Butler's semi-autobiographical masterpiece, published in 1903, is not only a scathing depiction of Victorian hypocrisy, but perhaps a bitter and personal exposé of
the Anglican Church and clergy in particular, which espoused the "spare the rod, spoil the child" method of childrearing with overenthusiastic zeal. Having
said that, however, this book is also full of biting humor, satire and caustic wit. While at times it moves a little slow, it is still highly entertaining.
Though narrated by Edward Overton, the heart of the story is about Earnest Pontifex, and covers four generations of the Pontifex family, beginning with Overton reminiscing pleasant memories of the kind, humorous, well-loved and well-respected old John Pontifex. His son George, though bright enough, inherited his mother's serious and obstinate nature, and that coupled with the kindness and spoiling bestowed on an only child produced a selfish and arrogant adult. Leaving home at age 15 he takes a position in a publishing company owned by his aunt's husband. He rises quickly and soon wants little to do with the country life and folks, including his parents. By age thirty he is already financially successful, and eventually marries a younger woman who bears him five children then dies. He never remarries, and shows little affection for his children, in particular his youngest son Theobold, (born the same years as Overton). The children spend much time in the country with their doting grandparents, and the friendship (and its deterioration) between Theobold and Overton is what provides the material for the story, allowing us to peer into the private life of Theobold and his family through the eyes of Overton.
Throughout the book, Butler makes subtle and not-so subtle commentary about the Church and its role in Victorian society. While in modern society, people (hopefully) choose to pursue the religious life to answer their soul's calling, this was obviously not the case in Butler's era. Serving "God" was less a vocation and more like job security, especially to those who really had no other interest to pursue. This was certainly the case with Theobold, who had little inner strength to oppose his father's insistence upon this particular path for his son.
Of course, having completed his education, the next step for Theobold, in order to secure a position, was to take a wife, particularly if the lady's father is already an established rector in need of an assistant. That certain rector was Mr. Allaby, father of eleven children, including seven daughters. Though Mrs. Allaby managed to marry off two of them, she was nervously apprehensive about her ability to repeat the process successfully five more times! For these tasks, she had a friend, Mrs. Cowey, wife of Professor Cowey, who was "in the know" about eligible bachelors in the theology department. Soon Theobold is connived into assisting Rector Allaby, where he was introduced to the five unmarried Allaby ladies. Being organized about the whole process, the ladies had played cards, with Theobold going to the winner, which happened to be Christina, the second oldest at age 27. The two youngest argued that Christina hadn't a chance, so they were sent away on a visit, but the other two agreed to help their sister nab Theobold.
Which she did. Now, as far as Theobold and his knowledge of ladies, Overton says:
"As for kissing, he had never kissed a woman in his life except for his sister—and my own sisters when we were all small children together. Over and above these kisses, he had until quite lately been required to imprint a solemn flabby kiss night and morning upon his father's cheek, and this, to the best of my belief, was the extent of Theobold's knowledge in the matter of kissing, at the time of which I am now writing. The result of the foregoing was that he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not his ways, nor their thought as his thoughts."
Christina and Theobold's engagement lasts five years, but they eventually do marry. After the initial misery and realization that they are
actually married wears off, Christina becomes the dutiful and obedient wife. Love and affection never figure in as an element of the marriage agreement. And
that stern and emotionless relationship is greatly magnified and projected onto their first son, Earnest, born in the fifth year of their marriage. Overton becomes his godfather.
We are now at the real meat of the story, as we observe the ghastly treatment inflicted on this poor child by the man of God and his subservient wife. Daily beatings were to be expected.
"Before Earnest could well crawl he was taught to kneel; before he could well speak he was taught to lisp the Lord's Prayer, and the general confession. How is it possible that these things could be taught too early? If his attention flagged or his memory failed him, here was an ill weed which would grow apace, unless it were plucked out immediately, and the only way to pluck it out was to whip him, or shut him up in a cupboard, or dock him of some of the small pleasures of childhood. Before he was three years old he could read and, after a fashion, write. Before he was four he was learning Latin, and could do rule of three sums."
In spite of this, Earnest manages to struggle on. Overton is certainly a bright spot in his life, but an even brighter spot appears when his Aunt Alethea
Pontifex takes an active interest in him. Though unmarried, she hardly behaves as a typical spinster, having little to do with her family, and becoming
wealthy through wisely investing her inheritance. In addition, she is independent and unconventional, and determined to do all the best for Earnest,
whom she adores. Unfortunately, she dies before witnessing the fulfillment of her dream, but with the help of Overton, she creates a fund for Earnest, which
he will receive on his 28th birthday.
Now this becomes our little secret. Only Overton and we, the readers, know that one day Earnest will be a wealthy man. In the meantime, we see him screw up his life considerably.
I cannot begin to sing the praises of this book loud enough. It is a must-read for everyone who has ever felt imprisoned by the expectations of society and longed to break free of the chains of convention. Modern Library, in their list of the 100 best English-language novels written in the 20th century, rated this one number 12!!
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