Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Pioneering Novelist Who Became A Literary Joke

by Thomas Morgan 

"What will Bulwer become? The first author of the age? I do not doubt it. He is a magnificent writer." Mary Shelley, Journal, 1831

Literary fame is a capricious mistress. It is Mary Shelley who is remembered today and whose deathless classic is in print in countless editions and translations rather than the half-forgotten Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii and Zanoni. Mary gave a fearsome word to the lexicon; bathetically Bulwer inspired a culinary brand name.

‘Laws die, books never,’ wrote Bulwer. Yet most of his own works have come perilously close to extinction; though he hasn’t be allowed to slide gracefully into obscurity like so many other Lost Club figures. Nowadays, outside the weird fiction community, Bulwer is principally known for farcical reasons. Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose University, California, has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst beginning to an imaginary novel (see ‘Where “WWW” means Wretched Writers Welcome’). The competition was inspired by the clichéd opening to Paul Clifford (1830), ‘It was a dark and stormy night . . . ’ On reflection, is this really such an atrocious way to begin a pre-Victorian novel? At least the reader is hooked. It may not be the spinetingling ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’, or ‘Call me Ishmael’, or the stately ‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year . . . I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country . . . ’; but it’s surely superior to the gimmicky first line of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which shall remain unquoted as it seems unworthy to share the page with Poe, Melville and Daphne du Maurier. The rest of Paul Clifford’s first sentence is at least atmospheric: ‘ . . . the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind that swept up the streets, for it is in London that our scene lies, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness’. The syntax may be awkward, but only the reader-inclusive ‘our scene’ seems archaic and otiose.

It is an irony that Bulwer-Lytton is today so neglected. After Scott’s death he was regarded as England’s most popular novelist. In Victorian times he was an important social and political figure. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (1893) covers more than seven pages. His thrillers and family sagas influenced Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Trollope. He persuaded Dickens to alter the unhappy ending of Great Expectations (1860), while in Zanoni (1842) the hero goes to the guillotine in place of the heroine, prefiguring Sydney Carton’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). ‘That he is not much remembered in his own right would have surprised his contemporaries, for during the 19th century he was widely regarded as England’s leading man of letters,’ concludes The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English (1994).

John Sutherland, writing in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (1988), states: ‘He was over-valued in his own day, and has been undervalued by posterity. He can plausibly claim to be the father of the English detective novel, science fiction, the fantasy novel, the thriller, and the domestic realistic novel.’ Bulwer was, in some ways, the British Poe, but, owing to his rhetorical and long-winded prose, his books have, unlike Poe’s, not worn well with the years. Professor Sutherland’s ultra-critical ‘ “Ho, Diomed”: Bulwer-Lytton, the great unreadable’ was published in The Times Literary Supplement on 28 July 2000, a few weeks after the University of London held a Bulwer-Lytton Conference. ‘The fact is that any of his twenty-five novels would have been a strong contender for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize,’ wrote Professor Sutherland. ‘Why does he not even have a single title in the 700-strong catalogues of Penguin and Oxford World Classics?’ (Even Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan [1895] is an Oxford Classic.) Bulwer’s absurd style, he says, is largely responsible. Sutherland suggests that the ‘most ridiculously Bulwerian’ of the author’s openings is to be found in Harold, The Last of the Saxon Kings (1848): ‘Merry was the month of May in the year of our Lord 1052’. Well, it was ‘struck off “at a heat” ’.

The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) – which has had a limited survival if only because of the public fascination with Vesuvius – begins with the above-cited ‘Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus tonight?’ Bulwer’s oeuvre, says Sutherland, ‘remains . . . as dead as mutton’. But not for all readers. The acerbic piece brought in inevitable attacks from TLS readers. Charles W. Snyder, of Savannah – strange to think of Bulwer being read in Georgia – wrote (18 August):

What a shame that John Sutherland chose not to tell your readers the news they ought to know about Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Instead, he indulged in a pointless exercise in debunking of the sort that could as well have been written eighty years ago by an imitator of Strachey. The important story today is the resurgence of scholarly work on Bulwer-Lytton that inspired the University of London’s 2000 Conference held last month. Professor Sutherland himself participated in the Conference, but, from his article, he seems scarcely to have noticed what was going on.

Instead we learn only that Sutherland finds Bulwer-Lytton boring, perhaps because he was so very Victorian. Yet that is all the more reason to understand the man and his work, if you want to understand that era.

Mr Snyder corrects a couple of minor errors in the TLS ‘Commentary’ but saves the zinger for the end: ‘ . . . John Sutherland tries to prove that Bulwer-Lytton did not really achieve the prominent place in English Letters his admirers claim for him by asking rhetorically, why is he not buried in Westminster Abbey? Well, Bulwer-Lytton is buried in Westminster Abbey. But one would have to take some interest in the subject to know that.’ Game, set and match to Mr Snyder! Another correspondent, Sara E. Lussier of the City University of New York, praised Bulwer’s England and the English (1833), ‘a comprehensive and astute commentary on the “condition of England”, in which Bulwer examines the English character in its social, moral and religious aspects, as well as the state of English education, the intellectual spirit of the time, literature, science and the arts . . .

'Mention of Bulwer’s England and the English, and a glance at the serious themes he intelligently explores throughout the book, would go far to redeem the slightly ridiculous figure that John Sutherland leaves us to contemplate. England and the English would confound the mocking judges of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize.’


Bulwer-Lytton’s life was itself the stuff of 19th century romantic fiction. He was born at 31 Baker Street, London, on 25 May 1803, but not christened until 1810. ‘He was himself ignorant of the year of his birth, which has been often erroneously given,’ wrote Leslie Stephen in the DNB. The family seat of the Lyttons, his mother’s line, was at Knebworth, Hertfordshire, ‘one of the finest manifestations of the Gothic Novel in stone,’ says Professor Sutherland. His father was Colonel, later General, William Earle Bulwer of Haydon Hall, Norfolk. Edward produced poetry from the age of seven and was considered a prodigy by his family. A precocious collection, Ismael and Other Poems appeared in 1820. After leaving Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he became ‘a finished dandy’ of the period, dividing his time between London and Paris. He aped Byron by having ‘a strange flirtation with Lady Caroline Lamb’ (DNB) and produced a book of sub-Byronic verse, Weeds and Wild Flowers (1825). Against his mother’s wishes, he married a beautiful though erratic Irish girl, Rosina Doyle Wheeler, in 1827. Mother evidently knew best: the union proved to be the gravest mistake of his life. Bulwer became estranged from his mother for a period: she stopped his allowance because of his marriage, and he had to descend to the drudgery of authorship and journalism to support himself and his wife in the style to which they had become accustomed, with a carriage, horses, entertaining friends and so on.

His first novel Falkand (1827) he described as ‘a gloomy work’, but his publisher was sufficiently confident in his powers to offer him £500 for a second novel. The hero of Pelham: The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828) was taken as a self-portrait. ‘The author boasted that it had put down the Byronic mania by substituting at any rate a more manly kind of foppery’(DNB). This ‘silver fork’ novel was said to have introduced the fashion for black evening dress among the gentry after a line of sartorial advice was put into the mouth of Pelham’s mother: he looks best in black, she tells him. The cult of dandyism sparked a backlash with Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, but Pelham became ‘the most popular and most often reprinted fashionable novel of the century,’ says Sutherland; though Tennyson, about whom Bulwer was rude, condemned him as ‘a rouged and padded fop’, while Fraser’s Magazine dismissed him as a ‘silver-fork polisher’.

In 1829 Bulwer and Rosina moved to 36 Hertford Street, London (their first home was at Woodcot House, near Pangbourne). No. 36 survives, at the rear of the London Hilton, though there is no plaque and renumbering may have taken place. He was reconciled to some extent with his mother, and she proposed to restore his £1000 a year; but her cool attitude towards Rosina – at first she refused to meet her – caused Bulwer to reject the offer. In 1830 the publication of Paul Clifford, with its sympathetic portrait of a chivalrous, philanthropic highwayman, caused reviewers to condemn it as immoral. Eugene Aram (1832), based on a true story, had a guilt-racked philosophical scholar as its central character – an accomplice to murder. These novels preceded Wilkie Collins’ crime masterpieces The Moonstone and The Woman in White by more than thirty years, but ‘Victorian England was not ready for its Dostoevsky’, writes Sutherland. Through his attempt to fathom the psychology of the criminal mind Bulwer was condemned as a ‘corruptor of youth’. In his case the situation was additionally controversial since he had been elected MP for St Ives, Huntingdonshire, in 1831. This debate still rages, of course: modern cinema – however gritty and realistic – inevitably glamorizes the criminals it depicts. Bulwer’s trend-setting ‘Newgate School’ of crime fiction, with its underworld slang, paved the way for the demotic vocabulary of Dickens’ characters. Dickens, a lifelong friend, named a son after Bulwer.

After returning from a visit to Naples in 1834, Bulwer published The Last Days of Pompeii, a work influenced by the apocalyptic canvases of John Martin. Sutherland says Bulwer took his mistress along with his entourage. His marriage, not surprisingly, was doomed. ‘Scenes followed which led to their living apart,’ explains the DNB diplomatically. The couple were legally separated in 1836. Rosina ‘had no gift for economy’ and her allowance of £400 a year proved insufficient. She spent the next forty years tormenting her husband by writing slanderous letters to all who would read them, condemning his behaviour. Much of her allowance was spent in lawsuits against Bulwer. ‘Lady Lytton accused her husband of infidelity, of personal violence in paroxysms of rage, and of various atrocities’ (DNB), though many of these complaints are thought to be dubious. Her novel Cheveley, or The Man of Honour (1839) portrayed Bulwer as a scoundrel. She told Wilkie Collins that Count Fosco in The Woman in White was a feeble villain: if he wanted a real one, she recommended her husband. After she denounced him to the crowd at the electoral hustings at Hertford in 1838 Rosina was certified insane and confined in an asylum for several weeks.

Bulwer was knighted in 1837, and on his mother’s death in 1843 he succeeded to Knebworth and took the name Bulwer-Lytton. He was elected MP for Hertfordshire in 1852, a position he held until his elevation to the peerage as Baron Lytton of Knebworth in 1866. He had entered parliament in the 1830s as a quasi-Benthamite. Liberal and reformer, supporting Gladstone’s Reform Bill of 1831, which extended the franchise. Now middle-aged and a property owner he felt more at ease in the Tory party. His highest government office was as Secretary of State for the Colonies at the end of the 1850s, when towns were named after him in British Columbia and Australia.

Sutherland did have a few kind words for Bulwer’s fantasy novels: ‘There is some interest today – among New Age enthusiasts – in Bulwer-Lytton’s occult thrillers, Zanoni (1842, a rewrite of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer) and A Strange Story (1862, the best of the Victorian mesmeric romances). And there is a faithful cult gathering around The Coming Race [published anonymously in 1871] – a pioneer work of science fiction.’ Bulwer has another less exalted claim to fame. The subterranean race in this latter work possess a mysterious source of power called vril, which led an enterprising meat-extract manufacturer to combine the term with ‘bovine’; thus the elixir Bovril came into the world. Like Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, it is an acquired taste. Madame Blavatsky, that occult magpie, adopted vril into Theosophy, claming that the Atlanteans used it to power their flying craft (verily there is no religion higher than truth!). Sutherland also praised the classic ghost tale ‘The Haunters and the Haunted’ (1859) as having ‘its admirers and many imitators’.

Leslie Stephen in the DNB opined that ‘His curious attempts at the mysterious too often remind us of spirit-rapping rather than excite the thrill of supernatural awe’, but a finer judge of the genre is H. P. Lovecraft, who in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1926), commends Bulwer’s work: ‘ . . . despite the large does of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism in his products, his success in the weaving of a certain kind of bizarre charm cannot be denied’. Of Zanoni Lovecraft wrote: ‘Though full of the conventional spirit of romance, marred by a ponderous network of symbolic and didactic meanings, and left unconvincing through lack of perfect atmospheric realization of the situations hinging on the spectral world, Zanoni is really an excellent performance as a romantic novel; and can be read with genuine interest by the not too sophisticated reader.’ Lovecraft found A Strange Story ‘a marked improvement in the creation of weird images and moods’: ‘The novel, despite enormous length, a highly artificial plot bolstered up by opportune coincidences, and an atmosphere of homiletic pseudo-science designed to please the matter-of-fact and purposeful Victorian reader, is exceedingly effective as a narrative; evoking instantaneous and unflagging interest and furnishing many potent – if somewhat melodramatic – tableaux and climaxes.’ Lovecraft calls ‘The Haunters and the Haunted’, also known as ‘The House and the Brain’, ‘one of the best short haunted-house tales ever written’. Bulwer, it will be remembered, gets an honourable mention in ‘Dagon’.

Mark Valentine, contributing to the Everlasting Club round-robin which discusses fantasy and supernatural tales, recently commented on the enduring nature of Bulwer’s fantasies:

On the face of it, this seems quite a strong survival rate for any author’s works, but Sutherland is making comparisons with Lytton’s immense popularity in Victorian times, quoting Edmund Gosse to the effect that ‘everything he wrote sold as it is were bread displayed to a hungry crowd’. Then, the most loved novels of Lytton were his family or domestic sagas, such as The Caxtons: A Family Picture (1849), and it is these that have faded from view. Sutherland goes on to speculate that ‘The absurdity of his prose style to modern ears would seem to be a main reason’ for his neglect . . .

To my ears, Lytton’s prose style is not much more orotund or fustian than that of many of his contemporaries, who have survived, and in any case it does not seem to have stopped admiration for the titles cited above. No, I suspect the reason why the family novels are now unread is much simpler: the subject matter. Few readers, I think, are diverted by the society niceties and mild domestic dilemmas of yesteryear, unless they are the occasions for sprightly wit or high camp parody. Even successors to Lytton’s family epics, such as Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga are, I suspect, now not much enjoyed. The truth of the matter, usually, is that what survives is what is of universal and perennial interest. Death, darkness, the soul, other worlds, strange powers, fantasy and wonder are always in demand. So when Lytton writes of these, he draws to himself an audience down through the ages: but when he strays from these into the mere stuff of the day, he denies himself any future audience. That is one of the great attractions of our field – the continuing vitality that even the obscurest of authors can gain from their forays into the supernatural.

I rather like Sutherland’s category of ‘mesmeric romance’ and wonder about others with this theme. Does Trilby qualify? And surely Sutherland does Zanoni an injustice? I do not believe it owes quite so much to Melmoth.

Lytton died at Torquay, in the arms of his only son, Edward Bulwer Lytton, a poet and diplomat, on 18 January 1873. ‘He had long suffered from some disease in the bones of the ear’ (DNB). Sutherland writes that this affliction ‘made him deaf, a poor conversationalist and haughty-seeming’. Leslie Stephen summed up Lytton as ‘one of the authors upon whose merits the critics have never agreed with the public . . . No English author has displayed more industry, energy, versatility, or less disposition to lapse into slovenliness’. Even The Oxford Companion to English Literature (sixth edition, 2000) has some praise for him: ‘ . . . his works, though now little read, span many of the changes in 19th-cent. fiction and are thus of considerable sociological interest’. As a dramatist Lytton has not been entirely forgotten. His comedy Money (1840) was revived recently by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre with some success. Several of his books and a short biography by Sybella Jane Flower are available from Knebworth House (see Bulwer-Lytton may be a figure of fun on the Internet, but he unwittingly cast a shadow on the world. His novel Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (1835) was adapted by Wagner as his third opera, and this, in turn, had a devastating influence on the adolescent Adolf Hitler, who doubtless saw in the visionary 14th century orator Rienzi establishing a republic and restoring pride to Rome the prefiguring of his own destiny. Of his first viewing of the opera he later chillingly stated ‘In that hour it began’. One can’t blame Bulwer for the rise of the Nazis – Hitler doubtless would have found some other catalyst for his foul dreams; but in view of the way the 20th century’s blood-drenched history developed, it could be argued that Bulwer was among the most influential authors who ever lived. He would have been horrified by the consequences of one of his novels, but he did indeed change the world.

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