A Reader's Guide to Samuel Butler & The Way of all Flesh
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According to Samuel Butler’s biographer, Peter Raby, The Way of All Flesh is “an uneven, extraordinary and unforgettable book, evoking strong emotions of recognition and horror, and shattering forever the sacred English totem, the idea of the family.” This novel is a cry from the heart against the inhumanity of parents to their children, it is a challenge to all types of dogmatism and authority, and a scathing expose of hypocrisy and greed.
Hailed by George Bernard Shaw as “one of the summits of human achievement”, The Way of all Flesh covers five generations of a family, focusing chiefly on the relationship between Ernest and his father, Theobald. Family sagas of the Victorian and Edwardian eras tended to show a family growing from rags to riches, making successful marriages and money, yet this book turns that plot inside out.
It has to be one of the most ferocious novels ever written, and is a superb indictment of hypocrisy and the evils of fake piety. Its energy, bite and attacks on so many aspects of the 19thC meant that I could never view Victorianism in quite the same way again after reading it.
Today it tends to be a book which many people have heard of, but never read, and have certainly never watched in a film version. And yet it is a book which everyone ought to read. You may not ‘enjoy’ it, but I hope you feel its power and that it makes you stop and think.
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Featured image credit- ‘Family Prayers’, painted by Samuel Butler in 1864. The figures are not likenesses of his family, but the room is at his home at Langar.
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