Samuel Butler was born probably on 4 December 1835 at Langar Rectory, Nottinghamshire, England, and was baptised on 17 December 1835. He was the second child of the Reverend Thomas Butler and his wife, Fanny Worsley. He was educated at Shrewsbury School from 1848 to 1854 and St John's College, Cambridge, from 1854 to 1858, when he graduated 12th in the Classical tripos, with first-class honours. But his impulse to escape the constraints of the church, education, law and the patriarchal family led him to decline ordination and persuade his somewhat imperious father to finance his emigration to New Zealand. He sailed on the Roman Emperor on 1 October 1859. Only a month before departure his preference had been for western Canada, and his passage to Lyttelton was originally booked on the Burmah, which disappeared without trace.
Arriving at Lyttelton on 27 January 1860, Butler began 4½ years' activity which did much to develop his distinctive energy and irreverence of mind. Seeking unclaimed sheep country, he explored the mountain headwaters of four of Canterbury's rivers between March and May 1860. At the Bealey, only the lack of a companion stopped him from being the first European to reach Arthur's Pass. He attained an almost equal distinction in New Zealand exploration by discovering and crossing the Whitcombe Pass on 3 February 1861, during a series of expeditions above the Rangitata with John Holland Baker. This provided the basis of the journey 'over the range' in Erewhon, and the achievement is commemorated in names such as Butler Saddle (from where they first saw the pass beyond the Rakaia), Mt Butler and the Butler Range. Such resourcefulness and stamina were not out of character. He had been a leading cross-country runner at Shrewsbury, the school which pioneered that sport, a coxswain and coach at Cambridge, and a strenuous alpine walker.
Butler found a run of 5,000 acres, above Forest Creek, west of the upper Rangitata River, and spent the 1860 winter there. In October he moved his sheep and residence five miles up river to the less restricted foothills run which he named Mesopotamia. He acquired a freehold homestead section there, but only after a dispute with a rival squatter, J. H. Caton, which culminated in a famous race to the Christchurch Lands Office to register their claims. Mesopotamia station eventually comprised some 55,000 acres and employed seven men. Despite inexperience Butler established and supervised it competently enough to double his capital (to £8,000) in four years.
Butler made many friends, notably Julius Haast, William Rolleston, William Sefton Moorhouse, James Edward FitzGerald, and Charles and Ellen Tripp of Mt Peel station, his nearest neighbours. He spent increasingly long periods in Christchurch, was a member of the Christchurch Club and the Canterbury Dramatic Society, and became known as a stimulating conversationalist and able musician. He enjoyed the 'liberal feeling prevalent here', but his atheistic views earned him some disfavour, and he remained self-conscious about his short and swarthy physical appearance. He was active, however, examining for the Christchurch High School in 1863, playing the piano in aid of the Christchurch Orphanage in 1864, and joining the promoters of a school of art and design in 1863–64. He rode on the footplate of the first train from Christchurch to Ferrymead on 1 December 1863, and at the banquet afterwards made a short but apparently inaudible speech.
On that occasion he represented the Press, for he began his literary career in Canterbury. His first publications were in the St John's College journal, the Eagle, and included articles signed 'Our Emigrant'. Butler's experiences in the young colony were elaborated more fully in A first year in Canterbury settlement (1863), a work of vivid observation and narrative. Disliking his father's role in compiling this book from letters, however, Butler refused to acknowledge it, and he almost certainly wrote the facetiously savage review in the Press on 28 October 1863. Most significantly, he published in the Press several half-comic commentaries on Charles Darwin's On the origin of species. In their incisive intelligence and satirical manner these directly anticipated Erewhon's Darwinian sections. Other writings published at this time included a comic-derogatory note on The tempest and a mock-Tennysonian poem heralding a visiting English cricket team.
Butler left New Zealand with some suddenness, on 15 June 1864. To the end of his life he regretted the harm this did his friendships, especially that with Moorhouse. The accepted explanation is that he fell victim to the charms of Charles Paine Pauli, a parasitic lawyer whom he accompanied to England and continued to support financially until Pauli's death in 1897, but a more important factor may have been rejected love for Mary Brittan, to whom he was rumoured to have proposed in 1864. She married William Rolleston in 1865. Butler was certainly active heterosexually later, though forming no close relationship. An entry in Note-books refers cryptically to ten years 'of very great pain' which commenced about 1862.
Settling quietly and permanently at Clifford's Inn, London, Butler trained as an artist, and was successful enough to exhibit pictures at the Royal Academy from 1869 to 1876. His standing as a major prose writer was established by Erewhon (1872), a satiric fantasy which derived its setting and much of its intellectual content from the period he had spent in New Zealand. One of the most inventive and provocative of all ironic dystopias, it stands in modern English with Gulliver's travels and Nineteen eighty-four.
A long period of less successful and often misguided literary effort ensued. He wrote critiques of the Gospels, pursued his interest in evolution in four polemical books, wrote books or essays on a wide range of subjects, and produced one classic of satiric verse, 'A psalm of Montreal'. He also composed music in the style of Handel, continued to paint skilfully, and became an innovative photographer. The publication of Erewhon revisited (1901), The way of all flesh (1903) and Note-books (1912) (the last two published posthumously) revived his reputation for ingenious iconoclasm, and he became a leading influence on literary thought through his forceful critiques of Victorian values and institutions.
Though idiosyncratic to the point of perverseness in some of his convictions, Butler in other respects was significantly progressive – in his colloquial prose translations of Homer, his lectures to working men's clubs, his disinclination to accept Darwin uncritically, and in the prophetic insights of Erewhon and Erewhon revisited. These two books, with their tersely realistic renditions of high country work and travel, and their satiric strategies of inversion and cross-cultural encounter, remain among the most perceptive responses in imaginative literature to colonial New Zealand experience.
Butler tacitly but clearly acknowledged the value of his emigrant phase. The autobiographical hero of The way of all flesh, Ernest Pontifex, learns independence of mind and choice of lifestyle among the poor of London; and the dramatic beginning of this emancipation is dated 30 September 1859 – the day Butler sailed for New Zealand. Samuel Butler died in London on 18 June 1902.