1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
(Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton)
English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician

LYTTON, EDWARD GEORGE EARLE LYTTON BULWER LYTTON, BARON (1805-1873), novelist, dramatist, poet, politician, miscellaneous essayist, the most versatile writer and one of the most active and widely discursive theorizers of his generation, was born in May 1805, the youngest of the three sons of General Bulwer, of Heydon Hall and Wood Dalling, Norfolk. He was a few months younger than Benjamin Disraeli; the two lives acted not a little one on the other, and offer many curious points of like-ness and contrast. Bulwer's father died when he was two years old ; the care of the boy devolved on his mother, one of the Lyttons of Knebworth, Hertfordshire, whose name he afterwards assumed. To this devoted and accomplished mother he always expressed the warmest gratitude for his early training. He was not sent to a public school; he was educated privately.

In his novels and essays he often discusses the advantages and disadvantages of public schools. One thing is tolerably certain—that if he had been sent to a public school he would not have published at the age of fifteen a volume of poems (Ismael, an Oriental Tale, with other Poems, 1820). Generous sentiment and eager love of fame are more conspicuous in these juvenile productions than metrical faculty. One of the poems dwells warmly on the ancient glories of the house of Lytton; the volume as a whole is dedicated to "the British public-—that generous public who have always been the fosterers of industry or genius, who have always looked forward from the imperfections of youth to the fruits of maturity." The youthful poet criticizes Byron from the point of view of a respectable household ; but, though he seems to have been taught to make Pope, Gray, and Collins his models, the Byronic influence is very apparent both in phrase and in sentiment. In the local colouring of the " Oriental Tale " he gives promise, afterwards amply fulfilled, of painstaking study of his materials; and " Geraldine, or the Fatal Boon," gives a good foretaste of his fertility in the invention of romantic incident.

At Cambridge, in 1825, Bulwer won the chancellor's medal with a poem on "Sculpture." In 1826 he printed for private circulation Weeds and Wild Flowers. In 1827 he published O'Neill, or the Rebel, a romance, in heroic couplets, of patriotic struggle in Ireland, dedicated to Lady Blessington. These juvenilia, and also a metrical satire, The Siamese Twins, issued in 1831, he afterwards ignored, describing The New Timon as his first publication in verse, with the exception of his dramas and translations from Schiller.

Bulwer's first romance, Falkland, published anonymously in 1827, was in the vein of fantastic German romance popular at the beginning of the century, and did not bring him the fame that he coveted so ardently. It was other-wise with Pelham, published in the following year. In this he went with the native stream of fiction, and at once made himself felt as a power. For two or three years before he wrote Pelham, the books of the season had been novels of remarkable freshness and brilliancy dealing with fashionable life—Plumer Ward's now forgotten but then much-talked-of Tremaine, Theodore Hook's Sayings and Doings, Lister's Granby, Disraeli's Vivian Grey. With these brilliant celebrities Bulwer, always a chivalrous emulator of whatever was famous, entered into direct com-petition, and at once became at least their equal in popular favour. If we compare this his first novel with any of his last productions, he strikes us as having attained at a bound to the full measure of his powers. That he wrote Pelham at twenty-two is a much more remarkable fact than that he wrote ballads at five. The plot is not perhaps so closely woven together as in The Parisians, but the variety of character introduced from high life, low life, and middle life is quite as great. He had evidently been fascinated by Wilhelm Meister, and the central purpose of his story is to run the hero through an apprenticeship like Wilhelm's. All kinds of human beings and all their works are interest-ing to Pelham, the man of fashion, the bustling statesman, the selfish epicure, the retiring scholar, the reckless rogue and vagabond, the melodramatic Byronic man of mystery; ; and his adventures are so contrived as to bring him in ; contact with many different types. The novel might have been called The Londoners ; most of the criticisms of life j and books in England and the English, published in 1833, may be found in Pelham, delivered through the mouths of various characters. These characters are great talkers ; no subject, from a rare dish or a nicety of costume to a painting or a philosophical treatise, is strange to them. And, curiously enough, the judgments of the youth of twenty-two are as mature, as large, catholic, generous, widely sympathetic, as those of the sage of sixty-six, and his knowledge of men and books hardly less extensive. Pelham displayed—in the literal sense of the word— extraordinary vivacity of intellect and range of interest. The author was yet to prove that with his wonderful powers of reading, observing, and reflecting was combined a faculty rarely found in union with such gifts, untiring rapidity of production. In the preface to his juvenile " Ismael," he speaks of a habit of his never to leave any-thing unfinished, and during his long life he began and finished many works in many different veins. Pelham was followed in quick succession by The Disowned (1828), Devereux (1829), Paul Clifford (1830), Eugene Aram and Godolphin (1833). Bulwer was deeply impressed with German theories of art; all these novels were novels with a purpose, moral purpose, psychological purpose, historical purpose. To embody the leading features of a period, of a phase of civilization, to trace the influence of circum-stance on character, to show how the criminal may be reformed by the development of his better nature, and how men of fine nature may be led stage by stage into crime, to explain the secrets of success and failure in life—these, apart from the purely dramatic object of exhibiting inward struggles between the first conceptions of desires and their fulfilment, and between triumph and retribution, were his avowed aims as a novelist. He did not leave his purposes to the interpreter; he was a critic as well as a creator, and he criticized his own works frankly, and laboured to admit other critics to a fair point of view. It was perhaps a, tribute to the intrinsic interest of his plots, characters, and descriptions that he was under the necessity of begging attention to these higher aims. In The Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834), a work of graceful fantasy, in which some of his most acute observations on human life are incorporated with the sayings and doings of elves and fairies, an ambitious author is made to complain that " the subtle aims that had inspired him were not perceived," and that he was often approved for what he condemned himself. The Pilgrims, charmingly written in many passages, was too German in its combination of serious thought and mundane personages with fairies to be heartily welcomed by the English public. Bulwer was more successful in another attempt to break new ground in The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi (1835). No historical romances dealing with times and scenes so remote were ever more widely popular in England, and in aiming at popularity the author laboured hard to secure historical accuracy. In Athens, its Rise and Fall (1836), we re-ceived in the form of historical essays what had probably been acquired industriously as materials for romance. Two romances from Spanish history, Leila and Calderon, published in 1838, aimed at a less realistic treatment, and, with all their purely literary excellences, were not so popu-lar. In Ernest Maltravers (1837) and its sequel Alice, or The Mysteries (1838), the novelist returned to English ground and psychological and social problems—" the affliction of the good, the triumph of the unprincipled." Critics to whom he failed to make the full purpose of these works apparent in the execution complained of the low tone of their morality, a fair complaint concerning most exhibitions of vice as a warning.

To his other literary labours Bulwer superadded for some time the editorship of a magazine. He succeeded Campbell as editor of The New Monthly in 1833. In 1838 he projected a magazine called The Monthly Chronicle, and contributed to it as a serial story the fantastic romance "Zicci." The magazine expired before the story was com-pleted, and it was afterwards developed into Zanoni, a romance of which he was himself especially proud, and which suffered in public estimation from being tried by realistic standards.

During the most productive period of his literary life Bulwer was an eminent member of parliament. He was returned for St Ives in 1831, and sat for Lincoln from j 1832 to 1841. He spoke in favour of the Beform Bill, and took the leading part in obtaining the reduction, after vainly trying to procure the repeal, of the newspaper stamp duties. His support of the Whigs in parliament, and by a pamphlet on " the crisis" when they were i dismissed from office in 1834, was considered so valuable that Lord Melbourne offered him a place in the administra-tion. His intimacy with Badical leaders at this period exposed him to an undeserved charge of tergiversation when later in life he was a member of a Conservative Govern-ment. Charles Buller and Charles Villiers were among his friends at Cambridge; he was an admiring student of j Bentham ; Mill's Essay on Government was the text-book on which was founded " Pelham's " instruction by his uncle \ in the principles of politics ; J. S. Mill contributed the substance of the appendices to England and the English, on Bentham and Mill; Godwin suggested to him the | subject and some part of the plot of Eugene Aram ; he ] even succeeded in winning the good opinion of Miss Martineau ; but we have only to read his speech in favour of the Beform Bill to see that it was the situation that had j changed and not the man when he assailed the repeal of the corn laws, and took office under Lord Derby. Bulwer's leading political aim, like his leading artistic aims, was early formulated, and the formula governed all his political reasoning : it was to " aristocratize the community," " to elevate the masses in character and feeling to the standard which conservatism works in aristocracy," a standard not of wealth or pedigree but of " superior education, courte-ous manners, and high honour." Hence it was "social reforms" from first to last that enlisted his interest, and he sought the motive power for these reforms in the public spirit of the classes enfranchised by the Beform Act of 1832.

There was a slight break in Bulwer's career as a novelist I between 1838 and 1847. During this interval he ap-' plied himself enthusiastically to play writing,—Macready's management of Covent Garden having inspired men of i letters with the hope of reconciling poetry with the stage. In 1836 he had produced The Duchess of La Valliere. It was a failure. But in 1838 and the two following years he produced three plays which have kept the stage ever since—The Lady of Lyons, Richelieu, and Money. In his plays as in his novels definite theory preceded execution. The principles on which he wrote his plays were laid down in his chapter on the drama in England and the English. For many of the details of stagecraft, all-important to success under any principles, he is said to have been indebted to Macready. No Englishman not himself an actor has written so many permanently successful plays as ! Bulwer Lytton, and this is another instance of his ! extraordinary plasticity of mind and practical insight.

Thirty years afterwards, in 1869, he turned his thoughts I again to writing for the stage, recast an old failure with a new title The Rightful Heir, and produced a new comedy, Walpole. Neither was a success.

From 1841 to 1852 Bulwer (he assumed his mother's name of Lytton on succeeding to her estates in 1843) had no seat in parliament. But the issue of novels and romances was not so rapid as it had been in the full energy of his youth. Before 1849, when he opened a new vein with The Gaxtons, he produced five works in his familiar vein :—Night and Morning (1841, in which the influence of Dickens is traceable), Zanoni (1842), The Last of the Barons (1843, the most historically solid, and perhaps the most effective of his romances), Lucretia, or the Children of the Night (1847; moral purpose—to exhibit the horrors caused by the worship of money; popular effect—disgust at these horrors, and indignation at the author's sentiment as morbid), Harold, The Last of the Saxon Kings (1848).

The cause of the comparative infertility of this period in prose fiction probably was that Lytton was now making a determined effort to win high rank as a poet. He published a volume of poems in 1842, a volume of transla-tions from Schiller in 1844, The New Timon, a satire, in 1845. Then came the work on which mainly Lytton rested his pretensions, King Arthur, a romantic epic. " I am unalterably convinced," he said, " that on this founda-tion I rest the least perishable monument of those thoughts and those labours which have made the life of my life." But King Arthur fell flat. The verse, the six-lined stave of elegiac quatrain and couplet, lacks charm and variety; the incidents are monotonous, the personages uninteresting, the plot unexciting, and the allegory obscure. St Stephen's, a gallery of parliamentary portraits from the time of Queen Anne, was a kind of metrical composition that lay more within his powers. In this the satire is keen-edged, the admiration just and generous. It was published in 1860. The Lost Tales of Miletus (1866) and a translation of Horace's Odes (1869) were Lytton's last essays in verse.

In the skill with which he sustained a new style in The Caxtons (1848) Lytton gave a more convincing proof of his versatility. This imitation of Sterne (by no means a servile imitation, rather an adaptation of Sterne's style and characters to the circumstances of the 19th century) ap-peared anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine, and made a reputation before the authorship was suspected. My Novel (1853) and What will He Do with It? (1858) continued in the same strain. The sub-title of My Novel, " Varieties of English life," shows still operative the same purpose that we find in Pelham, but the criticism of the " Varieties " is more polemical in spirit. There is more than a shade of defiance in his praise of the virtues of a territorial aristocracy, and a strong spice of hostility to the vulgarities of the manufacturers who threatened to push them from their stools. There is a blindness to defects in the one case and to merits in the other quite foreign to the broad sympathies of the dandy Pelham; Caxton paints the ideal best of the one class and the ideal worst of the other. In these, as in all Lytton's novels, the characters are placed on the stage and described; they are not left to reveal themselves gradually in action.

Lytton returned to parliament in 1852 as member for Hertfordshire, and sat on the Conservative side. Early in life he had decided in his mind against the reduction of the corn duties, and, unchanged in 1851, he addressed a " Letter to John Bull," enlarging on the dangers of their repeal. Incapable of failure in any intellectual exercise that he set his mind to, he was an effective speaker; but the effort was against nature: he could speak only under .extreme excitement or after laborious preparation, and he never took a high place among parliamentary orators. He was colonial secretary in Lord Derby's Government from 1858 to 1859, and threw himself industriously into the duties of his office. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Lytton in 1866.

That he had not forgotten his power of moving the sense of melodramatic and romantic mystery when he adopted the more subdued style of The Caxtons, Lytton proved by A Strange Story, contributed to All the Year Round in 1862. A serial story of the kind made a new call on his resources, but he was equal to it, and fairly rivalled the school of Dickens in the art of sustaining thrilling interest to the close.

When he died, in January 1873, after a short painful illness, two works of high repute, The Coming Race and The Parisians, were not acknowledged, and were only vaguely suspected to be his. They had freshness enough to be the work of youth, and power enough to shame no veteran. These two books, the fable and the novel, are classed by Lytton's son and successor in the the title with the romance of Kenelm Chillingly, left completed at his death, as forming a trilogy, animated by a common purpose, to exhibit the influence of "modern ideas " upon character and conduct. The moulding force whose operation is traced in The Parisians is the society of imperial and democratic France, in Chillingly the society of England in relation to its representative institutions. The leading purpose is kept well in view throughout both works, and the tendencies to corruption analysed and presented with admirable skill; but the theorist has omitted from his problem certain important regenerating and safeguarding factors in the large world outside the pale of society. Problems and theories apart, these last works show no falling off of power; he is as vivid as ever in description, as fertile as ever in the invention of humorous and melodramatic situa-tion. If he had been content to abandon his purpose in Chillingly, and end with the first volume by some such commonplace contrivance as giving " motive power" to his hero in the love of Cecilia Travers, it would have been the most perfect of his works in unity of humorous senti-ment. The veteran author died in harness,—two novels all but completed; another, an historical romance, Pausanias the Spartan, outlined and partly written.

The fact that in the fiftieth year of his authorship, after publishing at least fifty separate works, most of them popular, Lord Lytton had still vigour and freshness enough to make a new anonymous reputation with The Coming Race would seem to indicate that critics had not fairly gauged his versatility, and also that an erroneous fixed idea had been formed of his style. The explanation prob- ably is that even after the publication of The Caxtons he was thought of in connexion with that school of melodramatic romance of which he was indisputably the leader, if not the founder, and that heavily loaded rhetorical style which was made ridiculous by his imitators. " Every great genius," one of his characters is made to say, " must deem himself alone in his conceptions. It is not enough for him that these conceptions should be approved as good, unless they are admitted as inventive." Invention and originality are matters of degree, and, though no one can deny that Lytton possessed great inventive powers, he did not put that individual stamp on his work without which no writer is entitled to a place in the foremost rank. He was not self-centred enough; he was too generally emulous to win the highest individual distinction. But his fresh- ness of thought, brilliancy of invention, breadth and variety of portraiture, gave him a just title to his popularity, and, with all allowance for superficial affectations, his generous nobility of sentiment made his influence as wholesome as it was widespread. (W. M.)

The above article was written by Prof. William Minto, M.A.

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