Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most versatile and prolific writers of a far-from-laconic age. Though he held the stage during the late 1830’s as the foremost contemporary English playwright, Bulwer-Lytton was more generally known in his own day for his novels, which gained an international readership. Today, what reputation remains to this once celebrated Victorian writer rests on a handful of his twenty-odd novels. Bulwer-Lytton the fiction writer was deft in many veins. Among his works are witty and elegant society novels, the best being Pelham: Or, The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828); the so-called Newgate novels, dealing with the dark impulses of the criminal mind, such as Eugene Aram (1832); historical romances, such as the famous The Last Days of Pompeii (1834); metaphysical works in the Bildungsroman tradition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including Ernest Maltravers (1837) and its sequel Alice: Or, The Mysteries (1838); and even, at the end of his life, a precursor of utopian science fiction, The Coming Race (1871). Bulwer-Lytton, who despite his aristocratic background was obliged to support himself through his literary labors, also wrote short stories, his best piece being “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1857), and poetry, including The New Timon (1846), now chiefly remembered for having provoked Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and King Arthur (1848-1849, 1870). His England and the English (1833), a multifaceted study of pre-Reform Bill England, remains one of the most insightful social histories of early nineteenth century British culture, politics, education, and manners.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton is an author whose breadth leads the public, rightly or wrongly, to undervalue the depth of his achievements. When he aimed for high seriousness in the philosophical novels devoted to such abstractions as the Ideal and the Beautiful, he proved himself superficial, but when he set his sights lower, he excelled. He produced in Pelham one of the earliest and finest examples of the “silver fork” novel, a genre that proved its intrinsic worth in its culminating work, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), and demonstrated its endurance by continuing to flourish, if only in a debased form, down to the present day. He wrote historical novels exemplary in their learning and accuracy, books that remain models for that genre, whatever one chooses to make of its worth. Finally, Bulwer-Lytton’s utopian novel The Coming Race, though less than a finished literary achievement, prefigures in its title, theme, and format the sort of “scientific romances” produced by H. G. Wells at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Bulwer-Lytton’s achievements as a dramatist are less substantial. Solidly researched, structurally sound, but inexcusably melodramatic by modern standards, his historical dramas served at best to keep playwriting alive in an age when few good British writers were making the effort to do so. In Money, Bulwer-Lytton offered for the Victorian world what Pelham had given the Regency: an incisive and detailed study of the forms folly, pretension, hypocrisy, and honor take in a particular milieu at a particular time.
Campbell, James L., Sr. Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Boston: Twayne, 1986. This accessible critical and biographical overview of Bulwer-Lytton’s life and literary career emphasizes his fiction and pays comparatively little attention to his dramas.
Christensen, Allan Conrad. Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Fiction of New Regions. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976. This critical study focuses chiefly on Bulwer-Lytton’s novels. Aimed at presenting him as a dedicated artist rather than a facile opportunist, it traces the literary development of his aesthetic ideas and philosophical ideals.
Eigner, Edwin M. The Meta-physical Novel in England and America: Dickens, Bulwer, Melville, and Hawthorne. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Focuses on specific aspects of Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction.
Escott, T. H. Edward Bulwer: First Baron Lytton of Knebworth. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970. This reprint of a 1910 monograph considers personal, social, and political aspects of Bulwer-Lytton’s many-sided career, especially his involvement with Victorian Tory government.
Lytton, Victor A. The Life of Edward Bulwer, First Lord Lytton. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1913. Written by a family member, this detailed biography quotes extensively from Bulwer-Lytton’s letters and journals as well as from other primary sources. Many plates appear in the handsomely produced two volumes.
Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. Gothic Immortals: The Fiction of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. New York: Routledge, 1989. A look at the Occultism and the gothic aspects of the fiction of Bulwer-Lytton and William Godwin. Bibliography and index.
Oakley, J. W. “The Reform of Honor in Bulwer’s Pelham.” Nineteenth Century Literature 47 (1992). Focuses on specific aspects of Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction.
Sadleir, Michael. Bulwer: A Panorama. Boston: Little, Brown, 1931. In this first and only volume of a projected but unfinished longer study, Sadleir covers Bulwer-Lytton’s life and writings to 1836. Effective analysis of early works blends with an insightful biography solidly grounded in the contexts of Regency and early Victorian society.
Snyder, Charles W. Liberty and Morality: A Political Biography of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. A biography of Bulwer-Lytton that focuses on his politics and social views. Bibliography and index.
Wolff, Robert Lee. Strange Stories and Other Explorations in Victorian Fiction. Boston: Gambit, 1971. Focuses on specific aspects of Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction.
Zipser, Richard A. Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Germany. Berne, Switzerland: H. Lang, 1974. From the series German Studies in America.