Edward Bulwer-Lytton Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer (later, on inheriting his mother’s estate, to be called E. G. E. L. Bulwer-Lytton, and later still, E. G. E. L. B. L., first Baron Lytton) was the third and last son of General William Bulwer and his wife Elizabeth Barbara Lytton, the heiress of Knebworth. Both of his parents were descendants of ancient families. Bulwer’s early education was erratic but intensive. He read widely and deeply in the notable library of his maternal grandfather, Richard Warburton Lytton, and instead of attending a public school, he was placed with a tutor at Ealing. In 1822, Bulwer went up to Cambridge. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1826 and a master of arts in 1835. His university awarded him an honorary doctor of laws in 1864.

Having finished his education, Bulwer led the life of traveler and man of fashion. He toured the Lake District and Scotland and frequented the most exclusive circles of society in London and Paris. Handsome, elegantly dressed, proficient at all the fashionable sports and pursuits, he was one of the great dandies of England’s “age of cards and candlelight.” Like many another literary gentleman of his day, Bulwer had been dazzled by the glamour and notoriety of the late Lord Byron, and he made the mistake of embarking on a curious romance with one of Byron’s former mistresses, the mentally unbalanced Lady Caroline Lamb. This liaison led him to a yet worse error: In 1827, he married Lady Caroline’s protégée Rosina Doyle Wheeler, a lovely but volatile Irishwoman, against the wishes of his mother, on whose inclinations all of his financial prospects rested.

As short of income as they were lavish in their tastes, the young couple had to rely on Bulwer-Lytton’s pen to pay their bills. It proved dependable. Throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s, Bulwer-Lytton worked rapidly and industriously to churn out a succession of novels that gained for him a wide public and a sufficient income. This taxing labor impaired his temper and ultimately contributed to the breakdown of his marriage, however, for Rosina was suited by neither temperament nor training to suffer neglect and ill-use with composure. After traveling abroad to Naples in 1833, the Bulwer-Lyttons reached the point at which they could no longer live together. They agreed to a legal separation in 1836, but Rosina’s financial dependence and monomaniacal hatred made her a recurring torment to her husband throughout the rest of his life.

Besides working hard as an author and as editor of the New Monthly Magazine, Bulwer-Lytton had in 1831 been elected to Parliament as member for St. Ives. A Radical Reformer, he was acquainted with the younger members of the utilitarian school. He supported liberal causes throughout his first parliamentary period, which ended when he lost his seat in 1841. The late 1830’s and 1840’s found him continuing his career as novelist, launching himself as a successful dramatist, and traveling, often for his health. On returning from one such trip abroad in 1849, he joined his friend Charles Dickens in forming a Guild of Literature and Art for the relief of impoverished authors. To benefit this guild, he wrote Not So Bad as We Seem, which an amateur troupe managed by Dickens staged in 1851. The philanthropic venture did not prosper, but the friendship of the two men of letters did. Dickens was to name one of his own sons after Bulwer-Lytton. At his fellow author’s urging, Dickens rewrote the ending of Great Expectations (1860-1861) so that the Victorian reading public could have the affirmative sort of conclusion it tended to prefer.

In 1852, after having published his political Letters to John Bull, Esquire in 1851, Bulwer-Lytton was returned to Parliament as member for Hertfordshire, a position he was to hold until his elevation to the peerage in 1866. On rejoining the ranks of the Commons, he stationed himself among the conservatives, though his positions were more philosophical than were those of...

(The entire section is 1,691 words.)