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Literary Locations #54: Langar House

John Baird
Fri 17 Apr, 2020

This week we visit Langar House, birthplace of the incomparable Samuel Butler, another largely underrated and rebellious Notts writer.

In 1835 Samuel Butler was born at Langar Rectory just outside the village of Langar, near Bingham. Now known as Langar House, the building was sold by the Church Commissioners in the 1950s after is became too impractical and expensive to be used by the parish. The grade II listed Queen Anne house is described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘The Buildings of England’ as a “handsome early 18th-century home”. The grand house boasts eight bedrooms – plus a separate cottage – and sits within five acres of land. It is found at the end of a tree-lined driveway near the medieval, grade I listed, St Andrew’s church.

Samuel Butler’s father, Reverend Thomas Butler, was rector of St Andrew's between 1834 and 1876 during which time he rebuilt the rundown church and tower. He also provided a school for the village and oversaw the restoration of another local church, St. John of Beverley.

Reverend Thomas had been pushed into the clergy by his father, a doctor who had worked his way to Cambridge University before becoming Headmaster of Shrewsbury School and later Bishop of Lichfield. Thomas wanted young Samuel to follow him into the church, but our young rebel had other ideas. He longed to escape the suffocating moral atmosphere of Langar Rectory where he had received his early education and been beaten and bullied by his father.

“He never liked me, nor I him ..." wrote Samuel and aged twelve he was dispatched to the school where his grandfather had been the head. Neither strict regime suited Samuel’s independent and heretical nature but he did go on to attend St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First in the Classical Tripos.

A year later, after a final altercation with his father, he set sail aboard the Roman Emperor ship for the five-month journey to New Zealand. He was getting as far away from Langer Rectory as he could, rejecting everything his father stood for and the constraints of Christianity.

“My most implacable enemy from childhood onward has certainly been my father.”

On arriving in New Zealand Samuel Butler sought unclaimed land. A leading cross-country runner at school, he required all his stamina, courage and initiative as he explored the mountainous terrain through a series of demanding expeditions, eventually settling in 55,000 acres where he built a sod and a cob cottage which he filled with books and pictures. He even managed get a piano carted up in a bullock dray to this remote home.

Despite his inexperience he worked the land as a sheep farmer, establishing a successful sheep run that employed seven men. Samuel made many friends and was able to share his interests in art and music with the community of Christchurch where he was increasingly spending his time. It was in New Zealand that he began his literary career with publications that include several commentaries on Charles Darwin's ‘On the Origin of Species’. Darwin’s book had a great influence on Samuel who had renounced Christianity for evolution. It was a position that he would later question.

It’s claimed that he proposed marriage in 1864 to Mary Brittan who rejected his love, and that this led to his abrupt move from New Zealand. He had been urged to return to England by Charles Pauli, an Oxford educated accountant who Samuel had come to know intimately. After selling his sheep station and returning to England with Pauli, Samuel continued to provide him with a substantial financial support in the form of a regular allowance that lasted a further 34 years. Samuel had close relationships with men and women but never married. For many years he patronised female prostitutes, at a rate of one visit a week.

“Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.”

Wealthy, healthy and stimulated by his experiences in New Zealand, Samuel Butler settled at Clifford's Inn near Fleet Street, London, and was inspired to create. He trained as an artist, exhibiting oil paintings at the Royal Academy (from 1869 to 1876), he also became an innovative photographer, a composer of music, and a prolific writer.

During his lifetime, one piece of work established Samuel Butler’s reputation as a writer. That was 'Erewhon' (1872), its title an anagram of ‘nowhere’. The first draft of this satiric fantasy was written in New Zealand and the country informs its setting and content. Likened to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, the inventive, prophetic and provocative dystopia was later acknowledged by Aldous Huxley to have influenced his ‘Brave New World’.

Despite the success of ‘Erewhon’, by 1876 Samuel was struggling for money as a result of bad investments and the continuing funding of Charles Pauli. He gave lectures to working men's clubs and focused on his literature, producing a range of books and essays, even attempting to prove that ‘The Odyssey’ was written by a young Sicilian woman. His provocative ‘Evolution, Old and New’ (1879) led to a bitter relationship with Charles Darwin, the man whose work had previously saved him from the doctrine of Langar Rectory. Samuel had rejected Darwinism after finding his own relationship with God. He was not anti-evolution but, unlike Darwin, believed that creatures transmitted their acquired habits to their offspring as unconscious memories, views on evolution that were more aligned to those of the Notts born poet Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather). Samuel’s work succeeded in uniting much of the academic and scientific community against Charles Darwin but, after rejecting both religion and Darwinism, Samuel had become a rather isolated figure.

“A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.”

Samuel Butler didn’t return to Langer. His fractured relationship with his parents further deteriorated after the second publication of ‘Erewhon’ which, unlike the first edition, named Samuel Butler as the author. Between 1872 and 1884 he wrote ‘The Way of All Flesh’, described as “one of the great time-bombs of literature”. Dissatisfied with his manuscript, and rightly fearing it would cause outrage within his family and the reading public, Samuel delayed its publication, intending to later revisit it. On his death-bed in 1902, he instructed that it be published in its present form.

‘The Way of All Flesh’ (1903) is his masterpiece. Largely autobiographical, the book influenced the anti-Victorian reaction, helping to challenge Victorian values and conventions. A stinging satire on parental and religious hypocrisy, ‘The Way of All Flesh’ follows four generations of the Pontifex family. The character Ernest Pontifex is formed from Samuel’s early self and Overton, the story’s narrator, is the mouthpiece for the older Samuel. Theobald and Christina are based on his harsh, unjust and objectionable parents. The story takes much from the author’s time at Langar - which he calls Battersby-on-the-Hill - where he had to “steal my own birth-right”. The conflict between father and son is prominent in the story as is Darwin's theory of evolution. Narrated with a cutting wit and lack of sentiment, the Modern Library ranked ‘The Way of All Flesh’ twelfth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

“Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.”

Intensely concerned with religion and evolution, Samuel Butler took his own unconventional stance and spent his life battling the institutions and morality of his age. His admirers included George Bernard Shaw and E. M. Forster.


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Samuel Butler

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