"Poverty Has Strange Bedfellows"
Context: The Caxtons is first in a series of three novels which narrate the history and fortunes of an upper middle-class family in England. The writing of these was in the nature of an experiment for Bulwer-Lytton, who had earned his fame as an author through a number of historical romances and several novels of crime and social injustice. He experimented with many literary forms during his lifetime: the drama, poetry, the novel, and some tales of fantasy, terror, and the supernatural. His historical novels are in the tradition of Scott–well researched and carefully prepared, rather scholarly, smoothly constructed, and with heavy emphasis on history. This last is made palatable by an overlay of romance. The group of novels which he called "Varieties of English Life," on the other hand, is characterized by realism and humor. The Caxtons is one of the best of these; the humorous passages, according to the author, are not put in for satirical purposes but instead are intended to delineate amiable characters. As a result, the people in the novel are both likeable and memorable. The story is told by Pisistratus Caxton and begins with several anecdotes relating to his own birth; these are amusing sidelights on his father, who is totally and absent-mindedly immersed in a monumental work he is writing on the history of human error. The story traces young Caxton's childhood and his days at a boarding school. He becomes acquainted with his two uncles. Uncle Jack is a versatile and colorful genius who continually victimizes himself with get-rich-quick schemes. The other uncle, Roland, is preoccupied with chivalry, honor, heroism, and heraldry. Uncle Jack persuades Mr. Caxton to move to London, where he can finish his book and meet publishers. Young Caxton, however, goes on foot. On the journey he encounters two picturesque vagrants, Mr. Peacock, and a younger man. Caxton buys them a meal; during the ensuing conversation Mr. Peacock asks young Caxton whether he likes plays and is astounded when he learns that this rural youth has never seen one. His astonishment is expressed in a flight of melodramatic oratory which Caxton finds amusing:
I laughed outright–may I be forgiven for the boast, but I had the reputation at school of a pleasant laugh. The young man's face grew dark at the sound: he pushed back his plate and sighed."Why," continued his friend, "my companion here, who, I suppose, is about your own age, he could tell you what a play is! he could tell you what life is. He has viewed the manners of the town: 'perused the traders,' as the swan poetically remarks. Have you not, my lad, eh?"Thus directly appealed to, the boy looked up with a smile of scorn on his lips–"Yes, I know what life is, and I say that life, like poverty, has strange bedfellows. Ask me what life is now, and I say a melodrama; ask me what it is twenty years hence, and I shall say–""A farce?" put in his comrade."No, a tragedy–or comedy as Molière wrote it.""And how is that?" I asked, interested and somewhat surprised at the tone of my contemporary."Where the play ends in the triumph of the wittiest rogue. My friend here has no chance!"