St Andrews, Langar, Nottinghamshire, known as the Cathedral of the Vale of Belvoir, is an imposing church, rich in historical associations.
There is a fine early 17th Century canopied tomb of Thomas and Philadelphia, Lord and Lady Scroope and alabasters of the Chaworth family from the previous century. There is a marble tablet to Admiral Earl Howe of Langar Hall, the hero of the Glorious First of June, a sea battle against the French in 1794. The image that caught my eye on a recent visit, however, was a picture of the Victorian writer and polymath, Samuel Butler (1835-1902) who was born in the parish rectory. It is an item in an exhibition. There is no grave or memorial. And no wonder.
Samuel Butler’s grandfather was Headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield and his father the Canon of St Andrews for 42 years. Samuel went to Shrewsbury and St John’s College Cambridge, where he gained a First in the Classical Tripos. He left in 1858 to work in London as unpaid assistant to the Rev. Philip Perring, also of Shrewsbury, at St. James, Piccadilly. His family firmly believed he would then study for holy orders and become a member of the clergy himself.
After six months working with the London poor, Samuel knew that he did not want to be ordained. This came, understandably, as a bombshell to his family. He was a little more circumspect in telling them that he no longer believed the religion in which he was brought up. His father tried to steer him back to Cambridge, to try for a fellowship. Failing that he would pay for his son to enter a profession like law or school mastering, or join the army or the diplomatic service. Anything other than Art, which is what Samuel decided he was interested in, and Music and writing. For his father, that would be a life of idleness.
As a compromise, he agreed to go into agriculture but only if he could emigrate to New Zealand, which he did. None of his family came to see him off from Gravesend on Friday September 30th, 1859. However, his father continued to send him an allowance and even some start up capital.
Samuel put his heart and soul into sheep farming, doubling his capital in 4 years. He then returned to London and decided to develop his real interests, going to art college, playing the piano (he was a good pianist and passionate about Handel’s music) and, in particular, turning his hand to writing.
His satirical, autobiographical novels Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh show why his relationship with his family broke down. His father and grandfather were stern disciplinarians. When a boy, Samuel was beaten regularly. He said that his father was his IMPLACABLE ENEMY. His books were an attack, not just on his own family but on the Victorian family as an institution – middle class, propertied, complacent and religious, whose god was defined by negatives. In old age he mellowed towards his grandfather and wrote a memoir in his memory for Shrewsbury School but he never warmed to his father.
His most famous painting is revealing. Completed before he went to art college, Family Prayers is a naïve style depiction of the stifling atmosphere of Butler’s home life.
His novels pursued the same theme. Nevertheless, Butler delayed the publication of The Way of All Flesh, his most scathing work, until after his death. He did not want to poison his relationships beyond endurance. In fact, Butler was ambivalent about his work, publishing a number of books incognito and only announcing his authorship if they achieved a modicum of success. He then expected praise from his parents, which never came.
Butler lived from 1864 in bachelor rooms at Cliffords Inn, London, taking extended holidays in Italy. He became more celebrated after his death than while he lived. George Bernard Shaw declared that The Way of All Flesh was “one of the great books of the world” and John Galsworthy believed it to be the best modern English novel. E M Forster and Lytton Strachey were greatly influenced by it. The latter was one of the first debunkers of the Victorian age and Butler provided him with evidence for what came to be seen as the hypocrisy of the Eminent Victorians.
Life at Langar came to represent the family values which he rejected, but he never completely cut himself off from his family, visiting his father frequently after he retired to Shrewsbury in 1876 until he died ten years later. His early life undoubtedly helped produce the independence of mind that underlay his creativity in art, photography, philosophy, travel writing and, especially, his novels.
Samuel Butler: a Biography by Peter Raby, The Hogarth Press, 1991. A copy is held in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
An on-line exhibition of Butler’s paintings is available on the website: The Samuel Butler Project, St John’s College, Cambridge, from where the above image of Family Prayers was sourced. The College owns the original.