Butler Letters

Scope and Content

Two letters from Professor Arthur John Butler to Mr Harting, concerning 'pyrus aria', the whitebeam tree.

Administrative / Biographical History

Butler, Arthur John (1844–1910), Italian scholar and mountaineer, born at Putney, Surrey, on 21 June 1844, was the eldest of the six children of William John Butler (1818–1894), at that time curate of Puttenham, near Guildford, Surrey, but best-known as the dean of Lincoln, and Emma Barnett (d. 1894), daughter of George Henry Barnett, banker, of Glympton Park, Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Through both parents he was connected with Stratford Canning, first cousin of George Canning-Stratford being his mother's maternal grandfather, and his father's great-great-uncle (by marriage).

After a childhood at Wantage, Berkshire, affectionately dominated by parents of strong if differing characters, both devoted pioneers of the Tractarian movement, Arthur took a scholarship to St Andrew's College, Bradfield, in 1853. At Easter 1857 he proceeded to Eton College, and subsequently to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a scholarship. He won the Bell university scholarship in 1864, and graduated eighth classic in the tripos of 1867, and as a junior optime in mathematics. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1869. In the following year he reluctantly left Cambridge on accepting a post as examiner under the Board of Education. On 6 April 1875 he married Mary Caroline Humphry, daughter of William Gilson Humphry, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Butler worked in the education office, Whitehall, until 1887, when an invitation to become salaried partner in the publishing firm of Rivington tempted him from a routine which had never been congenial. After the amalgamation of Messrs Rivington with the firm of Longman he transferred his services to Messrs Cassell & Co. as their chief editor. In 1894 he relinquished business, and was appointed an assistant commissioner on secondary education. Subsequently from 1899 until his death he was engaged at the Public Record Office in editing calendars of foreign state papers from 1577 onwards: he published four volumes between 1901 and 1909. In 1898 he became professor of Italian language and literature at University College, London, and likewise filled that office until his death.

Butler was an accomplished scholar. His most important work was his contribution to the study of Dante. He was the first Englishman to replace the old dilettante enjoyment of the Divine Comedy by exact and disciplined study, and to treat it as scholars treated a Greek or Latin classic. His Purgatory of Dante, a prose translation with notes, appeared in 1880; his Paradise in 1885; his Hell in 1892. In 1890 he edited the Italian text. In 1893 he published a Companion to Dante, a translation of Scartazzini's work, and in 1895 a small book, Dante: his Times and his Work. The Forerunners of Dante (1910), an annotated selection from the Italian poets before 1300, was finished a few days before his death.

Butler also devoted much leisure to translating French and German works. Among others, he published the Memoirs of Baron de Marbot (1892); Select Essays of Sainte-Beuve (1895); Memoirs of Baron Thiébault (1896); and The History of Mankind, from Professor Friedrich Ratzel's work (1896). He also edited the English version of Bismarck: the Man and the Statesman (1898). At the same time, for thirty-five years Butler wrote for The Athenaeum, and was an occasional contributor to magazines on his favourite topics: Dante, mountaineering, Eton, and the Napoleonic campaigns. However, much of his most characteristic writing was spent in fugitive contributions to the press, which were always trenchant, original, and humorous, and exhibited an unusual blend of inborn churchmanship with an outspoken and militant liberalism.

From his school days Butler was also a mountaineer, delighting in alpine expeditions off the beaten track. In 1886, when he became a member of the Alpine Club, he brought to it an intimate knowledge-beyond challenge by any mountaineer in Europe-of the Ötzthal alps, which he first attacked in 1874, and revisited many times, up to 1890, with an ardour that was almost a passion. Butler became the editor of the Alpine Journal in 1890, and supervised it until the end of 1893 (vols. 15 and 16). He delighted in the dinners of the Alpine Dining Club. He was a member of the band of Sunday Tramps that Leslie Stephen organized in 1882, ranking number ten on the original list. Butler died at his home, Wood End, Weybridge, on 26 February 1910, survived by his wife, one son, and six daughters, and was buried at Wantage.

Access Information


The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material, after the completion of a Reader's Undertaking.

Other Finding Aids

Collection level description