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- The Fair Haven - 1/40 -

Transcribed from the 1913 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email

THE FAIR HAVEN A Work in Defence of the Miraculous Element in our Lord's Ministry upon Earth, both as against Rationalistic Impugners and certain Orthodox Defenders, by the late John Pickard Owen, with a Memoir of the Author by William Bickersteth Owen.


The demand for a new edition of The Fair Haven gives me an opportunity of saying a few words about the genesis of what, though not one of the most popular of Samuel Butler's books, is certainly one of the most characteristic. Few of his works, indeed, show more strikingly his brilliant powers as a controversialist and his implacable determination to get at the truth of whatever engaged his attention.

To find the germ of The Fair Haven we should probably have to go back to the year 1858, when Butler, after taking his degree at Cambridge, was preparing himself for holy orders by acting as a kind of lay curate in a London parish. Butler never took things for granted, and he felt it to be his duty to examine independently a good many points of Christian dogma which most candidates for ordination accept as matters of course. The result of his investigations was that he eventually declined to take orders at all. One of the stones upon which he then stumbled was the efficacy of infant baptism, and I have no doubt that another was the miraculous element of Christianity, which, it will be remembered, was the cause of grievous searchings of heart to Ernest Pontifex in Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh. While Butler was in New Zealand (1859-64) he had leisure for prosecuting his Biblical studies, the result of which he published in 1865, after his return to England, in an anonymous pamphlet entitled "The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as given by the Four Evangelists critically examined." This pamphlet passed unnoticed; probably only a few copies were printed and it is now extremely rare. After the publication of Erewhon in 1872, Butler returned once more to theology, and made his anonymous pamphlet the basis of the far more elaborate Fair Haven, which was originally published as the posthumous work of a certain John Pickard Owen, preceded by a memoir of the deceased author by his supposed brother, William Bickersteth Owen. It is possible that the memoir was the fruit of a suggestion made by Miss Savage, an able and witty woman with whom Butler corresponded at the time. Miss Savage was so much impressed by the narrative power displayed in Erewhon that she urged Butler to write a novel, and we shall probably not be far wrong in regarding the biography of John Pickard Owen as Butler's trial trip in the art of fiction--a prelude to The Way of All Flesh, which he began in 1873.

It has often been supposed that the elaborate paraphernalia of mystification which Butler used in The Fair Haven was deliberately designed in order to hoax the public. I do not believe that this was the case. Butler, I feel convinced, provided an ironical framework for his arguments merely that he might render them more effective than they had been when plainly stated in the pamphlet of 1865. He fully expected his readers to comprehend his irony, and he anticipated that some at any rate of them would keenly resent it. Writing to Miss Savage in March, 1873 (shortly before the publication of the book), he said: "I should hope that attacks on The Fair Haven will give me an opportunity of excusing myself, and if so I shall endeavour that the excuse may be worse than the fault it is intended to excuse." A few days later he referred to the difficulties that he had encountered in getting the book accepted by a publisher: " --- were frightened and even considered the scheme of the book unjustifiable. --- urged me, as politely as he could, not to do it, and evidently thinks I shall get myself into disgrace even among freethinkers. It's all nonsense. I dare say I shall get into a row- -at least I hope I shall." Evidently there is here no anticipation of The Fair Haven being misunderstood. Misunderstood, however, it was, not only by reviewers, some of whom greeted it solemnly as a defence of orthodoxy, but by divines of high standing, such as the late Canon Ainger, who sent it to a friend whom he wished to convert. This was more than Butler could resist, and he hastened to issue a second edition bearing his name and accompanied by a preface in which the deceived elect were held up to ridicule.

Butler used to maintain that The Fair Haven did his reputation no harm. Writing in 1901, he said:

"The Fair Haven got me into no social disgrace that I have ever been able to discover. I might attack Christianity as much as I chose and nobody cared one straw; but when I attacked Darwin it was a different matter. For many years Evolution, Old and New, and Unconscious Memory made a shipwreck of my literary prospects. I am only now beginning to emerge from the literary and social injury which those two perfectly righteous books inflicted on me. I dare say they abound with small faults of taste, but I rejoice in having written both of them."

Very likely Butler was right as to the social side of the question, but I am convinced that The Fair Haven did him grave harm in the literary world. Reviewers fought shy of him for the rest of his life. They had been taken in once, and they took very good care that they should not be taken in again. The word went forth that Butler was not to be taken seriously, whatever he wrote, and the results of the decree were apparent in the conspiracy of silence that greeted not only his books on evolution, but his Homeric works, his writings on art, and his edition of Shakespeare's sonnets. Now that he has passed beyond controversies and mystifications, and now that his other works are appreciated at their true value, it is not too much to hope that tardy justice will be accorded also to The Fair Haven. It is true that the subject is no longer the burning question that it was forty years ago. In the early seventies theological polemics were fashionable. Books like Seeley's Ecce Homo and Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma were eagerly devoured by readers of all classes. Nowadays we take but a languid interest in the problems that disturbed our grandfathers, and most of us have settled down into what Disraeli described as the religion of all sensible men, which no sensible man ever talks about. There is, however, in The Fair Haven a good deal more than theological controversy, and our Laodicean age will appreciate Butler's humour and irony if it cares little for his polemics. The Fair Haven scandalised a good many people when it first appeared, but I am not afraid of its scandalising anybody now. I should be sorry, nevertheless, if it gave any reader a false impression of Butler's Christianity, and I think I cannot do better than conclude with a passage from one of his essays which represents his attitude to religion perhaps more faithfully than anything in The Fair Haven: "What, after all, is the essence of Christianity? What is the kernel of the nut? Surely common sense and cheerfulness, with unflinching opposition to the charlatanisms and Pharisaisms of a man's own times. The essence of Christianity lies neither in dogma, nor yet in abnormally holy life, but in faith in an unseen world, in doing one's duty, in speaking the truth, in finding the true life rather in others than in oneself, and in the certain hope that he who loses his life on these behalfs finds more than he has lost. What can Agnosticism do against such Christianity as this? I should be shocked if anything I had ever written or shall ever write should seem to make light of these things."

R. A. STREATFEILD. August, 1913.


The occasion of a Second Edition of The Fair Haven enables me to thank the public and my critics for the favourable reception which has been accorded to the First Edition. I had feared that the freedom with which I had exposed certain untenable positions taken by Defenders of Christianity might have given offence to some reviewers, but no complaint has reached me from any quarter on the score of my not having put the best possible case for the evidence in favour of the miraculous element in Christ's teaching--nor can I believe that I should have failed to hear of it, if my book had been open to exception on this ground.

An apology is perhaps due for the adoption of a pseudonym, and even more so for the creation of two such characters as JOHN PICKARD OWEN and his brother. Why could I not, it may be asked, have said all that I had to say in my own proper person?

Are there not real ills of life enough already? Is there not a "lo here!" from this school with its gushing "earnestness," it distinctions without differences, its gnat strainings and camel swallowings, its pretence of grappling with a question while resolutely bent upon shirking it, its dust throwing and mystification, its concealment of its own ineffable insincerity under an air of ineffable candour? Is there not a "lo there!" from that other school with its bituminous atmosphere of exclusiveness and self-laudatory dilettanteism? Is there not enough actual exposition of boredom come over us from many quarters without drawing for new bores upon the imagination? It is true I gave a single drop of comfort. JOHN PICKARD OWEN was dead. But his having ceased to exist (to use the impious phraseology of the present day) did not cancel the fact of his having once existed. That he should have ever been born gave proof of potentialities in Nature which could not be regarded lightly. What hybrids might not be in store for us next? Moreover, though JOHN PICKARD was dead, WILLIAM BICKERSTETH was still living, and might at any moment rekindle his burning and shining lamp of persistent self-satisfaction. Even though the OWENS had actually existed, should not their existence have been ignored as a disgrace to Nature? Who then could be justified in creating them when they did not exist?

I am afraid I must offer an apology rather than an excuse. The fact is that I was in a very awkward position. My previous work, Erewhon, had failed to give satisfaction to certain ultra-orthodox Christians, who imagined that they could detect an analogy between the English Church and the Erewhonian Musical Banks. It is inconceivable how they can have got hold of this idea; but I was given to understand that I should find it far from easy to dispossess them of the notion that something in the way of satire had been intended. There were

The Fair Haven - 1/40

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