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This article is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

Samuel Butler, or The Art of Being Funny about Religion Horatio Morpurgo
‘In or about December 1910 human character changed,’ Virginia Woolf once observed in a discussion of literary technique - a change she traced to ‘the works of Samuel Butler’. Her praise came too late to be any consolation to its object. Born in 1835, Butler had pursued a chequered career as a kind of freelance intellectual trouble-maker. Written off by his Victorian contemporaries as a one-book wonder, he never - in his life-time - repeated the success of a first novel, Erewhon (1874). Obliged to publish everything he wrote at his own expense, Butler cocked one last snook at his detractors by arranging that his masterpiece, The Way of All Flesh, written during the 1870s and 1880s, should appear only posthumously. His dazzling and disturbing gift to the new century therefore went to press in 1903, the year after his death in a North London nursing home.

Woolf was far from alone in her admiration for the novel. Other Edwardian readers, in full revolt against the world-view of their elders, seized on Butler as their prophet and on The Way of All Flesh as their book. Butler’s Notebooks, a selection made by a friend to meet the sudden and growing demand for his work, appeared in 1912. To those growing up after the First World War, his strictures on English middlebrow culture had come to seem more mercilessly on target than ever. In his 1921 Preface to Back To Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw could refer to Butler’s ‘eminence’ as ...

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