Victorian Literature Samuel Butler
David Gillott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0125


Samuel Butler (b. 1835–d. 1902), the iconoclastic writer who challenged a broad range of orthodoxies, is now best known for two novels—Erewhon (1872) and The Way of All Flesh (published posthumously in 1903)—and for his quarrel with Charles Darwin. He read Classics at St John’s College, Cambridge before embarking on a profitable sheep-farming venture in New Zealand (1860–1864) rather than following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a clergyman. The money he made in New Zealand gave him the financial freedom, albeit precarious at times, to pursue his interests in very diverse fields, which are reflected in this bibliography. Butler published four book-length works on evolution—Life and Habit (1878), Evolution, Old and New (1879), Unconscious Memory (1880), and Luck, or Cunning? (1887)—together with several shorter pieces. In these he set out his neo-Lamarckian evolutionary theory in opposition to Darwinian natural selection and attacked what he believed to be Darwin’s unethical behavior. Butler’s novel, The Fair Haven (1873), is a clever critique of contemporary biblical criticism that incorporates much of his earlier anonymous pamphlet, The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1865), in which he argues that Christ never died on the cross. Many of his ideas on the development of Christianity are illustrated in Erewhon, The Way of All Flesh, and in his late work Erewhon Revisited (1901). As well as being a writer, Butler was also an artist, having had paintings displayed at several Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. He wrote two books of art criticism, Alps and Sanctuaries (1881) and Ex Voto (1888), together with some shorter articles for periodicals. These offer an alternative and typically iconoclastic account of the Renaissance. Butler reacquainted himself with classical Greek literature in the mid-1880s and wrote prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey and published The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897), in which he argued that the Odyssey was written by a young Sicilian woman. Butler was also a talented musician and had a life-long admiration for Handel. This aspect of his wide-ranging interests has attracted little critical attention, but a brief list of relevant articles is provided. Butler’s critical acclaim was at its peak from about 1910 to 1920, but there is now something of a revival in interest.

General Overviews

The starting point for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the breadth of Butler’s work should be Paradis 2007. This is the only edited collection of essays on Butler and covers topics such as music and Butler’s photography that are seldom covered elsewhere. Whereas several other overviews discuss Butler’s influence on later thought, Jeffers 1981 is unusual in that it looks back to the 18th century and finds parallels between Butler and writers such as Samuel Johnson and Lord Chesterfield, which have not been noted by other critics. The chapter on Butler in Turner 1974 situates him among similar 19th-century thinkers who rejected both an unequivocal embracing of religion and the alternative endorsement of the principles of scientific naturalism. With the exception of Paradis 2007 and Jeffers 1981, all the other general overviews are taken from the early- to mid-20th century, but they nevertheless provide valuable commentary on Butler’s ideas at a time when his reputation—whether good or bad—was much more prominent than it was later in the century. Joad 1924 is the best of the several commentaries on Butler’s ideas published near the peak of interest in him and discusses his evolutionary ideas in relation to those of Henri Bergson and his practical philosophy in relation to William James’s pragmatism. Stillman 1932, too, places Butler in the tradition of Bergson and James but is much more of a literary biography and puts forward the case that Butler’s ideas were ahead of his time. In contrast, Holt 1964 argues that it is misleading to regard Butler solely as a “modern” and shows how Butler’s main ideas were very much in keeping with his contemporaries. Both Holt 1964 and Furbank 1948 adopt a psychological approach to Butler’s ideas and attempt to demonstrate how they relate to Butler the man. Gillott 2015 is the most recent monograph on Butler. It includes chapters on all of Butler’s major works and provides an overview of his Lamarckian ideas as manifested across his entire oeuvre and not just in his evolutionary works.

  • Furbank, P. N. Samuel Butler (1835–1902). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

    This short work seeks to refute the savage attack on Butler’s personality in Muggeridge 1936 (cited under Biographies) and provides useful psychological background on Butler’s main ideas.

  • Gillott, David. Samuel Butler against the Professionals: Rethinking Lamarckism 1860–1900. Oxford: Legenda, 2015.

    A wide-ranging discussion of Butler’s anti-professionalism, apparent across his whole works, and of how this is informed by his Lamarckian evolutionary ideas.

  • Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. New York: Twayne, 1964.

    A critical study of Butler’s ideas rather than his life, and seeks to explain these ideas by reference to Butler’s psychological make up. Argues that Butler’s ideas are very much of the Victorian period. See also Biblical Criticism.

  • Jeffers, Thomas L. Samuel Butler Revalued. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

    Usefully positions Butler’s ideas in relation to those of 18th-century thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Samuel Johnson, and Lord Chesterfield.

  • Joad, C. E. M. Samuel Butler (1835–1902). Tonbridge, UK: Leonard Parsons, 1924.

    Discusses Butler’s evolutionary ideas with reference to Henri Bergson’s creative evolution. Includes a chapter on the important topic of Butler’s anti-professionalism.

  • Paradis, James G., ed. Samuel Butler, Victorian against the Grain: A Critical Overview. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

    Indispensible collection covering the whole of Butler’s works, which should be the first port of call for anyone wishing to orientate themselves with Butler. It includes an extremely comprehensive bibliography, which is the best currently available in print. See also Bibliographies.

  • Stillman, Clara G. Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern. New York: Viking, 1932.

    In addition to several biographical chapters, includes individual chapters on Butler’s major works, which are strong on the philosophical background of Butler’s ideas. As the title suggests, Stillman seeks to position Butler’s ideas within her own contemporary modernist milieu.

  • Turner, Frank Miller. Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

    Includes a chapter on Butler that discusses him alongside several other 19th-century figures who sought to negotiate a path between faith and reason, an understanding of which is essential to any study of Butler.

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