Author Samuel Butler spent only three years in New Zealand — but the Canterbury experience gave him a significant base for a literary achievement of great distinction, and a well-deserved reputation for satire and controversy.
Working the land
After his arrival in Lyttelton in 1860, Butler explored the Canterbury high country and found unclaimed sheep country. He registered his claim against a rival after a race to Christchurch.
He named the station Mesopotamia ('between two rivers') and set to work improving the land. His efforts paid off — he doubled his capital and was then free to write. He spent three years here before returning to England.
Erewhon and other works
His most famous books Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited and The Way of All Flesh made him a cult figure in Britain and a leader in the intellectual emancipation from Victorian values. At the time, there was great deal of discussion over the troubling findings of Charles Darwin.
In the early chapters of Erewhon, Butler gave a realistic picture of the Canterbury high country and the land 'over the range'. However, the focus of the book is England — which he satirised through his description of Erewhonian society.
In his cramped cob hut Butler also wrote more 'fugitive' work: long entertaining letters to his family, which his father compiled as A First Year in the Canterbury Settlement (1863) and a journal, later edited by P. B. Maling as Samuel Butler at Mesopotamia (1960), each giving vivid and perceptive accounts of the pioneering experience.
He also wrote several articles for The Press on such far-ranging topics as 'Darwin Among the Machines', a satire on the adverse effects of technology on our world, and a report on the first Canterbury v England cricket match in comic mock-serious Shakespearean blank verse.
Our special collection
Christchurch City Libraries has a comprehensive collection of material by and about Samuel Butler. The basis of the collection was the gift of copies of his published works in 1887 by Butler to Sir Julius von Haast, asking him to place them in whatever public library he thought the most appropriate. O.T.J. Alpers and J.C. Andersen claimed that they later supplied missing titles, obtained from Butler before his death. Alpers added The way of all flesh after Butler's death.
- The Christchurch Writer’s Walkway, E. Beardsley, Canterbury Branch, New Zealand Society of Authors, 1999.
- Search our catalogue for items by Samuel Butler
- Search our catalogue for items about Samuel Butler
- Samuel Butler at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre
- Samuel Butler at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography