Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) is second only to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as the greatest Victorian novelist almost entirely lost to readers outside academic circles today. His aphorisms, however, still resonate in the educated English language: ‘the great unwashed’, ‘the pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the now infamous opening to a suspense novel ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ that still inspires the worst opening to a novel competition that bears Bulwer-Lytton’s name.
Born at his father General William Earle Bulwer’s estate Heydon Hall in Norfolk, Bulwer-Lytton was his mother’s boy. Elizabeth Barbara Lytton was an heiress in her own right born at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. She gained legal guardianship of her three sons because of the General’s volatile (read violent bordering on psychotic) temper. The General died when Bulwer-Lytton was four-years old and his mother moved her family to London. Bulwer-Lytton was by all accounts a fragile child of delicate constitution and neurotic character. This may account for his precocity in the schoolroom. Bulwer-Lytton wrote his first volume of poems Ishmael aged fifteen and the edition was published by Piccadilly bookshop Hatchards in 1820.
Bulwer-Lytton won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse at Trinity College, Cambridge, and embarked on a literary career that notched-up twenty-nine novels, four plays and pioneering work in genres such as science fiction, occult fiction, romance and suspense novels. Bulwer-Lytton’s perception of romance was doomed when his first love Lucy was spirited away by her father, ill advisedly married to a rival and died three years later. He formed a liaison with Lord Byron’s notorious former flame Lady Caroline Lamb (also the unrequited love of the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s life). He married Lady Caroline’s protégée the Irish beauty Rosina Wheeler in 1827 at St James’s church Piccadilly: a misalliance that would blight his life.
Mrs Lytton, his mother, stopped the novelist’s allowance because she disapproved of Rosina. Unhappy with his bride from the beginning, Bulwer-Lytton was serially unfaithful and the couple separated acrimoniously in 1833. In 1839 Rosina published Cheveley: The Man of Honour that was a libellous, thinly disguised attack on her husband. She went so far as to attack him from the crowd when he was campaigning to be the MP for Hertfordshire. As was perfectly legal for a Victorian gentleman, he cut-off Rosina’s funds and contact with their children. He had her committed to a lunatic asylum but she was released after a public outcry. Her 1880 memoir A Blighted Life told the story of a woman scorned.
Bulwer-Lytton’s political career was relatively inconsequential and he turned down Prime Minister Lord Melbourne’s offer of a Lordship of the Admiralty. In 1866 on the death of his mother he was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Lytton of Knebworth. He retreated to his mother’s family home and lived alone isolated by his increasing deafness. A burst abscess in his ear following a botched operation killed the author and he was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, the most studied by academics today are the 1828 work Pelham: The Adventures of a Gentleman that introduced the society novel with a Regency dandy hero to late Georgian England, Godolphin (1833), The Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). His 1862 occult novel Supernatural: A Strange Story was said to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula and his 1871 Sci-Fi novel The Power of the Coming Race was one of the models for the space-age religion Scientology founded in America by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952.