A combination of versatile talent and personal glamour made Edward Bulwer-Lytton a literary star of the first magnitude in his own day. His apparent brilliance has waned considerably since his death, and readers no longer see him as the literary peer of such novelists as Dickens or Thackeray—or Anthony Trollope, for that matter. Instead, he is remembered for writing a handful of works quite different from one another: an urbanely witty “silver fork” novel, an abstruse metaphysical romance, an impressively learned historical novel or two. Even though Bulwer-Lytton was more widely read and diversely educated than were many better-remembered literary figures of his day and despite the fact that his literary craftsmanship is sound, there are several reasons for his descent, if not into obscurity at least into a sort of twilight.
First, the passage of time has made the personal notoriety that surrounded Bulwer-Lytton’s literary image—his violently unhappy marriage, his friendship with the “most gorgeous” Lady Blessington and the still more decorative Alfred, Count d’Orsay, his political adventures and editorial skirmishes—matters of historical curiosity rather than compelling contemporary interest. Second, the “high moral tone” so agreeable and edifying to Victorian readers sounds bombastic or bathetic to twentieth century ears. Therefore, the grandiose rhetoric to which Bulwer-Lytton, no less than most of his fellow writers, regularly resorted often blights what might otherwise be engaging books. Finally, and most important, Bulwer-Lytton’s very ambition works against him for a modern audience. He was a writer who, as Sir Leslie Stephen acutely remarked, had talent enough to believe himself a genius; perpetually straining to be more of a philosopher or poet than he had power to be, Bulwer-Lytton conveyed the impression of being more superficial and insincere than he actually was. Thus, even Bulwer-Lytton’s soundest literary achievements today have a smaller audience than they deserve. His plays, which are very far from being masterpieces, would no doubt have been completely forgotten had they not been written in what may be the Dark Age of British drama, that mediocre century between Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde.
Bulwer-Lytton’s literary detractors have accused him, both in his own day and subsequently, of being an opportunist who shrewdly gauged the reading public’s desires and accommodated them. This charge is not entirely accurate—one of Bulwer-Lytton’s ruling characteristics was that temperamental mobility that makes its possessor innately responsive to shifts in the climate of his milieu—but a clear sense of the marketplace does dominate his career as a dramatist. His interest in the public theater of the day predated his writing for it. He worked in Parliament to correct or simplify certain legal abuses or complexities that handicapped the contemporary theater, and his sociocultural study England and the English (1833) contains a chapter assessing the state of the British stage. By the early 1830’s, he had even written two dramatic pieces: a stage version of his novel Eugene Aram (the play, in fact, preceded the novel) and a historical drama centering on Cromwell. Bulwer-Lytton’s serious theatrical career, however, dates from February, 1836, when he invited the popular actor-manager William Charles Macready, renowned for his championing of “true” Shakespearean texts and his partisanship of contemporary British ventures in legitimate theater, to meet him at the Albany. With this visit began a fruitful professional relationship that is chronicled in the two men’s letters to each other. Macready’s advice on dramatic affairs enabled Bulwer-Lytton to discard one embryonic play (“Cromwell”) and to strengthen another (The Duchess de la Vallière) until it became stageable—though despite Macready’s presence in a leading role, this maiden venture failed when presented in January, 1837. Bulwer-Lytton was to write a number of other mediocre and unsuccessful plays in his career, but between 1837 and 1840, he created for Macready, at this time managing a theatrical company, three plays that attained a measure of distinction and considerable popular success: The Lady of Lyons, Richelieu, and Money.
Three of Bulwer-Lytton’s plays—The Duchess de la Vallière, The Lady of Lyons, and Richelieu—take French incidents for their subject matter and contemporary French drama for their inspiration: Bulwer-Lytton, a political liberal and a writer who believed in giving his politics literary embodiment, admired the early promise of France’s republican revolution of 1830 and her political playwrights, particularly Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, père. Bulwer-Lytton’s own French plays, as he observes in the introductory remarks to his Dramatic Works, offer a trilogy that follows the passage of France’s reins of power from the one (in Richelieu) to the many (in The Lady of Lyons).
The Duchess de la Vallière
As theater, the first of these plays fails. Dealing with the career of Louise de la Vallière, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses, The Duchess de la Vallière offers an always melodramatic and sometimes downright hysterical moral battle waged within and on behalf of the heroine. A virtuous provincial maiden, Louise goes to court, where she both falls (morally) and rises (socially) when the Sun...
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