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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.

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