Vines And Virtue

Following Samuel Butler’s footsteps in New Zealand

Literature Wine
Samuel Butler (1835-1902): Wine in his works was a tool to poke holes in Victorian morality

The gadfly intelligence of Samuel Butler, that pitiless critic of Victorian morality and religiosity, often made use of wine as a subject which opened up a direct line of attack towards the hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness he wished to mortify. In his posthumously-published satirical novel, The Way of All Flesh, it is the false courage derived from wine that enables the detestable Theobald Pontifex to convert an initial act of petty domination over his new bride Christina into the keynote of their entire marriage. In the coach on the way to the first night of their honeymoon the passive-aggressive Mrs Pontifex professes to be too timid to order her new husband’s dinner at the inn. But Theobald bullyingly demands that she fulfill what he insists is her wifely duty and order his dinner. After a short struggle she capitulates in the face of his petulance, and a durable marital modus vivendi is established:

    The dinner was a success. A pint of sherry had warmed Theobald’s heart, and he began to hope that, after all, matters might still go well with him. He had conquered in the first battle, and this gives great prestige. How easy it had been too! Why had he never treated his sisters in this way? He would do so next time he saw them; he might in time be able to stand up to his brother John, or even his father. Thus do we build castles in air when flushed with wine and conquest.

When Christina and Theobald’s son Ernest is born, once again wine plays a part in Butler’s skewering of Victorian attitudes. Theobald’s father has carefully preserved a bottle of water from the river Jordan which was presented to him by a clergyman friend, and he is determined that this should be used in the baptism of his eldest grandson. Together with his butler Gelstrap old Mr Pontifex goes down to the cellar to retrieve the precious liquid:

    Then Gelstrap preceded him with a candle, and he went into the inner vault where he kept his choicest wines. He passed many bins: there was 1803 Port, 1792 Imperial Tokay, 1800 Claret, 1812 Sherry, these and many others were passed, but it was not for them that the head of the Pontifex family had gone down into his inner cellar. A bin, which had appeared empty until the full light of the candle had been brought to bear upon it, was now found to contain a single pint bottle. This was the object of Mr Pontifex’s search.

But disaster strikes:

    Then came a catastrophe. He stumbled over an empty hamper; there was the sound of a fall-a smash of broken glass, and in an instant the cellar floor was covered with the liquid that had been preserved so carefully for so many years. With his usual presence of mind Mr Pontifex gasped out a month’s warning to Gelstrap. Then he got up, and stamped as Theobald had done when Christina had wanted not to order his dinner.

Gelstrap has the genuine presence of mind to suggest mopping up the spilt water and straining it (“It’ll come quite clean”, he assures his master), and begins “sopping up the waters of the Jordan as though they had been a common slop”. Eventually half a pint is saved, and this is deemed to be sufficient for the purposes of baptism.

But the mishap has still soured old Mr Pontifex’s temper, and he compounds his outrageous unfairness towards Gelstrap with a small-minded meanness towards his son:

    Then he made preparations for a visit to Battersby. He ordered goodly hampers of the choicest eatables, he selected a goodly hamper of choice drinkables. I say choice and not choicest, for although in his first exaltation he had selected some of his very best wine, yet on reflection he had felt that there was moderation in all things, and as he was parting with his best water from the Jordan, he would only send some of his second best wine.

Butler therefore found wine a useful auxiliary in his attacks on Victorian credulity, sanctimoniousness, and pettiness. Wine’s complexity, as a natural liquid fraught with so many cultural associations, was helpful here. For his part, and guided by the emergent science of the mid-19th century with which he took such pleasure in flaying Victorian pieties, Butler insisted on wine’s overlooked potencies. His Notebooks record his sharply mischievous observations on the subject. For instance, was it wine’s greatest virtue that it was the object of one of our Lord’s most dramatic miracles, and thereafter was transformed into his redeeming blood? On the contrary, wine served a purpose much more useful to human life:

    When the water of a place is bad, it is safest to drink none that has not been filtered through either the berry of a grape, or else a tub of malt. These are the most reliable filters yet invented.

Was drunkenness to be avoided? Yes: but not because it was a sin. And, when looked in a true perspective, how close it came to being a virtue!

    [Morality] turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk.

It had been in his earlier utopian satire, Erewhon, that Butler had first tried out these goading and provocative insights. Erewhon was at least circumstantially the product of the five years Butler had spent as a sheep farmer in the Rangitata district of the South Island of New Zealand, in the hinterland behind Christchurch. In the novel the Southern Alps of New Zealand are the location of a secluded community in which European moral norms are inverted to produce a way of living at once ludicrous and yet more rational than that of the old societies Butler had left behind him when he embarked for the colonies in 1859:

    . . . they regard bodily ailments as the more venial in proportion as they have been produced by causes independent of the constitution. Thus if a person ruin his health by excessive indulgence at the table or by drinking, they count it to be almost a part of the mental disease which brought it about, and so it goes for little, but they have no mercy on such illnesses as fevers or catarrhs or lung diseases, which to us appear to be beyond the control of the individual.

Today the map of New Zealand testifies to Butler’s residence there. Two settlements still bear the name of Erewhon, one on the North Island just south of Lake Taupo, and one in the South Island close to the site of Butler’s imaginary society. Travelling further south from there one enters Central Otago and the Gibbston Valley, where nowadays wine is made as natural, as pure, as delicious, and as free from the associations of the Old World as even Butler could have wished.