Trivia about a curious Victorian novelist
1. He thought Homer was a woman. Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Victorian novelist and thinker, wrote translations of both the Iliad (1898) and the Odyssey (1900), and in 1897 wrote a book about his theory, The Authoress of the Odyssey, which presented the ‘evidence’ for the case that Homer, far from being a blind man, or a team of writers, was actually female. Few were convinced, although Robert Graves notably took up the theory in the twentieth century, in his novel Homer’s Daughter.
2. Butler also put forward the view that Shakespeare’s Sonnets tell the story of a homosexual love affair. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered (1899), Butler proposed the idea that the Sonnets chart a gay affair between Shakespeare and the Fair Youth, which was a bold thing to publish in the Victorian era (albeit the Naughty Nineties), and shows the extent to which Butler wished to challenge Victorian prudishness.
3. He wrote a brilliant satire of Victorian society which overturned the utopia genre. Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon (almost, but not quite, ‘nowhere’ backwards, in a nod to the etymology of ‘utopia’) is a sort of looking-glass version of Victorian society. Butler’s novel satirises everything in Victorian Britain from scientific and technological progress to attitudes to banking and finance. It is, in a sense, an updating of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. ‘Erewhon’ is a curious looking-glass world which the narrator accesses after travelling into the outback in New Zealand. In this world, machines have been abolished because they were evolving too quickly and, the Erewhonian people feared, would one day supersede human beings as the dominant force in the world.
4. His other great novel was so modern it is considered to have ‘founded a new school’. Butler’s The Way of All Flesh was published in 1903 and immediately greeted as an extremely modern book, a fact which is all the more remarkable given that Butler had actually composed the book some twenty years earlier (he held off publishing the novel during his lifetime, to protect his family from the pain of any adverse criticism it received; it appeared the year after his death). The book uses a pioneering psychoanalytical approach to character, something that foreshadows the stream of consciousness technique later made famous by writers like Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.
5. Samuel Butler also wrote a book on the unconscious before Freud had even founded the field of psychoanalysis. Butler’s 1880 book Unconscious Memory put forward many ideas which Freud and other psychoanalysts would later explore, and provides a curious precursor to the Viennese doctor’s theories.
Image: Portrait of Samuel Butler (author J. Russell & Sons), via Wikimedia Commons.