Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)
It was a dark and stormy night.
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, was an English writer and politician. He served as a Whig member of Parliament from 1831 to 1841 and a Conservative from 1851 to 1866. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies from June 1858 to June 1859, choosing Richard Clement Moody as founder of British Columbia. He declined the Crown of Greece in 1862 after King Otto abdicated. He was created Baron Lytton of Knebworth in 1866. His marriage to the writer Rosina Bulwer Lytton broke down. Her detention in an insane asylum provoked a public outcry. Bulwer-Lytton's works sold and paid him well. He coined the phrases "the great unwashed", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", "the pen is mightier than the sword", and "dweller on the threshold", and the opening phrase "It was a dark and stormy night." Yet his standing declined and he is little read today. The sardonic Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, held annually since 1982, claims to seek the "opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels".
Bulwer was born on 25 May 1803 to General William Earle Bulwer of Heydon Hall and Wood Dalling, Norfolk and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton, daughter of Richard Warburton Lytton of Knebworth House, Hertfordshire. He had two older brothers, William Earle Lytton Bulwer 1799–1877 and Henry 1801–1872, later Lord Dalling and Bulwer.
His father died and his mother moved to London when he was four years old. When he was 15, a tutor named Wallington, who tutored him at Ealing, encouraged him to publish an immature work: Ishmael and Other Poems. Around this time, Bulwer fell in love, but the woman's father induced her to marry another man. She died about the time that Bulwer went to Cambridge and he stated that her loss affected all his subsequent life.
In 1822 Bulwer-Lytton entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met John Auldjo, but soon moved to Trinity Hall. In 1825 he won the Chancellor's Gold Medal for English verse. In the following year he took his BA degree and printed for private circulation a small volume of poems, Weeds and Wild Flowers. He purchased an army commission in 1826, but sold it in 1829 without serving.
In August 1827, he married Rosina Doyle Wheeler 1802–1882, a noted Irish beauty, but against the wishes of his mother, who withdrew his allowance, forcing him to work for a living. They had two children, Emily Elizabeth Bulwer-Lytton 1828–1848, and Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton 1831–1891 who became Governor-General and Viceroy of British India 1876–1880. His writing and political work strained their marriage and his infidelity embittered Rosina. In 1833 they separated acrimoniously and in 1836 the separation became legal. Three years later, Rosina published Cheveley, or the Man of Honour 1839, a near-libellous fiction satirising her husband's alleged hypocrisy. In June 1858, when her husband was standing as parliamentary candidate for Hertfordshire, she denounced him at the hustings. He retaliated by threatening her publishers, withholding her allowance and denying her access to their children. Finally he had her committed to a mental asylum, but she was released a few weeks later after a public outcry. This she chronicled in a memoir, A Blighted Life 1880. She continued attacking her husband's character for several years.
The death of Bulwer's mother in 1843 meant his "exhaustion of toil and study had been completed by great anxiety and grief," and by "about the January of 1844, I was thoroughly shattered." In his mother's room at Knebworth House, which he inherited, he "had inscribed above the mantelpiece a request that future generations preserve the room as his beloved mother had used it." It remains hardly changed to this day. On 20 February 1844, in accordance with his mother's will, he changed his surname from Bulwer to Bulwer-Lytton and assumed the arms of Lytton by royal licence. His widowed mother had done the same in 1811. His brothers remained plain "Bulwer".
By chance Bulwer-Lytton encountered a copy of "Captain Claridge's work on the "Water Cure", as practised by Priessnitz, at Graefenberg", and "making allowances for certain exaggerations therein", pondered the option of travelling to Graefenberg, but preferred to find something closer to home, with access to his own doctors in case of failure: "I who scarcely lived through a day without leech or potion!". After reading a pamphlet by Doctor James Wilson, who operated a hydropathic establishment with James Manby Gully at Malvern, he stayed there for "some nine or ten weeks", after which he "continued the system some seven weeks longer under Doctor Weiss, at Petersham", then again at "Doctor Schmidt's magnificent hydropathic establishment at Boppart" at the former Marienberg Convent at Boppard, after developing a cold and fever upon his return home.
When Otto, King of Greece abdicated in 1862, Bulwer-Lytton was offered the Greek Crown, but declined.
The English Rosicrucian society, founded in 1867 by Robert Wentworth Little, claimed Bulwer-Lytton as their "Grand Patron", but he wrote to the society complaining that he was "extremely surprised" by their use of the title, as he had "never sanctioned such." Nevertheless, a number of esoteric groups have continued to claim Bulwer-Lytton as their own, chiefly because some of his writings – such as the 1842 book Zanoni – have included Rosicrucian and other esoteric notions. According to the Fulham Football Club, he once resided in the original Craven Cottage, today the site of their stadium.
Bulwer-Lytton had long suffered from a disease of the ear, and for the last two or three years of his life lived in Torquay nursing his health. After an operation to cure deafness, an abscess formed in the ear and burst; he endured intense pain for a week and died at 2 am on 18 January 1873, just short of his 70th birthday. The cause of death was unclear but it was thought the infection had affected his brain and caused a fit. Rosina outlived him by nine years. Against his wishes, Bulwer-Lytton was honoured with a burial in Westminster Abbey. His unfinished history Athens: Its Rise and Fall was published posthumously.
Bulwer began his political career as a follower of Jeremy Bentham. In 1831 he was elected member for St Ives, Cornwall, after which he was returned for Lincoln in 1832, and sat in Parliament for that city for nine years. He spoke in favour of the Reform Bill and took the lead in securing the reduction, after vainly essaying the repeal, of the newspaper stamp duties. His influence was perhaps most keenly felt when, on the Whigs' dismissal from office in 1834, he issued a pamphlet entitled A Letter to a Late Cabinet Minister on the Crisis. Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, offered him a lordship of the Admiralty, which he declined as likely to interfere with his activity as an author.
Bulwer was created a baronet, of Knebworth House in the County of Hertford, in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom, in 1838. In 1841, he left Parliament and spent much of his time in travel. He did not return to politics until 1852, when having differed from Lord John Russell over the Corn Laws, he stood for Hertfordshire as a Conservative. Bulwer-Lytton held that seat until 1866, when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Lytton of Knebworth in the County of Hertford. In 1858 he entered Lord Derby's government as Secretary of State for the Colonies, thus serving alongside his old friend Disraeli. He was comparatively inactive in the House of Lords.
"Just prior to his government’s defeat in 1859 the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, notified Sir George Ferguson Bowen of his appointment as Governor of the new colony to be known as ‘Queen’s Land’." The draft letter was ranked #4 in the ‘Top 150: Documenting Queensland’ exhibition when it toured to venues around Queensland from February 2009 to April 2010. The exhibition was part of Queensland State Archives’ events and exhibition program which contributed to the state’s Q150 celebrations, marking the 150th anniversary of the separation of Queensland from New South Wales.
When news of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush reached London, Bulwer-Lytton, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, requested that the War Office recommend a field officer, "a man of good judgement possessing a knowledge of mankind", to lead a Corps of 150 later increased to 172 Royal Engineers, who had been selected for their "superior discipline and intelligence". The War Office chose Richard Clement Moody, and Lord Lytton, who described Moody as his "distinguished friend", accepted the nomination in view of Moody's military record, his success as Governor of the Falkland Islands, and the distinguished record of his father, Colonel Thomas Moody, Knight at the Colonial Office.
Moody was charged to establish British order and transform the newly established Colony of British Columbia 1858–66 into the British Empire's "bulwark in the farthest west" and "found a second England on the shores of the Pacific." Lytton desired to send to the colony "representatives of the best of British culture, not just a police force": he sought men who possessed "courtesy, high breeding and urbane knowledge of the world," and decided to send Moody, whom the Government considered to be the archetypal "English gentleman and British Officer." at the head of the Royal Engineers, Columbia Detachment, to whom he wrote an impassioned letter.
The former HBC Fort Dallas at Camchin, the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, was renamed in his honour by Governor Sir James Douglas in 1858 as Lytton, British Columbia.
Bulwer-Lytton's literary career began in 1820 with the publication of a book of poems and spanned much of the 19th century. He wrote in a variety of genres, including historical fiction, mystery, romance, the occult and science fiction. He financed his extravagant way of life with a varied and prolific literary output, sometimes publishing anonymously.
Bulwer-Lytton published Falkland in 1827, a novel which was only a moderate success. But Pelham brought him public acclaim in 1828 and established his reputation as a wit and dandy. Its intricate plot and humorous, intimate portrayal of pre-Victorian dandyism kept gossips busy trying to associate public figures with characters in the book. Pelham resembled Benjamin Disraeli's first novel Vivian Grey 1827. The character of the villainous Richard Crawford in The Disowned, also published in 1828, borrowed much from that of banker and forger Henry Fauntleroy, who was hanged in London in 1824 before a crowd of some 100,000.
Bulwer-Lytton admired Disraeli's father Isaac D'Israeli, himself a noted author. They began corresponding in the late 1820s and met for the first time in March 1830, when Isaac D'Israeli dined at Bulwer-Lytton's house. Also present that evening were Charles Pelham Villiers and Alexander Cockburn. The young Villiers had a long parliamentary career, while Cockburn became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1859.
Bulwer-Lytton reached his height of popularity with the publication of Godolphin 1833. This was followed by The Pilgrims of the Rhine 1834, The Last Days of Pompeii 1834, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes about Cola di Rienzo 1835, Leila; or, The Siege of Granada 1838, and Harold, the Last of the Saxons 1848. The Last Days of Pompeii was inspired by Karl Briullov's painting The Last Day of Pompeii, which Bulwer-Lytton saw in Milan.
His New Timon lampooned Tennyson, who responded in kind. Bulwer-Lytton also wrote the horror story "The Haunted and the Haunters" or "The House and the Brain" 1859. Another novel with a supernatural theme was A Strange Story 1862, which was an influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Bulwer-Lytton wrote many other works, including Vril: The Power of the Coming Race 1871 which drew heavily on his interest in the occult and contributed to the early growth of the science fiction genre. Its story of a subterranean race waiting to reclaim the surface of the Earth is an early science fiction theme. The book popularised the Hollow Earth theory and may have inspired Nazi mysticism. His term "vril" lent its name to Bovril meat extract. "Vril" has been adopted by theosophists and occultists since the 1870s and became closely associated with the ideas of an esoteric neo-Nazism after 1945.
His play Money 1840 was first produced at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, on 8 December 1840. The first American production was at the Old Park Theater in New York on 1 February 1841. Subsequent productions include the Prince of Wales's Theatre's in 1872 and as the inaugural play at the new California Theatre San Francisco in 1869.
Among Bulwer-Lytton's lesser-known contributions to literature was that he convinced Charles Dickens to revise the ending of Great Expectations to make it more palatable to the reading public, as in the original version of the novel, Pip and Estella do not get together.
Bulwer-Lytton's most famous quotation is "The pen is mightier than the sword" from his play Richelieu:
beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword
He popularized the phrase "pursuit of the almighty dollar" from his novel The Coming Race, and he is credited with "the great unwashed", using this disparaging term in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:
He is certainly a man who bathes and "lives cleanly", (two especial charges preferred against him by Messrs. the Great Unwashed).
The writers of theosophy were among those influenced by Bulwer-Lytton's work. Annie Besant and especially Helena Blavatsky incorporated his thoughts and ideas, particularly from The Last Days of Pompeii, Vril, the Power of the Coming Race and Zanoni in her own books.
Bulwer-Lytton's name lives on in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants think up terrible openings for imaginary novels, inspired by the first line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which 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.
Entrants in the contest seek to capture the rapid changes in point of view, the florid language, and the atmosphere of the full sentence. The opening was popularized by the Peanuts comic strip, in which Snoopy's sessions on the typewriter usually began with It was a dark and stormy night. The same words also form the first sentence of Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. Similar wording appears in Edgar Allan Poe's 1831 short story, The Bargain Lost, although not at the very beginning. It reads:
It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in cataracts; and drowsy citizens started, from dreams of the deluge, to gaze upon the boisterous sea, which foamed and bellowed for admittance into the proud towers and marble palaces. Who would have thought of passions so fierce in that calm water that slumbers all day long? At a slight alabaster stand, trembling beneath the ponderous tomes which it supported, sat the hero of our story.
Several of Bulwer-Lytton's novels were made into operas. One of them, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen 1842 by Richard Wagner, eventually became more famous than the novel. Leonora 1846 by William Henry Fry, the first European-styled "grand" opera composed in the United States, is based on Bulwer-Lytton's play The Lady of Lyons, as is Frederic Cowen's first opera Pauline 1876. Verdi rival Errico Petrella's most successful opera, Jone 1858, was based upon Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, and was performed all over the world until the First World War. Harold, the Last of the Saxons 1848 was the source for Verdi's opera Aroldo in 1857.
In addition to his political and literary work, Bulwer-Lytton became the editor of the New Monthly in 1831, but he resigned the following year. In 1841, he started the Monthly Chronicle, a semi-scientific magazine. During his career he wrote poetry, prose, and stage plays; his last novel was Kenelm Chillingly, which was in course of publication in Blackwood’s Magazine at the time of his death in 1873.
Bulwer-Lytton's works of fiction and non-fiction were translated in his day and since then into many languages, including Serbian by Laza Kostic, German, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Finnish, and Spanish. In 1879, his Ernest Maltravers was the first complete novel from the West to be translated into Japanese.
In Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the suburb of Lytton, the town of Bulwer on Moreton Island Moorgumpin and the neighbourhood former island of Bulwer Island are named after him. The township of Lytton, Quebec today part of Montcerf-Lytton was named after him as was Lytton, British Columbia, and Lytton, Iowa. Lytton Road in Gisborne, New Zealand was named after the novelist. Later a state secondary school, Lytton High School, was founded in the road.
Portrayal on television
Bulwer-Lytton was portrayed by the actor Brett Usher in the 1978 television serial Disraeli.
Works by Bulwer-Lytton
- Falkland (1827)
- Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828) Available online
- The Disowned (1829)
- Devereux (1829)
- Paul Clifford (1830) Available online
- Eugene Aram (1832) Available online
- Godolphin (1833)
- Asmodeus at Large (1833)
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) Available online
- The Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834)
- Rienzi, the last of the Roman tribunes (1835) Available online
- The Student (1835)
- Ernest Maltravers; or The Eleusinia (1837) Available online
- Alice, or The Mysteries (1838) A sequel to Ernest Maltravers Available online
- Calderon, the Courtier (1838)
- Leila; or, The Siege of Granada (1838) Available online
- Zicci: a Tale (1838) Available online
- Night and Morning (1841) Available online
- Zanoni (1842) Available online
- The Last of the Barons (1843) Available online
- Lucretia (1846) Available online
- Harold, the Last of the Saxons (1848) Available online
- The Caxtons: A Family Picture (1849) Available online
- A Strange Story (1850) Available online
- My Novel, or Varieties in English Life (1853)
- The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain (novelette, 1859) Available online
- What Will He Do With It? (1858)
- A Strange Story (1862)
- The Coming Race (1871), republished as Vril: The Power of the Coming RaceAvailable online
- Kenelm Chillingly (1873)
- The Parisians (1873)
- Pausanias, the Spartan – Unfinished (1873)
- Ismael 1820
- The New Timon 1846, an attack on Tennyson published anonymously
- King Arthur 1848–1849
- The Duchess de la Vallière (1837)
- The Lady of Lyons (1838)
- Richelieu (1839), adapted for the 1935 film Cardinal Richelieu
- Money (1840)
- Not So Bad as We Seem, or, Many Sides to a Character: A Comedy in Five Acts (1851)
- The Rightful Heir (1868), based on The Sea Captain, an earlier play of Lytton's
- Walpole, or Every Man Has His Price
- Darnley (unfinished)