Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton came from a prominent family; his father was General William Earle Bulwer and his mother, Elizabeth Barbara Lytton, had been a great heiress. After his father died in 1807, his mother moved the family from their estate in Norfolk to London. Bulwer’s mother wished to send him to Eton, but he preferred and was permitted to have his education under tutors who prepared him for Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took bachelor’s and master’s degrees and graduated in 1826. Later, both his own university and Oxford granted him honorary degrees. Long before leaving the university, Bulwer established himself as a dandy in London and published poetry written in a flamboyant, Byronic fashion. In 1825, he was awarded the Chancellor’s medal for poetry, but he does not seem to have had a serious intention of becoming a writer, much less of earning a living by his pen. In his late teens, he fell in love with a young woman whose father forced her into an early marriage with another man; her subsequent death left a deep impression on Bulwer.{$S[A]Lytton, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first earl of;Bulwer-Lytton, Edward}

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In August, 1827, Bulwer married a beautiful but poor young Irish woman named Rosina Doyle Wheeler. His mother, who was bitterly opposed to the match, stopped her son’s allowance. Finding himself without an income, Bulwer turned to writing and within the year had published his first novel, Falkland. His first great success came with Pelham in 1828, a novel that many people read with the hope of identifying the originals of the characters whom Bulwer had drawn from the world of the fashionable in England. With the publication of Pelham, Bulwer acquired a great popular reputation; thereafter, his novels sold readily, and his poetry, though it was undistinguished, found readers. From this time on, he wrote one or two novels a year. Individually, his novels did not sell as widely as those of his most prominent competitors, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, but his total output was certainly as popular as theirs, possibly more so. Bulwer had no choice but to write, for he and his wife lived extravagantly, but he often wrote under great pressure. In addition, he found time to enter politics, successfully standing for Parliament on a reform ticket in April, 1831. He remained in Parliament for ten years. In his private life, Bulwer was not as fortunate. His wife, from whom he separated in 1836, came to dislike him so thoroughly that she caricatured him in a novel of her own entitled Cheveley (1839). After she was declared insane, the two children of the marriage spent most of their years in the custody and household of their father.

In 1838, Bulwer was made a baronet, and in 1843 he inherited his maternal grandfather’s estate, Knebworth. At the same time, he changed his name to the hyphenated Bulwer-Lytton. He also changed his politics and stood again for Parliament, this time as a Conservative candidate and once again successfully. He also served briefly, in 1858-1859, as colonial secretary, and in 1866 he was elevated to the peerage and became Baron Lytton of Knebworth. Shortly afterward, he retired from public life.

Even during the years of his marriage and political activity, Bulwer-Lytton continued his prolific writing career. In his novel-writing, he turned to works characterized by themes of crime, violence, and social justice. His first novel in this vein was Paul Clifford, published in 1830. One of his most famous novels in this category, Eugene Aram, involves both a murder and a motivation for the crime which the author tried to make so understandable and logical that the reader’s sympathies would be aroused for the criminal. Then, beginning with The Last Days of Pompeii, Bulwer-Lytton wrote a series of exotic historical romances. After this work, which presents both paganism and early Christianity, he published novels based on Continental and British history. Rienzi gives a picture of mid-fourteenth century Rome, Leila presents Spain during Moorish days, The Last of the Barons is set in the time of the War of the Roses, and Harold deals with the period just prior to the Norman Conquest. These historical romances were written after a careful preparation by the author, and they emphasize characterization, background, and style rather than action. Unlike most other writers of historical novels, Bulwer-Lytton actually used great historical figures as his chief characters.

In addition to his historical novels, he wrote fiction concerned with the fantastic, the supernatural, and the terrifying. Zanoni is the story of a weird set of adventures occurring over the centuries to a human being temporarily granted immortality. In The Caxtons, Bulwer-Lytton turned to the depiction once again of contemporary British life, but in The Coming Race, one of his last productions, he created a utopian fantasy and pioneered science fiction. Although he is no longer remembered as such, in his own lifetime Bulwer-Lytton was a successful dramatist as well as a novelist. Three of his plays, extremely popular in their time, were The Lady of Lyons, Richelieu, and Money.

As a writer, Bulwer-Lytton once enjoyed a great popularity, but other writers, among them Thackeray, were often critical, even satirical, of his work. Although he resented the adverse criticism of his work, he managed to stay on friendly terms with critics and fellow writers, and he knew almost all the literary men of Victorian England. He died while he was still active as a writer.

In 1982, Bulwer-Lytton’s fame was renewed but his reputation damaged with the institution of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges writers to compose an opening sentence to the worst possible novel. The contest was inspired by the novelist’s first line in Paul Clifford, which begins “It was a dark and stormy night . . . ”

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