Jan 23 2021

Random Readings from 2020 no 5: Samuel Butler and the Victorian Reading Public

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his coming-of-age novel The Way of All Flesh from 1873-1884, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1903.

Regarding the reading habits of Victorian England, he notes that Mill’s On Liberty (1859) didn’t make much of a splash when it debuted. For this passage, one should also remember that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1858, while Cardinal Newman had converted to Catholicism in 1845.

First, however, a little setup with the novel’s main character Ernest:

He did not understand that if he waited and listened and observed, another idea of some kind would probably occur to him some day, and that the development of this would in its turn suggest still further ones.  He did not yet know that the very worst way of getting hold of ideas is to go hunting expressly after them.  The way to get them is to study something of which one is fond, and to note down whatever crosses one’s mind in reference to it, either during study or relaxation, in a little note-book kept always in the waistcoat pocket.  Ernest has come to know all about this now, but it took him a long time to find it out, for this is not the kind of thing that is taught at schools and universities. Nor yet did he know that ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves, the most original still differing but slightly from the parents that have given rise to them.  Life is like a fugue, everything must grow out of the subject and there must be nothing new.  Nor, again, did he see how hard it is to say where one idea ends and another begins, nor yet how closely this is paralleled in the difficulty of saying where a life begins or ends, or an action or indeed anything, there being an unity in spite of infinite multitude, and an infinite multitude in spite of unity.  He thought that ideas came into clever people’s heads by a kind of spontaneous germination, without parentage in the thoughts of others or the course of observation; for as yet he believed in genius, of which he well knew that he had none, if it was the fine frenzied thing he thought it was…. (The Way of All Flesh, (Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1964) ch. XLVI, p. 212)

Now to Butler’s thoughts on the reading habits of the Victorians:

It must be remembered that the year 1858 was the last of a term during which the peace of the Church of England was singularly unbroken.  Between 1844, when “Vestiges of Creation” appeared, and 1859, when “Essays and Reviews” marked the commencement of that storm which raged until many years afterwards, there was not a single book published in England that caused serious commotion within the bosom of the Church.  Perhaps Buckle’s “History of Civilisation” and Mill’s “Liberty” were the most alarming, but they neither of them reached the substratum of the reading public, and Ernest and his friends were ignorant of their very existence.  The Evangelical movement, with the exception to which I shall revert presently, had become almost a matter of ancient history.  Tractarianism had subsided into a tenth day’s wonder; it was at work, but it was not noisy.  The “Vestiges” were forgotten before Ernest went up to Cambridge; the Catholic aggression scare had lost its terrors; Ritualism was still unknown by the general provincial public, and the Gorham and Hampden controversies were defunct some years since; Dissent was not spreading; the Crimean war was the one engrossing subject, to be followed by the Indian Mutiny and the Franco-Austrian war.  These great events turned men’s minds from speculative subjects, and there was no enemy to the faith which could arouse even a languid interest.  At no time probably since the beginning of the century could an ordinary observer have detected less sign of coming disturbance than at that of which I am writing. (The Way of All Flesh, ch. XLVII, p. 214)

That no one read much of Mill at the beginning of his philosophical career reminds me of how the well-read historian and analyst of foreign affairs, Walter Laqueur (1921-2018), once noted that very few folks at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th ever read Marx’s Das Kapital in its entirety (Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2009) p. 61).