by Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler had strong and sometimes odd opinions on many subjects: he wrote a book to prove that the Odyssey was written by a woman, he held unconventional views on religion and science, and quarrelled bitterly with Charles Darwin. He could also be rude, selfish and quick to take offence. Eliza Mary Ann Savage was his only close female friend, and he seems to have respected her judgment and intelligence, and accepted her advice and strictures on his writings. He must also have enjoyed her letters: she shared his acid wit, and some of his dislikes. She for her part was a great admirer of his work, and encouraged him endlessly, while still being prepared to criticise where criticism was needed.
Their correspondence--conducted with due formality between "Dear Mr. Butler" and "Dear Miss Savage"--continued for some fourteen years, until Miss Savage's death in 1885 after an operation for cancer, an illness she had not mentioned to Butler, although she must have known about it for years. Butler was devastated, and haunted by the feeling that he had treated her badly by not marrying her, although it's not certain that she would have accepted if he had proposed to her. In 1901 he edited their correspondence, in accordance with his declared wish "to leave a memorial of her, traced chiefly by her own hand, which will show what manner of woman she was".
A selection of Letters between Samuel Butler and Miss Savage is available on this website.
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In many of their letters Butler and Miss Savage discuss Butler's works--Erewhon, Life and Habit, Alps and Sanctuaries--and his paintings, but they also exchange views on topics as diverse as cats, kettle-holders, Darwin, Gladstone, and the Carlyles. Miss Savage proves herself to be quite Butler's equal in wit and invective.
Are you not glad that Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle were married to one another, and not to other people? They certainly were justly formed to meet by nature. I was provoked last night by the nonsense some people were talking about him, and as they went on to excuse his bad temper on account of his bad digestion, I said that probably his bad digestion should be excused on account of his bad temper, as probably he had been born with a bad temper, but that bad digestions were generally made.
Butler's response was typical.
Yes it was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four, besides being very amusing.
Miss Savage also seems to have shared Butler's contempt for Charles Darwin, although she has a lightness of touch and humour that Butler sometimes lacks.
As regards sneezing I have before explained to you, that Mr. Darwin notwithstanding, I hold it to be caused by Diabolic agency. A reflex action indeed! If Mr. Darwin knew how a Sneeze will sometimes lie in wait for you, for an hour at a time, and then, the moment you are off your guard, will seize you and sneeze you, he would know better than to talk about reflex actions.
Occasionally Butler himself displays a playfulness and humour that is quite endearing, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why Miss Savage tolerated some of his less appealing characteristics. After she has sent him a knitted kettleholder, (describing it as "very clumsy and ugly") he writes to reassure her:
The kettleholder is beautiful--it is like a filleted sole and I am very fond of filleted soles--It is not at all too thick, and fits my kettle to perfection. I have been lifting my kettle on and off the fire with it, and then hanging the kettleholder on its nail again, all day--ever since I got it this morning, and I like it better and better continually.
Page created 6 Januar 2003 and last updated
6 January 2003
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