Hailed by George Bernard Shaw as "one of the summits of human achievement," Butler's autobiographical account of a harsh upbringing and troubled adulthood satirizes Victorian hypocrisy in its chronicle of the life and loves of Ernest Pontifex. Along the way, it offers a powerful indictment of 19th-century England's major institutions.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the book - certainly when it was written - is the negative portrayal of religion. Again we get sharp satire of all the different types and manifestations of Christianity in Victorian England - the parson who seeks only interest; Puseyite hypocrites, evangelical fervour and Ernest's own brand of inept vacillation, before breaking with the church and resigning from holy orders.
Overall, it's a very interesting read; the structure is rambling and the characterisation broad brush, but it is teeming with ideas and satire being thrown out on to the page at a great rate. Worth a read for anyone with an interest in C19th culture and literature.
The dark-humored, Daniel-Defoesque novel starts off very slowly but the third volume of the book picks up and is in fact quite exciting.
There are two great flaws which prevent the novel from being canonical: it has too many references to politicans, theologians, scientists and poets in 19th century so contemporary readers will fail to understand the book; and as an invective against against society and religion, this book uses the rhetoric of religion (didactic cant), which fails.
Even though it was published only two years after the Victorian era ended, it seems very modernist in its take on reason/logic, but also an extension of George Eliot's ideas in some ways. The book points out that we think we live in a world defined by reason, but we resolutely do not, despite the trappings of it: "They [reasonable people] settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess – these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge" (306). The book ends up concluding that it is impossible to separate the subjective from the objective, the inner from the outer, the fact from the feeling:
The trouble is that in the end we shall be driven to admit the unity of the universe so completely as to be compelled to deny that there is either an external or an internal, but must see everything both as external and internal at one and the same time, subject and object – external and internal – being unified as much as everything else. This will knock our whole system over, but then every system has got to be knocked over by something.
Much the best way out of this difficulty is to go in for separation between internal and external – subject and object – when we find this convenient, and unity between the same when we find unity convenient. This is illogical, but [...] all philosophies that I have ever seen lead ultimately either to some gross absurdity, or else to the conclusion already more than once insisted on in these pages, that the just shall live by faith, that is to say that sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it most conveniently without asking too many questions for conscience sake. Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly. (327-8)
Forget modernist, this seems downright postmodernist: the Grand Narratives have failed us, so all you can really do is muddle through with the stories you've got, and they'll help you as much as they do, and not only is that okay, but maybe even it's for the best?
I vaguely remember the philosophy of the book, as thankfully I took notes, but do not at all remember the actual events of the book, even upon rereading those notes, so take that as you will. I seem to recall it belongs to that genre of post-Victorian takes on the Victorian era that still seems a little too Victorian for its own good (like Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady). That is to say, it's trying to push a new philosophy, but it's married to the most tedious aspects of the old plotting. The modernists would do this kind of thing much better.
I wrote "This doesn't make sense" in 1971 to this remark by Pryer: "...If a vice in spite of such efforts can still hold its own among the most polished nations, it must be founded on some immutable truth or fact in human nature, and must have some compensatory advantage which we cannot altogether afford to dispense with."
It does now. Just wasn't cynical enough back then