Refuge for a First-rate Mind

By Roger Robinson

Samuel Butler's painting of his childhood, "Family Prayers."

As an academic, I’ve written a good deal about Samuel Butler, one of the greatest literary intellectuals of the Victorian age. After a miserable childhood, his life was, in large part, a search for a happy home. Butler was raised at the Rectory at Langar, a scrap of a village in Nottinghamshire, in a gracious, spacious, pleased-with-itself Georgian mansion with an ill-tempered clergyman father who was home all week, and a fluttery, manipulative mother who trapped him on the sofa until he confessed to some minor moral infraction. His three siblings seem not to have been much company. Little Butler found it a prison and for eighteen years, his only emotional outlet was his love of cats.

His celebrated  revenge-raid of a novel, The Way of All Flesh, published  after his death in 1903, and still in print, refers to the biblical notion that “the way of all flesh” is death, and to the fact that, each day, children endure a thousand tiny mortifications. 

This book is the unforgettably painful tale of a house where no space was private—and no room, safe. The book scathingly exposes the severe discipline, emotional repression, soul-destroying bullying, and plain vicious child abuse that was, for many, the reality of the Victorian patriarchal home. The episode where the four-year-old Ernest is thrashed for having a childish lisp on the letter c (he says “tum” for “come”) aches in the memory of every reader.  The novel’s stand-in for the village of Langar where Butler grew up is “Battersby” as in “battered-boy.”

At long last freed from this abusive environment, Butler found sanctuary in his student room at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1854.

“How can any boy fail to feel an ecstasy of pleasure on first finding himself in rooms which he knows for the next few years are to be his castle?” he wrote. “The most cosy chair here is for himself, there is no one even to share the room with him, or to interfere with his doing what he likes in it – smoking included.” Butler’s rooms were in New Court, the building is famed now for its carved “wedding cake” pinnacled lantern, and for the “Bridge of Sighs” that echoes Venice and connects with the older college buildings on the other side of the river.

Photo by Kaiser Soze. - CC BY-SA 3.0,

Privacy was priority at Cambridge, where each set of rooms had a double door, with the heavy outer one called your “oak.” If you “sported the oak,” i.e. fully closed that outer door, no one would dream of disturbing you. If the oak was left ajar, it meant visitors could knock and engage in conversation.  This refuge was almost unimaginable for a boy who knew no escape at home.

After graduating, Butler prepared to follow his father into the Church, but lost his faith in the creed and in the recidivist flock he tended in the slums of London.  A year later, he broke free, and emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in January 1860. This is the grand, imposing landscape where Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings.  The  South Island province of Canterbury has an extensive plain backed by high impenetrable mountains, and wild, raging rivers—one of which Butler crossed with his intrepid cat stashed in a burlap bag.

Here, a naive, repressed, pale and puny young man, who had never done anything more adventurous than run cross-country at high school and cox a college rowing crew, became a surprisingly enterprising explorer and successful sheep-farmer. 

Butler built his first home by hand — a cob V-hut on remote sheep country he had discovered above the Rangitata River Gorge. He did much of the job himself, with help from some hired workmen, and learned from his mistakes.

Butler's own drawing. Mesopotamia, Upper Rangitata, New Zealand. 1860-64

Cob is a mix of clay and minced tussock grass, dried in the sun. The “V” is inverted, so the hut was,  “set down, without any walls upon the ground – 12 foot long by 8 foot broad.” It didn’t go quite right first time, either because he built it facing south hoping for more sun (wrong), or because he laid the roof thatch so that the water ran not off but through it (worse). 

The first error, common among new settlers in the Southern Hemisphere, later gave Butler a metaphor of reversal for his great values-shaking novel about Utopia, Erewhon, published in 1872. Try it backwards, more or less, and it means no place. Everything in this satiric novel is back to front. Mary is Yram, Robinson is Nosnibor, illness is a crime, crime is an illness, churches are banks, banks are churches, universities teach unreason. All backwards, but somehow, true.

The mistake with the roof was not at all metaphoric. It leaked. “The floor, or rather the ground, was soaked and soppy with mud,” Butler wrote. He and his helpers got to work, renewed the thatch, and built a fireplace and chimney. Then a better hut, until he had a home that he could describe with enthusiasm:

“When we come in of a night the hut wears an aspect of comfort quite domestic, – even to the cat which sits and licks my face of a night and purrs, – coming in always just after we are in bed by means of a hole under our thatched door…I have plenty to eat and drink, fresh air of the purest kind, good health and spirits, nice quiet steady industrious servants…what more can a mortal desire? I have a piano-forte at which I practise very regularly, and fancy I am improving. My sitting-room is hung with the pictures I had at Cambridge, and I have more books than I can read.”

Butler's homestead, and the surrounding mountains, photo by Roger Robinson

Once settled, Butler visited neighboring farmers, some thirty miles away, and entertained overnight guests. One described the evening routine, when staff and visitors used to gather for a meal, and then, “round a glorious fire, smoked or read or listened to Butler’s piano.” He was especially fond of Handel and Bach. Butler was one of the first close readers of Darwin’s Origin of Species, wrote a critical examination of the New Testament, and kept up his reading of Homer and the classics.  It was all very civilized at this make-shift house in the middle of the “Southern Alps.”

A Cambridge man, like Butler, I moved to New Zealand myself, in the 1960s, not to homestead but to work in universities. Like him, I was looking for a place where I could live a literary and academic life free from the constraints and overcrowding of the old world.  Here, I could combine intellectual and literary life with my love for the outdoors, and I found Butler’s questing, irreverent mind congenial. In 1972, I held a conference to mark  the centenary of Erewhon and Butler has been a focus of my work ever since.  

I’ve been to the Upper Rangitata several times and it inspires awe and admiration for the people who first made a living there. The “station” (sheep farm) that Butler founded still flourishes though a substantial family house has replaced Butler’s wind-swept cluster of huts. There’s a tiny school house, too. You get there by driving through the charming town of Geraldine, in a fruit-orchard valley, then via Peel Forest, then thirty miles up the no-exit dusty road through the Rangitata Gorge.

To follow Butler’s own route, you would have to ford the lethal river where he nearly lost his cat—and where a sudden rush of water claimed the life of his dinner guest, one Dr. Sinclair.

The property has kept the name that Butler gave it, “Mesopotamia,” which means “between two rivers”. On the other side of the wide Rangitata is a station which some later enthusiasts named Erewhon. It is now a breeding farm for Clydesdale horses. The proprietor told me proudly that his farm was so famous, someone had named a book after it!

After two years, with the farm running smoothly, Butler spent more time in the relative civilization of Christchurch, one hundred difficult miles away. He set exams in Greek and Latin for the newly founded Christ’s College and frequented the Christchurch Club, where he became suspect for his support of Darwin. He also fell in love with a pretty young musician called Mary who sang in the choir at the Avonside Holy Trinity Church. 

Mary chose another suitor. Either because he was heartbroken or because his sheep had made enough money, Butler sold up and returned to England after five years, a decision he regretted for the rest of his life.

The Southern Alps had entered his deepest consciousness. It was a place where he was free to mould his own identity, among “the vastness of mountain and plain, the river and sky.”  Yet he settled for rooms in a scruffy London square where he would always be mindful of his father’s disapproval. 

Butler's bachelor rooms at Cliffords Inn.

Upon his return to England, Butler set out to recreate his 1850s lair at Cambridge.  In September 1864, he took an apartment in near London’s busy Fleet Street, at Clifford’s Inn, a complex built in the 1600s around a square city garden known for its stray cats. It was an “Inn of Chancery” and largely populated by law students, where he could pursue the life of the incarnate bachelor. 

For Butler, home was a place to smoke or play the piano, and above all feel safe from criticism. He ventured out to art classes—and every summer he went abroad for a long walking holiday, almost always to the mountains, favoring the Sud-Tirol in northern Italy. Butler never married, though he was not celibate. When he grew too close with Isabella, the beautiful daughter of an Italian innkeeper, he “sported the oak on her”  avoiding that town for a few years.

These sojourns tended to turn into working holidays. Butler had so much curiosity and perverse originality that he was always getting new ideas for monographs. Switzerland gave him engaging travel books (Alps and Sanctuaries, Ex Voto), and new ideas about religious folk art. From Sicily, he came home with revisionist theories about Homer’s Odyssey – insisting that it describes a journey around the coast of Sicily and that it was written by a woman (The Authoress of the Odyssey). Don’t dismiss him as crackpot before you have read his arguments and your Greek is as good as his. His translations of the Iliad and Odyssey are still in print, as paperback classics.

Butler Self-portrait, Christchurch City Art Gallery

Back in London, Butler exhibited his paintings and did much of his reading and thinking in the British Museum Reading Room. For the next forty years, he entertained a few non-threatening friends, wrote books, played and composed music.         

A man of ideas, Butler made major contributions to our thoughts about evolution, education, religion, art, Homer, Shakespeare, criminology, and parenting, showing how child cruelty gets passed from generation to generation.  He even took on industrialization—it was Butler who first perceived that one day the tables would be turned and we would work for our machines.

Various felines appear in his Notebooks, which became hugely successful when published after his death, and were much admired by Bernard Shaw, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf.    We all suffer, he wrote, from too many mouse-ideas, “they keep turning up again and again, and nibble, nibble…The best way to keep them down is to have a few good strong cat-ideas.”

Sadly, Butler never got over the pain he suffered in his childhood home or his resentment of his parents. In New Zealand he might have grown free of them, but not back in England. Still, he found a refuge in his writing.  His last book, Erewhon Revisited, returns in vivid imagination to the risky horseback journey through the gorges, and across the churning rivers.

Roger Robinson is an essayist, critic, editor and academic. He has held teaching positions at Victoria University, and is also a world-ranked runner, television commentator and announcer. His most recent book is the acclaimed When Running Made History, where Samuel Butler makes a cameo appearance.  

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