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Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: Dystopia before Dystopia

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the looking-glass world of Samuel Butler’s pioneering anti-utopian novel

When I was an undergraduate English student at Loughborough fifteen years ago, I took an optional second-year module called ‘Other Victorians’. As this title implies, the module was intended as a sort of companion-piece to the core module ‘Victorian Literature’, which covered the canon of Victorian writing. On the one hand, you had George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam. On the other, you had Florence Nightingale’s essays, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, and Arthur Hugh Clough’s Amours de Voyage.

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) would stand firmly in the latter camp containing those ‘other Victorians’. His anti-utopian novel is part science-fiction, part social commentary, part adventure fantasy, part comic satire. Like many experimental Victorian works of literature, it resists easy categorisation. Is it even a dystopian work, a forerunner to Brave New World, We, and Nineteen Eighty-Four? Read the rest of this entry

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Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Butler

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. Read the rest of this entry