Samuel Butler – Erewhon Man

Samuel Butler 1858 (Age 23)- Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Butler 1858 by Published by Dutton, NY, 1920 – Erewhon Revisited (free pdf from archive.org). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Butler was born on December 4, 1835, at Langar, near Nottingham, to a loving but unreliable mother who often betrayed him to his harsh father. He was educated at Shrewsbury and Cambridge and (like Darwin) broke off religious studies. On September 30, 1859, he sailed for New Zealand, arriving some five months later. With money sent by his father, he bought land at Forest Creek, a tributary of the upper Rangitata, and then at nearby Bush Stream, calling it “between the rivers” in Greek: Mesopotamia. Here he successfully ran sheep and prophetically wrote that machines would come to dominate our lives, though he had somehow managed to have a piano hauled to that remote, desolate place. He discovered the Whitcome Pass and saw Arthurs, but did not cross it.

On one of his visits to Christchurch he met Charles Paine Pauli, son of a German businessman, who worked as an accountant at the Christchurch Press where Butler had articles published. Pauli was two and a half years younger than Butler, Oxford educated, tall and considered handsome (Butler wrote that a San Francisco barman had called him “the handsomest man God ever sent into San Francisco”), though a photo shows a fairly plain flat face, pouting lips, receding hair and huge bushy Victorian sideburns. In September 1863, Pauli visted Butler at the Carlton Hotel and Butler “was suddenly aware that I had become intimate with a personality quite different to that of anyone whom I had ever known.”

How “intimate” they became we can only guess. Butler patronised female prostitutes, (visiting one weekly for nearly 20 years) but in an even more impersonal way than usual, once in Italy making do with “a half idiot loathesome creature whom I had to put up with as the only thing that was to be got.” Butler’s biographer suggests this is the “side of his nature” with which the poet Robert Bridges “had no sympathy,” when Butler revealed it, “but rather a strong disgust for it, and from that day I avoided him” – but in those days when “men of the world” fairly commonly took their pleasure with “fallen women”, was it that, or something more threatening to Bridges that he revealed?

Butler paid a substantial, regular allowance to Pauli for the next 34 years. In 1864 (Butler craving the intellectual stimulation his sheep-run failed to provide) the two sailed for England together and never returned.

Pauli did not let Butler know where or how he lived for the last 31 years of his life, though they lunched together three times a week (Butler paid) and he hinted at poverty. Only after Pauli’s death in 1899 did Butler learn that Pauli had also collected for many years from the poet and flagellant Algernon Swinburne. It turned out he had lived very comfortably indeed at his two admirers’ expense (he also practised law), but his will did not even mention Butler. Butler ruefully joked that the funeral supper was his first meal even partly at Pauli’s expense. Their relationship seems to have been very like Bosie’s with Wilde, Adler Christiansen’s with Sir Roger Casement, or many another handsome younger man with an older devotee: minimum sex and maximum support, with emotional blackmail if no other kind. Butler’s notebooks refer to ten years “of very great pain” beginning in 1862.

He self-deceptively wrote:

We were two lovers standing sadly by
While our two loves lay dead upon the ground;
Each love had striven not to be the first to die,
But each was gashed with many a cruel wound.

Butler had two other strong male relationships, with butch, buzzcut Henry Festing Jones from 1878 (for some years they shared the prostitute) and the two jointly with twink Hans Faesch from 1893. He wrote a poor poem, “In Memoriam” to Faesch in 1895, and withdrew it after Wilde’s trial, for fear of “being Oscared”, though the poem is more sentimental than indiscreet:

The minutes have flown and he whom we loved is gone,
The like of whom we shall never see.
The wind is heavy with snow and the seas rough,
He has a racking cough and his lungs are weak.

Alfred Cathie, nominally his manservant, seems to have been more: “Alfred is half son, half nurse, always very dear friend and play-mate rather than work-fellow – in fact he is and has been for the last ten years my right hand.”

Butler was a talented pianist and painter (with 11 paintings exhibited by the Royal Academy and one still on show at the Tate), and his early writings promoted evolution, though he later supported Lamarkism and fell out with Darwin. “Erewhon”, a utopian satire set in a landscape very like Mesopotamia, challenged the moral verities of its day. (Utopia is Greek for, Erewhon an anagram of, “nowhere”.) His “Psalm of Montreal” lampoons the prudery of a Canadian museum-keeper who though the nude Greek statue of Discobolus “vulgar”.

He died on June 18, 1902, remembered for his autobiographical “The Way of All Flesh“, but especially for “Erewhon (Dover Thrift Editions)“. A mountain, range, saddle and river bear his name.

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