Edward George Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (May 25, 1803 - January 18, 1873) was an English novelist, playwright, and politician.
He was the youngest son of General William Earle Bulwer of Heydon Hall and Wood Balling, and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton, daughter of Richard Warburton Lytton of Knebworth, Hertfordshire. He had two brothers, William (1799-1877) and Henry (1801-1872), afterwards Lord Dalling.
Bulwer's father died he was four years old. His mother then settled in London. A delicate and neurotic, but precocious, child, he was sent to various boarding schools, where he was always discontented, until in the establishment of a Mr Wallington at Baling he found a sympathetic and admiring listener. Mr Wallington encouraged him to publish, at the age of fifteen, an immature work, Ishmael and other Poems. About this time the boy 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 strongly affected his subsequent life. In 1822 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but moved 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.
He purchased a commission in the army, but sold it again without serving, 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. Upon their marriage, Bulwer's mother withdrew his allowance. He had £200 a year from his father, and less than £100 a year with his wife, so he was forced to set to work seriously. In the year of his marriage he published Falkland, a moderately successful novel, 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 Clifford (1830), Eugene Aram (1832) and Godolphin (1833). All these novels were designed with a didactic purpose, after 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, were among his objectives, and there were many critics ready to call into question his sincerity and his morality. Bulwer soon began to make a mark in politics. He became a follower of Jeremy Bentham, and in 1831 was elected member for St Ives in Huntingdon. During this period of feverish activity, his relations with his wife suffered. At first he neglected her in the pursuit of literary reputation. 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 Cizeveley, 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; she 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, then Prime Minister, 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 highwater 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 was trying journalism. In 1831 he undertook the editorship of the New Monthly, but resigned in the following year. 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 Zanani (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 latter, 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 1845 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 Blackwoods 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.
Arno Schmidt translated two of his novels (What will he do with it?, 1971, and My Novel, 1973) into German.
Current day reputation
A prolific novelist in his day, he is now almost forgotten, his name living on in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants have to supply the openings of terrible (imaginary) novels. This was inspired by his novel Paul Clifford, which opens with the famous words,
"It was a dark and stormy night"
or to give the sentence in its full glory:
"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."
The opening phrase was popularized by the Peanuts comic strip: Snoopy would often begin with it at the typewriter. Winners in the contest capture the rapid changes in point of view, the florid language, and the atmosphere of the full sentence.
A second contest, the Lyttle Lytton contest (http://adamcadre.ac/lyttle.html), also asks for opening sentences of terrible novels, but limits entries to 25 words maximum. The contest has run from 1 January to 15 April in 2001 through 2004.
Paul Clifford (1830)
The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)
My Novel (1853) - http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7714
What will he do with it? - http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7671
A Strange Story (1862)
The Coming Race (1871) - In this novel, Bulwer-Lytton invented the word "Vril", which was later adopted by groups such as the Theosophists, and even inspired the name of the beef extract Bovril
"You speak as one who fed on poetry." Richelieu. Act i. Sc. vi.
"Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword." Richelieu Act ii. Sc. ii