Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, the third and youngest son of General William Earle Bulwer (1757–1807) and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton (1773–1843), was born on 25th May, 1803, at 31 Baker Street, London. Four years later his father died from a stroke.

According to his biographer, Andrew Brown: "Left comfortably off, the widowed Mrs Bulwer moved to London. The two elder boys were sent away to school, and Edward was effectively brought up as an only child. Under his mother's devoted tutelage he was reading by the age of four and writing verse at seven. The most significant event of these early years followed the death of Richard Warburton Lytton in December 1810, when his grandfather's vast library was transferred to London. For the next twelve months, before his mother sold the collection that had all but taken over her house, Edward explored his grandfather's books, delighting especially in chivalric romances but dipping also into all manner of scholarly tomes and obscure treatises, thus acquiring a taste for both romantic legend and antiquarian enquiry that he was never to lose."

In 1814 Bulwer was sent to Dr Hooker's academy at Rottingdean, where boys were prepared for entry to Eton College and Harrow School. During this period he discovered the work of Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Bulwer went up to Cambridge University in January 1822. A member of the Cambridge Union he eventually became its president. In September 1824 met and was seduced by Caroline Lamb, the wife of William Lamb, who was eighteen years his senior. The relationship only lasted a few months before she found a new admirer.

After leaving university Bulwer moved to Paris. On his return in April 1826, he met the beautiful, Rosina Wheeler. Her father, Francis Massy Wheeler, was a landowner in County Tipperary. It was her mother, Anna Doyle Wheeler, who was to have the greatest influence on her. Anna was a follower of Robert Owen and was a strong advocate of women's rights. Mrs Bulwer Lytton was deeply upset when she discovered that her son had fallen in love with Rosina. When they married on 29th August 1827, Mrs Bulwer Lytton refused to attend the ceremony and terminated his allowance. He was described as "effeminately handsome and languidly aristocratic, with his long auburn hair in ringlets and his six-foot frame resplendent in the latest fashions".

Bulwer decided to make his living as a writer. His first novel, Falkland, published in March 1827, sold badly. However, his second book, Pelham, or, The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828), was highly successful. The publisher was so pleased by the sales that he was paid £900 for The Disowned (1828) and £1,500 for Devereux (1829). Paul Clifford was published in 1830. The novel caused a stir as the hero of the book was a highwayman.

Henry Colburn appointed Bulwer as the editor of the New Monthly Magazine. Bulwer used the journal to advocate social reform. This caused conflict with Colburn who was a staunch Tory. After 18 months Bulwer resigned and was replaced by Samuel Carter Hall who shared Colburn's political beliefs.

Bulwer was a strong supporter of the ideas of Jeremy Bentham. He once argued: "The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself."

In 1831 he was elected member for St Ives. His maiden speech was in support of the 1832 Reform Act. One result of the passing of this legislation was that he lost his seat in the House of Commons. In December 1832 he was returned for Lincoln.

Bulwer's next novel, Eugene Aram (1832), the hero was a murderer. William Makepeace Thackeray and William Maginn both denounced it as an immoral book but it sold in large numbers. Despite being attacked by the leading literary journals such as Fraser's Magazine and the Quarterly Review, novels by Bulwer continued to enjoy high sales and one critic claimed that Bulwer was "without doubt, the most popular writer now living". Several phrases used by Bulwer in his novels have become clichés. This includes, "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", "talent does what it can, genius does what it must" and "the pen is mightier than the sword".

In 1833 Bulwer published his most original work of non-fiction, England and the English. According to his biographer it was "a survey of the current state of politics, society, and manners; education, morality, and religion; art, literature, and science. Few of his contemporaries could have attempted so ambitious an account of the national character; still fewer could have carried it off with such consistent élan."

Bulwer spent much of the next year carrying out historical research in Italy. On his return he published his most successful book, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). It remained a best-seller for the rest of the century and was translated into ten different languages. Bulwer now replaced Sir Walter Scott as Britain's most popular historical novelist. His next book, Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes (1835), looked at the subject of radical politics in the Roman Empire. Whereas Edward Gibbon saw Cola di Rienzi as a "madman" Bulwer portrayed him as a hero and visionary.

As a member of the House of Commons Bulwer promoted legislation to protect the rights of copyright holders. He also campaigned against the stamp duty on newspapers which he described as a "tax on knowledge" and the monopoly of London's patent theatres (Covent Garden and Drury Lane). He was also one of the first to complain about how the crown could censor plays, through the office of the lord chamberlain. In 1834 he turned down the offer of Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, to become lordship of the admiralty.

Rosina Wheeler complained bitterly about the way his political and literary activities took up Bulwer's time. She was also outraged when she discovered he was having an affair with Laura Deacon (she was later to give birth to three of his children). On 19th April 1836 they signed a formal deed of separation, citing "incompatibility of temper". Bulwer later recalled: "What a mistake to suppose that the passions are strongest in youth! The passions are not stronger, but the control over them is weaker! They are more easily excited, they are more violent and apparent; but they have less energy, less durability, less intense and concentrated power than in the maturer life."

Andrew Brown has argued: "Bulwer's creative energy remained undiminished, despite increasing problems with his health, and in the early 1840s he published three major novels in quick succession. The sensational melodrama Night and Morning (1841) turns on the moral distinction between socially induced criminality and socially respectable vice. Zanoni (1842), arguably his most original work of fiction, is set during the French Revolution and steeped in the occult lore of which he had become a serious student. The eponymous hero is a Rosicrucian sage who has mastered the secret of immortality but relinquishes this gift to save the life of the woman he loves. The spectacular dénouement, in which he dies in her place on the guillotine, clearly anticipates that of A Tale of Two Cities almost twenty years later."

On the death of his mother in 1843 he changed his name in her memory. Bulwer-Lytton also lost most of his radical beliefs. He fell out with the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, and in 1852 he stood for Hertfordshire as a member of the Conservative Party. During this period Bulwer-Lytton joined Charles Dickens, John Forster, William Harrison Ainsworth, William Macready, Daniel Maclise and Augustus Egg to form the The Guild of Literature and Art. Their intention was to fund a system of annuities and pensions to support writers and artists of distinction who had fallen upon hard times. Dickens named his last child, Edward Bulwer Lytton, after his great friend.

Bulwer-Lytton continued to write and in 1853 George Routledge paid the unprecedented sum of £20,000 for a ten-year lease of the copyrights to his nineteen existing novels. Routledge reissued these books as part of the 1s. 6d. Railway Library. In 1857 W. H. Smith reported that Bulwer-Lytton was the most requested author at his station bookstalls.

In May 1858, Catherine Dickens accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen Ternan. Her daughter, Kate Dickens, says her mother was distraught by the incident. Charles Dickens responded by a meeting with his solicitors. By the end of the month he negotiated a settlement where Catherine should have £400 a year and a carriage and the children would live with Dickens. Later, the children insisted they had been forced to live with their father.

The following month Charles Dickens decided to issue a statement to the press about the rumours involving him and two unnamed women (Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth): "By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... I most solemnly declare, then - and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name - that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth."

The statement was published in The Times and Household Words. However, Punch Magazine, edited by his great friend, Mark Lemon, refused, bringing an end to their long friendship. Frederick Evans supported Lemon in this dispute. William Makepeace Thackeray also took the side of Catherine and he was also banned from the house. Dickens was so upset that he insisted that his daughters, Mamie Dickens and Kate Dickens, brought an end to their friendship with the children of Lemon and Thackeray.

Bulwer-Lytton and William Macready, unlike most of his close friends, both supported him in his actions. Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011) has argued: "With Bulwer, Dickens was on excellent terms, and since he had suffered his own marital disaster he was sympathetic, even inviting Dickens to bring Georgina and Mamie with him to stay at Knebworth. Macready, now living in Cheltenham, remained affectionate and uncensorious. His grand-daughter said later that he took the Nelly Ternan affair quite calmly as he knew that Dickens was not the celibate type, and that he quite approved of his separation from his wife. He was perturbed only when, as he thought, Dickens was conducting the affair with insufficient discretion, and risking a public scandal."

In 1858 Lord Derby, the Prime Minister, appointed Bulwer-Lytton as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and therefore served alongside his old friend Benjamin Disraeli. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Lytton of Knebworth in 1866. However, he was an inactive member of the House of Lords and concentrated on his writing career. This included many contributions to All the Year Round, a journal owned by his great friend, Charles Dickens.

Bulwer-Lytton's novel, The Coming Race (1871), was a work of great importance. As Andrew Brown has pointed out: "The novel, a dystopian satire on evolutionary theory and the emancipation of women, is one of the earliest English examples of science fiction. An American mining engineer descends into the centre of the earth and encounters a subterranean people whose extraordinary technological and telekinetic power derives from their control of a mysterious energy called vril. The book proved so popular (it ran through eight editions in eighteen months) that the word vril briefly entered the language, signifying a strength-giving elixir."

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, died on 18th January 1873. During his lifetime he was outsold only by Charles Dickens. For the next thirty years he remained popular but today his work is largely forgotten.

Primary Sources

(1) Claire Tomalin, the author of Dickens: A Life (2011)

With Bulwer, Dickens was on excellent terms, and since he had suffered his own marital disaster he was sympathetic, even inviting Dickens to bring Georgina and Mamie with him to stay at Knebworth. Macready, now living in Cheltenham, remained affectionate and uncensorious. His grand-daughter said later that he took the Nelly Ternan affair quite calmly as he knew that Dickens was not the celibate type, and that he quite approved of his separation from his wife. He was perturbed only when, as he thought, Dickens was conducting the affair with insufficient discretion, and risking a public scandal.Macready delighted Dickens by marrying again, in March 1860, Cecilia Spencer, a young woman of twenty-three to his sixty-seven, and his bride was soon pregnant.