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- Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 4/7 -


Butler wrote to Charles Darwin to explain what he meant by the "Book of the Machines": "I am sincerely sorry that some of the critics should have thought I was laughing at your theory, a thing which I never meant to do and should be shocked at having done." Soon after this Butler was invited to Down and paid two visits to Mr. Darwin there; he thus became acquainted with all the family and for some years was on intimate terms with Mr. (now Sir) Francis Darwin.

It is easy to see by the light of subsequent events that we should probably have had something not unlike 'Erewhon' sooner or later, even without the Russian lady and Sir F. N. Broome, to whose promptings, owing to a certain diffidence which never left him, he was perhaps inclined to attribute too much importance. But he would not have agreed with this view at the time; he looked upon himself as a painter and upon 'Erewhon' as an interruption. It had come, like one of those creatures from the Land of the Unborn, pestering him and refusing to leave him at peace until he consented to give it bodily shape. It was only a little one, and he saw no likelihood of its having any successors. So he satisfied its demands and then, supposing that he had written himself out, looked forward to a future in which nothing should interfere with the painting. Nevertheless, when another of the unborn came teasing him he yielded to its importunities and allowed himself to become the author of 'The Fair Haven', which is his pamphlet on the Resurrection, enlarged and preceded by a realistic memoir of the pseudonymous author, John Pickard Owen. In the library of St. John's College, Cambridge, are two copies of the pamphlet with pages cut out; he used these pages in forming the MS. of 'The Fair Haven'. To have published this book as by the author of 'Erewhon' would have been to give away the irony and satire. And he had another reason for not disclosing his name; he remembered that as soon as curiosity about the authorship of 'Erewhon' was satisfied, the weekly sales fell from fifty down to only two or three. But, as he always talked openly of whatever was in his mind, he soon let out the secret of the authorship of 'The Fair Haven', and it became advisable to put his name to a second edition.

One result of his submitting the MS. of 'Erewhon' to Miss Savage was that she thought he ought to write a novel, and urged him to do so. I have no doubt that he wrote the memoir of John Pickard Owen with the idea of quieting Miss Savage and also as an experiment to ascertain whether he was likely to succeed with a novel. The result seems to have satisfied him, for, not long after 'The Fair Haven', he began 'The Way of All Flesh', sending the MS. to Miss Savage, as he did everything he wrote, for her approval and putting her into the book as Ernest's Aunt Alethea. He continued writing it in the intervals of other work until her death in February, 1885, after which he did not touch it. It was published in 1903 by Mr. R. A. Streatfeild, his literary executor.

Soon after 'The Fair Haven' Butler began to be aware that his letter in the 'Press', "Darwin among the Machines," was descending with further modifications and developing in his mind into a theory about evolution which took shape as 'Life and Habit'; but the writing of this very remarkable and suggestive book was delayed and the painting interrupted by absence from England on business in Canada. He had been persuaded by a college friend, a member of one of the great banking families, to call in his colonial mortgages and to put the money into several new companies. He was going to make thirty or forty per cent, instead of only ten. One of these companies was a Canadian undertaking, of which he became a director; it was necessary for someone to go to headquarters and investigate its affairs; he went, and was much occupied by the business for two or three years. By the beginning of 1876 he had returned finally to London, but most of his money was lost and his financial position for the next ten years caused him very serious anxiety. His personal expenditure was already so low that it was hardly possible to reduce it, and he set to work at his profession more industriously than ever, hoping to paint something that he could sell, his spare time being occupied with 'Life and Habit', which was the subject that really interested him more deeply than any other.

Following his letter in the 'Press', wherein he had seen machines as in process of becoming animate, he went on to regard them as living organs and limbs which we had made outside ourselves. What would follow if we reversed this and regarded our limbs and organs as machines which we had manufactured as parts of our bodies? In the first place, how did we come to make them without knowing anything about it? But then, how comes anybody to do anything unconsciously? The answer usually would be: By habit. But can a man be said to do a thing by habit when he has never done it before? His ancestors have done it, but not he. Can the habit have been acquired by them for his benefit? Not unless he and his ancestors are the same person. Perhaps, then, they are the same person.

In February, 1876, partly to clear his mind and partly to tell someone, he wrote down his thoughts in a letter to his namesake, Thomas William Gale Butler, a fellow art-student who was then in New Zealand; so much of the letter as concerns the growth of his theory is given in 'The Note-Books of Samuel Butler' (1912).

In September, 1877, when 'Life and Habit' was on the eve of publication, Mr. Francis Darwin came to lunch with him in Clifford's Inn and, in course of conversation, told him that Professor Ray Lankester had written something in 'Nature' about a lecture by Dr. Ewald Hering of Prague, delivered so long ago as 1870, "On Memory as a Universal Function of Organized Matter." This rather alarmed Butler, but he deferred looking up the reference until after December, 1877, when his book was out, and then, to his relief, he found that Hering's theory was very similar to his own, so that, instead of having something sprung upon him which would have caused him to want to alter his book, he was supported. He at once wrote to the 'Athenaeum', calling attention to Hering's lecture, and then pursued his studies in evolution.

'Life and Habit' was followed in 1879 by 'Evolution Old and New', wherein he compared the teleological or purposive view of evolution taken by Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck with the view taken by Charles Darwin, and came to the conclusion that the old was better. But while agreeing with the earlier writers in thinking that the variations whose accumulation results in species were originally due to intelligence, he could not take the view that the intelligence resided in an external personal God. He had done with all that when he gave up the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He proposed to place the intelligence inside the creature ("The Deadlock in Darwinism," post).

In 1880 he continued the subject by publishing 'Unconscious Memory'. Chapter IV of this book is concerned with a personal quarrel between himself and Charles Darwin which arose out of the publication by Charles Darwin of Dr. Krause's 'Life of Erasmus Darwin'. We need not enter into particulars here, the matter is fully dealt with in a pamphlet, 'Charles Darwin and Samuel Butler: A Step towards Reconciliation', which I wrote in 1911, the result of a correspondence between Mr. Francis Darwin and myself. Before this correspondence took place Mr. Francis Darwin had made several public allusions to 'Life and Habit'; and in September, 1908, in his inaugural address to the British Association at Dublin, he did Butler the posthumous honour of quoting from his translation of Hering's lecture "On Memory," which is in 'Unconscious Memory', and of mentioning Butler as having enunciated the theory contained in 'Life and Habit'.

In 1886 Butler published his last book on evolution, 'Luck or Cunning as the Main Means of Organic Modification'? His other contributions to the subject are some essays, written for the 'Examiner' in 1879, "God the Known and God the Unknown," which were republished by Mr. Fifield in 1909, and the articles "The Deadlock in Darwinism" which appeared in the 'Universal Review' in 1890 and some further notes on evolution will be found in 'The Note-Books of Samuel Butler' (1912).

It was while he was writing 'Life and Habit' that I first met him. For several years he had been in the habit of spending six or eight weeks of the summer in Italy and the Canton Ticino, generally making Faido his headquarters. Many a page of his books was written while resting by the fountain of some subalpine village or waiting in the shade of the chestnuts till the light came so that he could continue a sketch. Every year he returned home by a different route, and thus gradually became acquainted with every part of the Canton and North Italy. There is scarcely a town or village, a point of view, a building, statue or picture in all this country with which he was not familiar. In 1878 he happened to be on the Sacro Monte above Varese at the time I took my holiday; there I joined him, and nearly every year afterwards we were in Italy together.

He was always a delightful companion, and perhaps at his gayest on these occasions. "A man's holiday," he would say, "is his garden," and he set out to enjoy himself and to make everyone about him enjoy themselves too. I told him the old schoolboy muddle about Sir Walter Raleigh introducing tobacco and saying: "We shall this day light up such a fire in England as I trust shall never be put out." He had not heard it before and, though amused, appeared preoccupied, and perhaps a little jealous, during the rest of the evening. Next morning, while he was pouring out his coffee, his eyes twinkled and he said, with assumed carelessness:

"By the by, do you remember?--wasn't it Columbus who bashed the egg down on the table and said 'Eppur non si muove'?"

He was welcome wherever he went, full of fun and ready to play while doing the honours of the country. Many of the peasants were old friends, and every day we were sure to meet someone who remembered him. Perhaps it would be an old woman labouring along under a burden; she would smile and stop, take his hand and tell him how happy she was to meet him again and repeat her thanks for the empty wine bottle he had given her after an out-of-door luncheon in her neighbourhood four or five years before. There was another who had rowed him many times across the Lago di Orta and had never been in a train but once in her life, when she went to Novara to her son's wedding. He always remembered all about these people and asked how the potatoes were doing this year and whether the grandchildren were growing up into fine boys and girls, and he never forgot to inquire after the son who had gone to be a waiter in New York. At Civiasco there is a restaurant which used to be kept by a jolly old lady, known for miles round as La Martina; we always lunched with her on our way over the Colma to and from Varallo-Sesia. On one occasion we were accompanied by two English ladies and, one being a teetotaller, Butler maliciously instructed La Martina to make the sabbaglione so that it should be forte and abbondante, and to say that the Marsala, with which it was more than flavoured, was nothing but vinegar. La Martina never forgot that when she looked in to see how things were going, he was pretending to lick the dish clean. These journeys provided the material for a book which he thought of calling "Verdi Prati," after one of Handel's most beautiful songs; but he changed his mind, and it appeared at the end of 1881 as 'Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino' with more than eighty illustrations, nearly all by Butler. Charles Gogin made an etching for the frontispiece, drew some of the pictures, and put figures into others; half a dozen are mine. They were all redrawn in ink from


Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 4/7

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