the consequences of the newly published Origin of Species.

In 1864, having amassed a tidy profit, he returned to London and his early ambition of being a painter.  He enrolled in art schools, produced some quite wellknown works ("Family Prayers" -- reproduced above -- being one), and dabbled in the new art of photography.  He was fated to become more famous as a writer, though -- in 1872, he finally published the utopian novel he had written back in New Zealand.  Called Erewhon, (an anagram of "nowhere"), and without his name on the title page or jacket, it received considerable acclaim -- and was fated, as I might have mentioned earlier, to feature in literature lessons in New Zealand schools.

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