He had his drawbacks—who has not? He did not get on with his father, criticised his mother; his sisters scraped the edges of his nerves; a man to whom he was extremely generous betrayed him. The like of these things must happen to mortal men. Butler knew that as well as any one. But his books were not read; the great men whom he attacked ignored him. He thought himself to be something, they treated him as nothing, and the public followed them. He knew all about it, and Mr. Jones knows all about it. He had unseated the secure with Erewhon, outraged the orthodox with Fairhaven, flouted the biologists, himself being no biologist, plunged into Homeric criticism without archaeology, swum against the current in Shakespearianism, enjoyed himself immensely, playing l’enfant terrible, and treading on every corn he could find—and then he was angry because the sufferers pretended that they had no corns. How could he expect it both ways? If he was serious, why did he write as if he was not? And if he had tender feelings himself—as he obviously had—why should he expect all the people he attacked with his pinpricks to have none? It was not reasonable.
The answer to these questions is to be found in some little weaknesses of his which Mr. Jones’s biography, all unconsciously, reveals. Butler, it is clear, was morbidly vain. Many writers are so, but few let their vanity take them so far. Learn from Mr. Jones. In 1879 he and Butler met Edward Lear in an inn at Varese. He told them a little tale about a tipsy man from Manchester—rather a good little tale. “I do not remember that Edward Lear told us anything else particularly amusing, but then neither did we tell him anything particularly amusing. Butler was seldom at his best with a celebrated man. He was not successful himself, and had a sub-aggressive feeling that a celebrated man probably did not deserve his celebrity; if he did deserve it, let him prove it.” There is no getting away from that symptom, which is as unreasonable as it is perverse. Celebrated men are not usually so anxious to “prove” their celebrity as all that comes to. It is bad enough to be “celebrated.” It was hard lines on old Lear to sulk with him because he would not show off. If he had wanted to do that he would not have gone to Varese. But that is mortified vanity. The same thing happened when he met Mr. Birrell at dinner in 1900. Then it was the celebrity who took pains to save his host and hostess from a frosty dinner party. The same thing is recalled of meetings with Sir George Trevelyan and Lord Morley earlier in the book. It is all pretty stupid; but when a man is ridden by a vanity like that there can be no healthy pleasure to be got out of writing for its own sake. You must have your public flat on its back before your vanity will be soothed.