1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lytton, Edward George Earle Lytton, Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron
LYTTON, EDWARD GEORGE EARLE LYTTON, BULWER-LYTTON, 1st Baron (1803–1873), English novelist and politician, the youngest son of General William Earle Bulwer of Heydon Hall and Wood Dalling, Norfolk, was born in London on the 25th of May 1803. He had two brothers, William (1799–1877) and Henry (1801–1872), afterwards Lord Dalling (q.v.). Bulwer’s father died when the boy was four years old. His mother, Elizabeth Barbara, daughter of Richard Warburton Lytton of Knebworth, Hertfordshire, after her husband’s death settled in London. Bulwer, who was delicate and neurotic, gave evidence of precocious talent and was sent to various boarding schools, where he was always discontented, until in the establishment of a Mr Wallington at Ealing he found in his master a sympathetic and admiring listener. Mr Wallington induced him to publish, at the age of fifteen, an immature volume entitled Ishmael and other Poems. About this time Bulwer fell in love, and became extremely morbid under enforced separation from the young lady, who was induced by her father to marry another man. She died about the time that Bulwer went to Cambridge, and he declared that her loss affected all his after-life. In 1822 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but removed shortly afterwards to Trinity Hall, and in 1825 won the Chancellor’s medal for English verse with a poem on “Sculpture.” In the following year he took his B.A. degree and printed for private circulation a small volume of poems, Weeds and Wild Flowers, in which the influence of Byron was easily traceable. In 1827 he published O’Neill, or the Rebel, a romance, in heroic couplets, of patriotic struggle in Ireland, and in 1831 a metrical satire, The Siamese Twins. These juvenilia he afterwards ignored.
Meanwhile he had begun to take his place in society, being already known as a dandy of considerable pretensions, who had acted as second in a duel and experienced the fashionable round of flirtation and intrigue. He purchased a commission in the army, only to sell it again without undergoing any service, and in August 1827 married, in opposition to his mother’s wishes, Rosina Doyle Wheeler (1802–1882), an Irish beauty, niece and adopted daughter of General Sir John Doyle. She was a brilliant but passionate girl, and upon his marriage with her, Bulwer’s mother withdrew the allowance she had hitherto made him. He had £200 a year from his father, and less than £100 a year with his wife, and found it necessary to set to work in earnest. In the year of his marriage he published Falkland, a novel which was only a moderate success, but in 1828 he attracted general attention with Pelham, a novel for which he had gathered material during a visit to Paris in 1825. This story, with its intimate study of the dandyism of the age, was immediately popular, and gossip was busy in identifying the characters of the romance with the leading men of the time. In the same year he published The Disowned, following it up with Devereux (1829), Paul Cliford (1839), Eugene Aram (1832) and Godolphin (1833). All these novels were designed with a didactic purpose, somewhat upon the German model. To embody the leading features of a period, to show how a criminal may be reformed by the development of his own character, to explain the secrets of failure and success in life, these were the avowed objects of his art, and there were not wanting critics ready to call in question his sincerity and his morality. Magazine controversy followed, in which Bulwer was induced to take a part, and about the same time he began to make a mark in politics. He became a follower of Bentham, and in 1831 was elected member for St Ives in Huntingdon. During this period of feverish activity his relations with his wife grew less and less satisfactory. At first she had cause to complain that he neglected her in the pursuit of literary reputation; later on his disregard became rather active than passive. After a series of distressing differences they decided to live apart, and were legally separated in 1836. Three years later his wife published a novel called Cheveley, or the Man of Honour, in which Bulwer was bitterly caricatured, and in June 1858, when her husband was standing as parliamentary candidate for Hertfordshire, she appeared at the hustings and indignantly denounced him. She was consequently placed under restraint as insane, but liberated a few weeks later. For years she continued her attacks upon her husband’s character, and outlived him by nine years, dying at Upper Sydenham in March 1882. There is little doubt that her passionate imagination gravely exaggerated the tale of her wrongs, though Bulwer was certainly no model for husbands. It was a case of two undisciplined natures in domestic bondage, and the consequences of their union were as inevitable as they were unfortunate.
Bulwer, meanwhile, was full of activity, both literary and political. After representing St Ives, 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 leading part in securing the reduction, after vainly essaying the repeal, of the newspaper stamp duties. His pamphlet, issued when the Whigs were dismissed from office in 1834, and entitled “A Letter to a Late Cabinet Minister on the Crisis,” was immensely influential, and Lord Melbourne offered him a lordship of the admiralty, which he declined as likely to interfere with his activity as an author. At this time, indeed, his pen was indefatigable. Godolphin was followed by The Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834), a graceful fantasy, too German in sentiment to be quite successful in England, and then in The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi (1835) he reached the height of his popularity. He took great pains with these stories, and despite their lurid colouring and mannered over-emphasis, they undoubtedly indicate the high water mark of his talent. Their reception was enthusiastic, and Ernest Maltravers (1837) and Alice, or the Mysteries (1838) were hardly less successful. At the same time he had been plunging into journalism. In 1831 he undertook the editorship of the New Monthly, which, however, he resigned in the following year, but in 1841, the year in which he published Night and Morning, he started the Monthly Chronicle, a semi-scientific magazine, for which he wrote Zicci, an unfinished first draft afterwards expanded into Zanoni (1842). As though this multifarious fecundity were not sufficient, he had also been busy in the field of dramatic literature. In 1838 he produced The Lady of Lyons, a play which Macready made a great success at Covent Garden: in 1839 Richelieu and The Sea Captain, and in 1840 Money. All, except The Sea Captain, were successful, and this solitary failure he revived in 1869 under the title of The Rightful Heir. Of the others it may be said that, though they abound in examples of strained sentiment and false taste, they have nevertheless a certain theatrical flair, which has enabled them to survive a whole library of stage literature of greater sincerity and truer feeling. The Lady of Lyons and Money have long held the stage, and to the last-named, at least, some of the most talented of modern comedians have given new life and probability.
In 1838 Bulwer, then at the height of his popularity, was created a baronet, and on succeeding to the Knebworth estate in 1843 added Lytton to his surname, under the terms of his mother’s will. From 1841 to 1852 he had no seat in parliament, and spent much of his time in continental travel. His literary activity waned somewhat, but was still remarkably alert for a man who had already done so much. In 1843 he issued The Last of the Barons, which many critics have considered the most historically sound and generally effective of all his romances; in 1847 Lucretia, or the Children of the Night, and in 1848 Harold, the last of the Saxon Kings. In the intervals between these heavier productions he had thrown off a volume of poems in 1842, another of translations from Schiller in 1844, and a satire called The New Timon in 1846, in which Tennyson, who had just received a Civil List pension, was bitterly lampooned as “school miss Alfred,” with other unedifying amenities; Tennyson retorted with some verses in which he addressed Bulwer-Lytton as “you band-box.” These poetic excursions were followed by his most ambitious work in metre, a romantic epic entitled King Arthur, of which he expected much, and he was greatly disappointed by its apathetic reception. Having experienced some rather acid criticism, questioning the morality of his novels, he next essayed a form of fiction which he was determined should leave no loophole to suspicion, and in The Caxtons (1849), published at first anonymously, gave further proof of his versatility and resource. My Novel (1853) and What will he do with it? were designed to prolong the same strain.
In 1852 he entered the political field anew, and in the conservative interest. He had differed from the policy of Lord John Russell over the corn laws, and now separated finally from the liberals. He stood for Hertfordshire and was elected, holding the seat till 1866, when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Lytton of Knebworth. His eloquence gave him the ear of the House of Commons, and he often spoke with influence and authority. In 1858 he was appointed secretary for the colonies. In the House of Lords he was comparatively inactive. His last novels were A Strange Story (1862), a mystical romance with spiritualistic tendencies; The Coming Race (1871), The Parisians (1873)—both unacknowledged at the time of his death; and Kenelm Chillingly, which was in course of publication in Blackwood’s Magazine when Lytton died at Torquay on the 18th of January 1873. The last three of his stories were classed by his son, the 2nd Lord Lytton, as a trilogy, animated by a common purpose, to exhibit the influence of modern ideas upon character and conduct.
Bulwer-Lytton’s attitude towards life was theatrical, the language of his sentiments was artificial and over-decorated, and the tone of his work was often so flamboyant as to give an impression of false taste and judgment. Nevertheless, he built up each of his stories upon a deliberate and careful framework; he was assiduous according to his lights in historical research; and conscientious in the details of workmanship. As the fashion of his day has become obsolete the immediate appeal of his work has diminished. It will always, however, retain its interest, not only for the merits of certain individual novels, but as a mirror of the prevailing intellectual movement of the first ’half of the 19th century. .
See T. H. S. Escott, Edward Bulwer, 1st Baron Lytton of Knebworth (1910).