“Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”
Samuel Butler, one of the literary giants of Victorian England, was born in 1835 in Nottingham-shire, England. Both his father and grandfather were clergy, so young Samuel was also expected to enter the ministry. He studied at Cambridge, earning his degree when he was 23. For a short time, he worked as a lay minister in a poor neighborhood of London, but his religious doubts caused him to leave the church.
In 1860, at the age of 24, with capital from his overbearing father, Butler took off to New Zealand to become a sheep rancher. New Zealand was as far from his father as he could manage, and being there gave him a chance to earn his own fortune.
Butler's Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered, published in 1899, contends that Shakespeare fell in love with a younger man who duped him, not unlike his relationship with Pauli. Butler is quoted as saying, “Friendship is like money, easier made than kept.”
Butler returned to writing and an ill-conceived attempt to be a painter. He was obsessed with Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was reflected in his successful novel Erewhon of 1872. Butler later grew disenchanted with Darwinism, just as he had with Christianity.
Butler’s works have strong homoerotic overtones and feature intense male relationships. The character of Ernest in The Way of All Flesh struggles with his strong feelings for his male friends, just like Butler did in his younger days. Ernest eventually meets a curate named Pryor and discovers that others share his affection for men. Ernest attempts to rid himself of his desires by marrying a woman, but ultimately it fails. There is also an older character named Overton who speaks about his dislike of marriage and women, and about how marriage ruins the friendship between men. Many speculate that the character of Overton is an older version of Butler. Butler is best known for this semi-autobiographical novel, sadly, it wasn’t published until after his death.
Henry Festing Jones would become Butler's great love in 1878. Butler persuaded Jones to give up his job and become his personal assistant, which made it easier for the two to spend time together without raising eyebrows. Jones had been a solicitor, but was a great help to Butler and they collaborated on many writing projects. They went out to the theater and concerts, traveled Europe and spent all of their time together, though Jones kept his original apartment (most likely to avoid gossip.)
Henry Festing Jones
While with Jones, Butler had and affair with a handsome young Swiss named Hans Foesch.
Butler and Jone were both quite fond of the charming young man. Foesch's death threw Butler into a depression, out of which came his emotional poem, "In Memorian H.R.F," in 1895.
Butler wore a pendant containing a lock of Faesch’s hair for many years. As usual, heterosexual critics have tried to suggest that theirs was just a strong friendship. If this were the case, then why was Butler so concerned about being considered “another Oscar Wilde” when “In Memorian H.R.F” was published? Wilde’s trial took place the same year Butler’s poem was published, and the publicity had riled up strong anti-homosexual paranoia in England.
In 1902, after a prolonged illness, Butler passed away at Clifford’s Inn; his partner, Henry Festing Jones was at his bedside.
If the unpublished manuscript of The Way of All Flesh had not been discovered after his death, hidden away in a drawer, Butler would probably be considered a minor literary figure today. Fortunately, it was discovered and revised as instructed. The book received great acclaim when it was published in 1903; Butler’s stature in the literary world skyrocketed as a result.