Thursday, 1 November 2012

Edward Bulwer-Lytton


Visit Knebworth, ancestral home of the Lytton family, and before the first Baron’s writing desk the guide informs you that although he was a very famous novelist in his day nobody reads him any more. This is not much of an exaggeration. The last of his books to be popular was The Last Days of Pompeii, a cruder work than his best historical novels, though credited with inspiring Madame Blavatsky to her adventurous career as mystical hierophant and founder of the theosophical society. But it would be wrong to conclude from the fact that he is not read to the judgement that he is not worth reading. Why has this idea taken hold?

Born Edward Bulwer in 1803, he was educated at Trinity Hall Cambridge. He began writing to finance an extravagant lifestyle as man of fashion. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858. For his achievements as novelist, playwright and statesman, he was elevated to the peerage in 1866. For forty years he was known as Bulwer, for twenty-two, having added his mother's surname on inheriting Knebworth, Bulwer-Lytton, and the last seven as Lord Lytton. He died in 1873. Lytton’s work expresses some of the most significant intellectual currents of the nineteenth century, several of which are far from are exhausted. He treated intelligently and interestingly perennial themes of good and evil, of freedom and despotism, egoism and altruism, life affirmation and the power of will. His treatment can seem all the fresher partly because he is no longer familiar. His influence was world-wide. It was notable in Germany, whose deep and thoughtful culture he both affected and was affected by. He was influenced by Schiller (whom he translated), and by Goethe, sharing something of the latter's eclectic liveliness, and exploring subjects that strongly suggest his speculations about the daemonic. His novel of thirteenth century Italy, Rienzi, inspired Wagner's third opera.

Britain and Germany have often seemed far apart culturally, looking to different types of philosophy, and separated by a degree of mutual contempt. British writers deplore Germany's tendency to obscurity and dangerously misguided enthusiasm, Germans British pedestrianism of ideas and arrogant insularity. To some continental critics, the stranglehold of the old universities has adversely affected the whole of English cultural life. Such criticism was by no means unechoed in Britain.. Some of Bulwer's thoughts upon power and charisma suggest a discontent that a complacent English culture has often felt able to dismiss as typical of an alien tradition.

Coleridge and Carlyle are examples of that enthusiasm for Germany that was a significant strand in nineteenth century British culture. Many in Victorian times had ideas of Germany as a kind of alternative England, a place of new possibilities, romantically rich, a new country to be constructed. We may think of the creation of an original German culture as an international project, with a not altogether happy outcome. Viewing Bulwer as part of this is to guard against thinking solely in terms of English literature. For the German connection see ZIPSER Richard A., Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Germany,: Berne & Frankfurt/M.: Herbert Lang, 1974.

Allan Conrad Christensen, author of one modern study (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the fiction of new regions, Athens, GA University of Georgia Press 1976), asserts that Lytton was 'not one of the very great novelists' and that he is interesting for his ideals and aspirations more than for the perfection of his work. He says that he throws valuable light on the thought of the Victorians, on their view of the world. Though he also argues for his intrinsic interest, many might think that Bulwer is mostly of concern to historians, and students of the Victorian age, and that for literature we should read other novelists. That he was original and influential no one would deny. Others have surpassed him in some, perhaps most, of the genres in which he worked. Vanity Fair has been called the masterpiece of the fashionable, Oliver Twist of the Newgate school. Some conclude that his influence has passed on, into other and greater writers, with the implicit suggestion that he has nothing to say to us. This is very disputable, certainly in view of much of the nineteenth literature that still continues to be read. Many of the ideas expressed are as lively and relevant today as they were when he wrote.

As for Bulwer's deficiency in purely literary qualities, that is less decisive than some critics have held. Understanding something of what his ideas are, we no longer judge him by some simplistic canon of what is or is not ‘great literature’. Supposed weaknesses of style like his unfashionable archaism, need not obstruct appreciation. Admittedly he has acquired an unfortunate reputation for corniness. The opening lines of his Paul Clifford (1830) have inspired a number of childish jokes, largely through the influence of Schultz’s Peanuts strip cartoon. The sentence runs: - "It was a dark and stormy night and 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." This is supposed to be so laughable that someone is offering an annual ‘Bulwer-Lytton prize’ for bad writing.

Another obvious obstacle is the sheer diversity and range of his work. No one is likely to be drawn to all of it. I only feel qualified to argue for the interest of some of it, and to indicate a few of his more notable themes. Far from being superseded, his best work is unique in English literature, of permanent interest, and quite unfairly ignored. It would be surprising if someone who made so many successful hits never attained to lasting originality Admittedly the idea of having to plough through his whole oeuvre would be dismaying. I am prepared to concede that a work like Ernest Maltravers (1837)* may well be dead for the rest of time, though I would not want to pontificate on the subject. Who could say where a Lytton revival might lead?

We can certainly see him as a representative Victorian, with his roots appropriately in an earlier era. He was a survivor from the days of George IV. His first poetry was published in 1820, his first novel in 1827. All his life he cultivated a dandy image which came to seem worse than old fashioned. It inspired counter accusations of effeminacy from Tennyson, whom he had himself accused of girlishness. This inspired a lifelong feud. ...

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