Samuel Butler.

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Transcribed from the 1912 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email
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"We know that all things work together for good to them that love
God." - ROM. viii. 28


Samuel Butleter began to write "The Way of All Flesh" about the year
1872, and was engaged upon it intermittently until 1884. It is
therefore, to a great extent, contemporaneous with "Life and Habit," and
may be taken as a practical illustration of the theory of heredity
embodied in that book. He did not work at it after 1884, but for various
reasons he postponed its publication. He was occupied in other ways, and
he professed himself dissatisfied with it as a whole, and always intended
to rewrite or at any rate to revise it. His death in 1902 prevented him
from doing this, and on his death-bed he gave me clearly to understand
that he wished it to be published in its present form. I found that the
MS. of the fourth and fifth chapters had disappeared, but by consulting
and comparing various notes and sketches, which remained among his
papers, I have been able to supply the missing chapters in a form which I
believe does not differ materially from that which he finally adopted.
With regard to the chronology of the events recorded, the reader will do
well to bear in mind that the main body of the novel is supposed to have
been written in the year 1867, and the last chapter added as a postscript
in 1882.



When I was a small boy at the beginning of the century I remember an old
man who wore knee-breeches and worsted stockings, and who used to hobble
about the street of our village with the help of a stick. He must have
been getting on for eighty in the year 1807, earlier than which date I
suppose I can hardly remember him, for I was born in 1802. A few white
locks hung about his ears, his shoulders were bent and his knees feeble,
but he was still hale, and was much respected in our little world of
Paleham. His name was Pontifex.

His wife was said to be his master; I have been told she brought him a
little money, but it cannot have been much. She was a tall,
square-shouldered person (I have heard my father call her a Gothic woman)
who had insisted on being married to Mr Pontifex when he was young and
too good-natured to say nay to any woman who wooed him. The pair had
lived not unhappily together, for Mr Pontifex's temper was easy and he
soon learned to bow before his wife's more stormy moods.

Mr Pontifex was a carpenter by trade; he was also at one time parish
clerk; when I remember him, however, he had so far risen in life as to be
no longer compelled to work with his own hands. In his earlier days he
had taught himself to draw. I do not say he drew well, but it was
surprising he should draw as well as he did. My father, who took the
living of Paleham about the year 1797, became possessed of a good many of
old Mr Pontifex's drawings, which were always of local subjects, and so
unaffectedly painstaking that they might have passed for the work of some
good early master. I remember them as hanging up framed and glazed in
the study at the Rectory, and tinted, as all else in the room was tinted,
with the green reflected from the fringe of ivy leaves that grew around
the windows. I wonder how they will actually cease and come to an end as
drawings, and into what new phases of being they will then enter.

Not content with being an artist, Mr Pontifex must needs also be a
musician. He built the organ in the church with his own hands, and made
a smaller one which he kept in his own house. He could play as much as
he could draw, not very well according to professional standards, but
much better than could have been expected. I myself showed a taste for
music at an early age, and old Mr Pontifex on finding it out, as he soon
did, became partial to me in consequence.

It may be thought that with so many irons in the fire he could hardly be
a very thriving man, but this was not the case. His father had been a
day labourer, and he had himself begun life with no other capital than
his good sense and good constitution; now, however, there was a goodly
show of timber about his yard, and a look of solid comfort over his whole
establishment. Towards the close of the eighteenth century and not long
before my father came to Paleham, he had taken a farm of about ninety
acres, thus making a considerable rise in life. Along with the farm
there went an old-fashioned but comfortable house with a charming garden
and an orchard. The carpenter's business was now carried on in one of
the outhouses that had once been part of some conventual buildings, the
remains of which could be seen in what was called the Abbey Close. The
house itself, embosomed in honeysuckles and creeping roses, was an
ornament to the whole village, nor were its internal arrangements less
exemplary than its outside was ornamental. Report said that Mrs Pontifex
starched the sheets for her best bed, and I can well believe it.

How well do I remember her parlour half filled with the organ which her
husband had built, and scented with a withered apple or two from the
_pyrus japonica_ that grew outside the house; the picture of the prize ox
over the chimney-piece, which Mr Pontifex himself had painted; the
transparency of the man coming to show light to a coach upon a snowy
night, also by Mr Pontifex; the little old man and little old woman who
told the weather; the china shepherd and shepherdess; the jars of
feathery flowering grasses with a peacock's feather or two among them to
set them off, and the china bowls full of dead rose leaves dried with bay
salt. All has long since vanished and become a memory, faded but still
fragrant to myself.

Nay, but her kitchen - and the glimpses into a cavernous cellar beyond it,
wherefrom came gleams from the pale surfaces of milk cans, or it may be
of the arms and face of a milkmaid skimming the cream; or again her
storeroom, where among other treasures she kept the famous lipsalve which
was one of her especial glories, and of which she would present a shape
yearly to those whom she delighted to honour. She wrote out the recipe
for this and gave it to my mother a year or two before she died, but we
could never make it as she did. When we were children she used sometimes
to send her respects to my mother, and ask leave for us to come and take
tea with her. Right well she used to ply us. As for her temper, we
never met such a delightful old lady in our lives; whatever Mr Pontifex
may have had to put up with, we had no cause for complaint, and then Mr
Pontifex would play to us upon the organ, and we would stand round him
open-mouthed and think him the most wonderfully clever man that ever was
born, except of course our papa.

Mrs Pontifex had no sense of humour, at least I can call to mind no signs
of this, but her husband had plenty of fun in him, though few would have
guessed it from his appearance. I remember my father once sent me down
to his workship to get some glue, and I happened to come when old
Pontifex was in the act of scolding his boy. He had got the lad - a
pudding-headed fellow - by the ear and was saying, "What? Lost
again - smothered o' wit." (I believe it was the boy who was himself
supposed to be a wandering soul, and who was thus addressed as lost.)
"Now, look here, my lad," he continued, "some boys are born stupid, and
thou art one of them; some achieve stupidity - that's thee again, Jim - thou
wast both born stupid and hast greatly increased thy birthright - and
some" (and here came a climax during which the boy's head and ear were
swayed from side to side) "have stupidity thrust upon them, which, if it
please the Lord, shall not be thy case, my lad, for I will thrust
stupidity from thee, though I have to box thine ears in doing so," but I
did not see that the old man really did box Jim's ears, or do more than
pretend to frighten him, for the two understood one another perfectly
well. Another time I remember hearing him call the village rat-catcher
by saying, "Come hither, thou three-days-and-three-nights, thou,"
alluding, as I afterwards learned, to the rat-catcher's periods of
intoxication; but I will tell no more of such trifles. My father's face
would always brighten when old Pontifex's name was mentioned. "I tell
you, Edward," he would say to me, "old Pontifex was not only an able man,
but he was one of the very ablest men that ever I knew."

This was more than I as a young man was prepared to stand. "My dear
father," I answered, "what did he do? He could draw a little, but could
he to save his life have got a picture into the Royal Academy exhibition?
He built two organs and could play the Minuet in _Samson_ on one and the
March in _Scipio_ on the other; he was a good carpenter and a bit of a
wag; he was a good old fellow enough, but why make him out so much abler
than he was?"

"My boy," returned my father, "you must not judge by the work, but by the
work in connection with the surroundings. Could Giotto or Filippo Lippi,
think you, have got a picture into the Exhibition? Would a single one of
those frescoes we went to see when we were at Padua have the remotest
chance of being hung, if it were sent in for exhibition now? Why, the
Academy people would be so outraged that they would not even write to
poor Giotto to tell him to come and take his fresco away. Phew!"
continued he, waxing warm, "if old Pontifex had had Cromwell's chances he
would have done all that Cromwell did, and have done it better; if he had
had Giotto's chances he would have done all that Giotto did, and done it
no worse; as it was, he was a village carpenter, and I will undertake to
say he never scamped a job in the whole course of his life."

"But," said I, "we cannot judge people with so many 'ifs.' If old
Pontifex had lived in Giotto's time he might have been another Giotto,
but he did not live in Giotto's time."

"I tell you, Edward," said my father with some severity, "we must judge
men not so much by what they do, as by what they make us feel that they
have it in them to do. If a man has done enough either in painting,
music or the affairs of life, to make me feel that I might trust him in
an emergency he has done enough. It is not by what a man has actually
put upon his canvas, nor yet by the acts which he has set down, so to
speak, upon the canvas of his life that I will judge him, but by what he
makes me feel that he felt and aimed at. If he has made me feel that he
felt those things to be loveable which I hold loveable myself I ask no
more; his grammar may have been imperfect, but still I have understood
him; he and I are _en rapport_; and I say again, Edward, that old
Pontifex was not only an able man, but one of the very ablest men I ever

Against this there was no more to be said, and my sisters eyed me to
silence. Somehow or other my sisters always did eye me to silence when I
differed from my father.

"Talk of his successful son," snorted my father, whom I had fairly
roused. "He is not fit to black his father's boots. He has his
thousands of pounds a year, while his father had perhaps three thousand
shillings a year towards the end of his life. He _is_ a successful man;
but his father, hobbling about Paleham Street in his grey worsted
stockings, broad brimmed hat and brown swallow-tailed coat was worth a
hundred of George Pontifexes, for all his carriages and horses and the
airs he gives himself."

"But yet," he added, "George Pontifex is no fool either." And this
brings us to the second generation of the Pontifex family with whom we
need concern ourselves.


Old Mr Pontifex had married in the year 1750, but for fifteen years his
wife bore no children. At the end of that time Mrs Pontifex astonished
the whole village by showing unmistakable signs of a disposition to
present her husband with an heir or heiress. Hers had long ago been
considered a hopeless case, and when on consulting the doctor concerning
the meaning of certain symptoms she was informed of their significance,
she became very angry and abused the doctor roundly for talking nonsense.
She refused to put so much as a piece of thread into a needle in
anticipation of her confinement and would have been absolutely
unprepared, if her neighbours had not been better judges of her condition
than she was, and got things ready without telling her anything about it.
Perhaps she feared Nemesis, though assuredly she knew not who or what
Nemesis was; perhaps she feared the doctor had made a mistake and she
should be laughed at; from whatever cause, however, her refusal to
recognise the obvious arose, she certainly refused to recognise it, until
one snowy night in January the doctor was sent for with all urgent speed
across the rough country roads. When he arrived he found two patients,
not one, in need of his assistance, for a boy had been born who was in
due time christened George, in honour of his then reigning majesty.

To the best of my belief George Pontifex got the greater part of his
nature from this obstinate old lady, his mother - a mother who though she
loved no one else in the world except her husband (and him only after a
fashion) was most tenderly attached to the unexpected child of her old
age; nevertheless she showed it little.

The boy grew up into a sturdy bright-eyed little fellow, with plenty of
intelligence, and perhaps a trifle too great readiness at book learning.
Being kindly treated at home, he was as fond of his father and mother as
it was in his nature to be of anyone, but he was fond of no one else. He
had a good healthy sense of _meum_, and as little of _tuum_ as he could
help. Brought up much in the open air in one of the best situated and
healthiest villages in England, his little limbs had fair play, and in
those days children's brains were not overtasked as they now are; perhaps
it was for this very reason that the boy showed an avidity to learn. At
seven or eight years old he could read, write and sum better than any
other boy of his age in the village. My father was not yet rector of
Paleham, and did not remember George Pontifex's childhood, but I have
heard neighbours tell him that the boy was looked upon as unusually quick
and forward. His father and mother were naturally proud of their
offspring, and his mother was determined that he should one day become
one of the kings and councillors of the earth.

It is one thing however to resolve that one's son shall win some of
life's larger prizes, and another to square matters with fortune in this
respect. George Pontifex might have been brought up as a carpenter and
succeeded in no other way than as succeeding his father as one of the
minor magnates of Paleham, and yet have been a more truly successful man
than he actually was - for I take it there is not much more solid success
in this world than what fell to the lot of old Mr and Mrs Pontifex; it
happened, however, that about the year 1780, when George was a boy of
fifteen, a sister of Mrs Pontifex's, who had married a Mr Fairlie, came
to pay a few days' visit at Paleham. Mr Fairlie was a publisher, chiefly
of religious works, and had an establishment in Paternoster Row; he had
risen in life, and his wife had risen with him. No very close relations
had been maintained between the sisters for some years, and I forget
exactly how it came about that Mr and Mrs Fairlie were guests in the
quiet but exceedingly comfortable house of their sister and brother-in-
law; but for some reason or other the visit was paid, and little George
soon succeeded in making his way into his uncle and aunt's good graces. A
quick, intelligent boy with a good address, a sound constitution, and
coming of respectable parents, has a potential value which a practised
business man who has need of many subordinates is little likely to
overlook. Before his visit was over Mr Fairlie proposed to the lad's
father and mother that he should put him into his own business, at the
same time promising that if the boy did well he should not want some one
to bring him forward. Mrs Pontifex had her son's interest too much at
heart to refuse such an offer, so the matter was soon arranged, and about
a fortnight after the Fairlies had left, George was sent up by coach to
London, where he was met by his uncle and aunt, with whom it was arranged
that he should live.

This was George's great start in life. He now wore more fashionable
clothes than he had yet been accustomed to, and any little rusticity of
gait or pronunciation which he had brought from Paleham, was so quickly
and completely lost that it was ere long impossible to detect that he had
not been born and bred among people of what is commonly called education.
The boy paid great attention to his work, and more than justified the
favourable opinion which Mr Fairlie had formed concerning him. Sometimes
Mr Fairlie would send him down to Paleham for a few days' holiday, and
ere long his parents perceived that he had acquired an air and manner of
talking different from any that he had taken with him from Paleham. They
were proud of him, and soon fell into their proper places, resigning all
appearance of a parental control, for which indeed there was no kind of
necessity. In return, George was always kindly to them, and to the end
of his life retained a more affectionate feeling towards his father and
mother than I imagine him ever to have felt again for man, woman, or

George's visits to Paleham were never long, for the distance from London
was under fifty miles and there was a direct coach, so that the journey
was easy; there was not time, therefore, for the novelty to wear off
either on the part of the young man or of his parents. George liked the
fresh country air and green fields after the darkness to which he had
been so long accustomed in Paternoster Row, which then, as now, was a
narrow gloomy lane rather than a street. Independently of the pleasure
of seeing the familiar faces of the farmers and villagers, he liked also
being seen and being congratulated on growing up such a fine-looking and
fortunate young fellow, for he was not the youth to hide his light under
a bushel. His uncle had had him taught Latin and Greek of an evening; he
had taken kindly to these languages and had rapidly and easily mastered
what many boys take years in acquiring. I suppose his knowledge gave him
a self-confidence which made itself felt whether he intended it or not;
at any rate, he soon began to pose as a judge of literature, and from
this to being a judge of art, architecture, music and everything else,
the path was easy. Like his father, he knew the value of money, but he
was at once more ostentatious and less liberal than his father; while yet
a boy he was a thorough little man of the world, and did well rather upon
principles which he had tested by personal experiment, and recognised as
principles, than from those profounder convictions which in his father
were so instinctive that he could give no account concerning them.

His father, as I have said, wondered at him and let him alone. His son
had fairly distanced him, and in an inarticulate way the father knew it
perfectly well. After a few years he took to wearing his best clothes
whenever his son came to stay with him, nor would he discard them for his
ordinary ones till the young man had returned to London. I believe old
Mr Pontifex, along with his pride and affection, felt also a certain fear
of his son, as though of something which he could not thoroughly
understand, and whose ways, notwithstanding outward agreement, were
nevertheless not as his ways. Mrs Pontifex felt nothing of this; to her
George was pure and absolute perfection, and she saw, or thought she saw,
with pleasure, that he resembled her and her family in feature as well as
in disposition rather than her husband and his.

When George was about twenty-five years old his uncle took him into
partnership on very liberal terms. He had little cause to regret this
step. The young man infused fresh vigour into a concern that was already
vigorous, and by the time he was thirty found himself in the receipt of
not less than 1500 pounds a year as his share of the profits. Two years
later he married a lady about seven years younger than himself, who
brought him a handsome dowry. She died in 1805, when her youngest child
Alethea was born, and her husband did not marry again.


In the early years of the century five little children and a couple of
nurses began to make periodical visits to Paleham. It is needless to say
they were a rising generation of Pontifexes, towards whom the old couple,
their grandparents, were as tenderly deferential as they would have been
to the children of the Lord Lieutenant of the County. Their names were
Eliza, Maria, John, Theobald (who like myself was born in 1802), and
Alethea. Mr Pontifex always put the prefix "master" or "miss" before the
names of his grandchildren, except in the case of Alethea, who was his
favourite. To have resisted his grandchildren would have been as
impossible for him as to have resisted his wife; even old Mrs Pontifex
yielded before her son's children, and gave them all manner of licence
which she would never have allowed even to my sisters and myself, who
stood next in her regard. Two regulations only they must attend to; they
must wipe their shoes well on coming into the house, and they must not
overfeed Mr Pontifex's organ with wind, nor take the pipes out.

By us at the Rectory there was no time so much looked forward to as the
annual visit of the little Pontifexes to Paleham. We came in for some of
the prevailing licence; we went to tea with Mrs Pontifex to meet her
grandchildren, and then our young friends were asked to the Rectory to
have tea with us, and we had what we considered great times. I fell
desperately in love with Alethea, indeed we all fell in love with each
other, plurality and exchange whether of wives or husbands being openly
and unblushingly advocated in the very presence of our nurses. We were
very merry, but it is so long ago that I have forgotten nearly everything
save that we _were_ very merry. Almost the only thing that remains with
me as a permanent impression was the fact that Theobald one day beat his
nurse and teased her, and when she said she should go away cried out,
"You shan't go away - I'll keep you on purpose to torment you."

One winter's morning, however, in the year 1811, we heard the church bell
tolling while we were dressing in the back nursery and were told it was
for old Mrs Pontifex. Our man-servant John told us and added with grim
levity that they were ringing the bell to come and take her away. She
had had a fit of paralysis which had carried her off quite suddenly. It
was very shocking, the more so because our nurse assured us that if God
chose we might all have fits of paralysis ourselves that very day and be
taken straight off to the Day of Judgement. The Day of Judgement indeed,
according to the opinion of those who were most likely to know, would not
under any circumstances be delayed more than a few years longer, and then
the whole world would be burned, and we ourselves be consigned to an
eternity of torture, unless we mended our ways more than we at present
seemed at all likely to do. All this was so alarming that we fell to
screaming and made such a hullabaloo that the nurse was obliged for her
own peace to reassure us. Then we wept, but more composedly, as we
remembered that there would be no more tea and cakes for us now at old
Mrs Pontifex's.

On the day of the funeral, however, we had a great excitement; old Mr
Pontifex sent round a penny loaf to every inhabitant of the village
according to a custom still not uncommon at the beginning of the century;
the loaf was called a dole. We had never heard of this custom before,
besides, though we had often heard of penny loaves, we had never before
seen one; moreover, they were presents to us as inhabitants of the
village, and we were treated as grown up people, for our father and
mother and the servants had each one loaf sent them, but only one. We
had never yet suspected that we were inhabitants at all; finally, the
little loaves were new, and we were passionately fond of new bread, which
we were seldom or never allowed to have, as it was supposed not to be
good for us. Our affection, therefore, for our old friend had to stand
against the combined attacks of archaeological interest, the rights of
citizenship and property, the pleasantness to the eye and goodness for

Online LibrarySamuel ButlerThe Way of All Flesh → online text (page 1 of 36)