Visit Knebworth, ancestral home of the Lytton family, and before the first Baron’s writing desk the guide informs you that although he was a very famous novelist in his day nobody reads him any more. This is not much of an exaggeration. The last of his books to be popular was The Last Days of Pompeii, a cruder work than his best historical novels, though credited with inspiring Madame Blavatsky to her adventurous career as mystical hierophant and founder of the theosophical society. But it would be wrong to conclude from the fact that he is not read to the judgement that he is not worth reading. Why has this idea taken hold?
Born Edward Bulwer in 1803, he was educated at Trinity Hall Cambridge. He began writing to finance an extravagant lifestyle as man of fashion. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858. For his achievements as novelist, playwright and statesman, he was elevated to the peerage in 1866. For forty years he was known as Bulwer, for twenty-two, having added his mother's surname on inheriting Knebworth, Bulwer-Lytton, and the last seven as Lord Lytton. He died in 1873.
Lytton’s work expresses some of the most significant intellectual currents of the nineteenth century, several of which are far from are exhausted. He treated intelligently and interestingly perennial themes of good and evil, of freedom and despotism, egoism and altruism, life affirmation and the power of will. His treatment can seem all the fresher partly because he is no longer familiar. His influence was world-wide. It was notable in Germany, whose deep and thoughtful culture he both affected and was affected by. He was influenced by Schiller (whom he translated), and by Goethe, sharing something of the latter's eclectic liveliness, and exploring subjects that strongly suggest his speculations about the daemonic. His novel of thirteenth century Italy, Rienzi, inspired Wagner's third opera.
Britain and Germany have often seemed far apart culturally, looking to different types of philosophy, and separated by a degree of mutual contempt. British writers deplore Germany's tendency to obscurity and dangerously misguided enthusiasm, Germans British pedestrianism of ideas and arrogant insularity. To some continental critics, the stranglehold of the old universities has adversely affected the whole of English cultural life. Such criticism was by no means unechoed in Britain.. Some of Bulwer's thoughts upon power and charisma suggest a discontent that a complacent English culture has often felt able to dismiss as typical of an alien tradition.
Coleridge and Carlyle are examples of that enthusiasm for Germany that was a significant strand in nineteenth century British culture. Many in Victorian times had ideas of Germany as a kind of alternative England, a place of new possibilities, romantically rich, a new country to be constructed. We may think of the creation of an original German culture as an international project, with a not altogether happy outcome. Viewing Bulwer as part of this is to guard against thinking solely in terms of English literature. For the German connection see ZIPSER Richard A., Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Germany,: Berne & Frankfurt/M.: Herbert Lang, 1974.
Allan Conrad Christensen, author of one modern study (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the fiction of new regions, Athens, GA University of Georgia Press 1976), asserts that Lytton was 'not one of the very great novelists' and that he is interesting for his ideals and aspirations more than for the perfection of his work. He says that he throws valuable light on the thought of the Victorians, on their view of the world. Though he also argues for his intrinsic interest, many might think that Bulwer is mostly of concern to historians, and students of the Victorian age, and that for literature we should read other novelists. That he was original and influential no one would deny. Others have surpassed him in some, perhaps most, of the genres in which he worked. Vanity Fair has been called the masterpiece of the fashionable, Oliver Twist of the Newgate school. Some conclude that his influence has passed on, into other and greater writers, with the implicit suggestion that he has nothing to say to us. This is very disputable, certainly in view of much of the nineteenth literature that still continues to be read. Many of the ideas expressed are as lively and relevant today as they were when he wrote.
As for Bulwer's deficiency in purely literary qualities, that is less decisive than some critics have held. Understanding something of what his ideas are, we no longer judge him by some simplistic canon of what is or is not ‘great literature’. Supposed weaknesses of style like his unfashionable archaism, need not obstruct appreciation. Admittedly he has acquired an unfortunate reputation for corniness. The opening lines of his Paul Clifford (1830) have inspired a number of childish jokes, largely through the influence of Schultz’s Peanuts strip cartoon. The sentence runs: - "It was a dark and stormy night and the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." This is supposed to be so laughable that someone is offering an annual ‘Bulwer-Lytton prize’ for bad writing.
Another obvious obstacle is the sheer diversity and range of his work. No one is likely to be drawn to all of it. I only feel qualified to argue for the interest of some of it, and to indicate a few of his more notable themes. Far from being superseded, his best work is unique in English literature, of permanent interest, and quite unfairly ignored. It would be surprising if someone who made so many successful hits never attained to lasting originality Admittedly the idea of having to plough through his whole oeuvre would be dismaying. I am prepared to concede that a work like Ernest Maltravers (1837)* may well be dead for the rest of time, though I would not want to pontificate on the subject. Who could say where a Lytton revival might lead?
We can certainly see him as a representative Victorian, with his roots appropriately in an earlier era. He was a survivor from the days of George IV. His first poetry was published in 1820, his first novel in 1827. All his life he cultivated a dandy image which came to seem worse than old fashioned. It inspired counter accusations of effeminacy from Tennyson, whom he had himself accused of girlishness. This inspired a lifelong feud.
The young Bulwer, who began as an admirer of Byron, found a new hero in Bentham, entering parliament in the reform interest in 1831. At this period he wrote of the need to balance the urge to self fulfilment with more social concerns. His Pelham (1828) allegedly changed the fashion from Byronism to the moral earnestness of the Victorian social reformers. For amoral individualism, the Byronism of the 1820s had prefigured the Nietzscheanism of the end of the century. After the 1820s people tired of egoistic assertion for a season, much as, following a similar reaction, was to happen with Nietzsche. Bulwer found fertile material in the dialectic of egoism and idealism. The tension between the two suggests what Aleister Crowley, the prophet of Magick and thelema, and admirer of Lytton’s work, said of the conflict between his own Beast personality and his utopian, Shelleyan side, though in his case it might all reduce to egoism. He remarks on Zanoni’s sacrifice in language that time has not softened into respectability.
"We have a sentimental idea of self sacrifice, the kind which is most esteemed by the vulgar and is the essence of popular Christianity. It is the sacrifice of the strong to the weak. This is wholly against the principles of evolution. Any nation which does this systematically on a sufficiently large scale destroys itself. The sacrifice is vain, the weak are not even saved. Consider the action of Zanoni in going to the scaffold in order to save his silly wife. The gesture was magnificent; it was evidence of his own supreme courage and moral strength; but if every one acted on that principle the race would deteriorate and disappear".
With the reaction against rationalism and a new cultural climate, Bulwer’s lifelong occult interests gained a new relevance. He was a living link between the original Romantic Movement, and the belief in the power of the imagination that characterised the aesthetic revolt. His conception of the ideal world and the soul prefigured the principles of the symbolists and decadents who made up romanticism's second wind. The symbolist movement was largely underpinned by occult philosophy. Mystery was intrinsic to the reaction against the supposed rationality of the high Victorians. Bulwer had a rich and genuine occult learning that earned him the respect of all the leading figures of the occult revival. He had made an intensive study of magical writers like Iamblichus, Psellus, and Cornelius Agrippa, and was not above claiming secret knowledge and initiation into the Rosicrucian brotherhood.
The concern with egoism led to a preoccupation with villainy. In defence of the subject matter of his Newgate novels, Bulwer argued that crime reveals deep truth about human nature. This was another of his seminal ideas. Arbaces the magician in The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), last descendant of the Egyptian royal line, is a gloomy, sensual aristocratic criminal. The theme was more deeply explored in his occult stories. In The Haunted and the Haunters† (1857), he presents a malevolent character who transcends the Byronic to create a fascinating image of daemonic will. In the full version of the story, he is encountered in his contemporary embodiment as Richards, the mysterious long-lived being responsible for the hauntings. Sometimes described as the best ghost story ever written, this is arguably his masterpiece. He cut it short in later editions, because he wanted to develop the theme into a full-length novel. It became A Strange Story (1862), where the same malignant will is personified as Margrave, an evil character who wants to live forever. This desire comes across as a powerful image of life affirmation, though in the form of black magic.
White magic is portrayed in the earlier Zanoni (1842). Zanoni stands for the virtuous version of daemonic will. He has lived for many centuries as a member of a wise circle of initiates who have discovered the secret of eternal life. Taking another's place on the scaffold, during the Reign of Terror, he offered the pattern for Sidney Carton’s sacrifice in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Lytton stated that this novel represents the fullest expression of his thought. We can think of it as a Rosicrucian novel of ideas. It brought to a nineteenth century audience the timelessly fascinating Rosicrucian alchemical tradition. The character of Zanoni represents his synthesis of these ideals. For its treatment of these, it belongs with his historical novels.
Late in his career, Bulwer turned against the pretensions of scientific rationalism, expressing hostility towards Marxism, Darwinism and socialist utopias. Other of his contemporaries expressed comparable reservations, not least Tennyson, whose Locksley Hall Sixty Years After shows his discontent with the ideals of progress he had done so much to hymn.The Coming Race (1873) has sometimes been interpreted as one of the earliest blasts in a dystopic tradition that was to culminate in Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, books which for a few decades offered powerful prophylactics against some disturbing modern tendencies.
How much his thoughts on will derived from philosophical sources like Schopenhauer, if at all, and how much from humbler sources like Balzac, has been a subject of argument.
Whatever his inspiration there are fertile possibilities in the subject. The Coming Race explores some of them in the form of science fiction. Vril is will power made into the direct energy source of society. (The word survives on the supermarket shelf as Bovril). Like Huxley's Brave New World, the novel included speculations about interesting technological developments, but set in the framework of an inhuman and unacceptable future. The scientific perfection of this society is that of another species, and really intolerable to the human being.
High claims have been made for this book, and even for the idea of vril, which has been described as anticipating nuclear energy. As science fiction it long predated Wells who was impressed by it,
His idea of historical romance is outlined in his introduction to Harold, or the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848), serious history mixed with romance. This offers a natural framework for such themes as the perils of a political career, and the meaning of aristocracy, subjects unfortunately prone to easy trivialisation. The historical novel itself is a genre that has sometimes been degraded to the level of feminine emotional pornography. With the debased romanticism of 'romantic fiction' the aristocratic ideal becomes little more than a form of titillation for female readers. So the seriousness and originality of Bulwer's treatment may be overlooked. The eras he writes about he chooses not just for their dramatic interest. At his best he was writing historical novels of ideas. The Last Days of Pompeii, for all its merits, has presumably had its day. Brilliant entertainment for its time, its concessions to popular sentiment give an inadequate image of his powers. Modern readers who want that sort of thing seem to prefer Robert Graves’s evocations of the Roman Empire in his Claudius series. Pompeii gives some intriguing insights into the Victorian imagination. But the interest of Rienzi (1835), and The Last of the Barons (1843) goes much further. In these novels, important universal issues are treated, unresolved arguments aired.
Bulwer teaches a history that deserves to be better known, bringing it imaginatively alive, and revealing a lot about nineteenth century British attitudes towards it. Rienzi expresses something of his social radicalism. It anticipates the intellectual atmosphere that generated fascism in its engrossing concern with charisma, the nature of political leadership, nationalism and ambition. He says that the Roman people rejected Rienzi’s leadership because they were not worthy of him. He holds that it was the same with the English who rejected Cromwell’s republic. His description of Charles II, as "the lewd pensioner of Louis", reveals something of his political position. The aristocratic families of the Orsini and the Colonna come across as negative and destructive forces, though their point of view is by no means presented without sympathy.
The Last of the Barons was his next novel after Zanoni. Most critics acknowledge it to be one of his best. Perhaps we can trace a link with the heroic theme of its predecessor. Much as Zanoni is a hero held up for our admiration, it could be argued that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, represents his ideal in a more earthly form. This is nobility benevolent and not simply Byronic. He based his writing on a thorough study of contemporary sources, including the chroniclers like Hall that Shakespeare read for his tetralogy on the Wars of the Roses. This epoch was England at its most self absorbed, the time when English literature retreated north of the border and perpendicular architecture developed in virtual isolation from continental influences. Perhaps such history is not of world-wide interest; its concerns reflect deep into the essence of English nationhood. Bulwer has an intriguing thesis that Warwick the Kingmaker had a better vision of England than did Edward IV and his Tudor successors. It cannot be said that the thesis obtrudes. We are hardly aware of it till the end of the book. Viewpoints of other, often opposed, characters are treated very sympathetically. The novel may even at first seem to be about the rise of the new middle classes, with heroes like Nicholas Alwyn, the ambitious goldsmith, and Master Warner, the inventor, who looks back to Friar Bacon and forward to the industrial revolution. Warwick is far from a mere apologist for the power of exploiters. Far more than the old order, he represents England in all its contradictions. Considerations of policy are always tempered by a deep sense of traditional liberties. The value of aristocracy becomes apparent where liberty is overridden in the name of reform.
In this feudal vision is a wonderful lost cause to compare with Jacobitism. As a lost cause it could even have more appeal than that of the Stuarts, who might be perceived as primarily a Scottish dynasty. Bulwer links it with his own pride of ancestry; one of his own ancestors is periodically mentioned throughout the book as fighting on the Lancastrian side. The value of lost causes has often been understood as far more than that of doomed classes or misfit individuals. Even in their failure they are somehow liberating, a challenge to the idea that justice lies with the victors. The eighteenth Whig settlement with its all embracing claim to represent freedom and reason was confronted by an alternative. The defeated cause, especially after 1745, inspired the most romantic emotions, as captured in Lady Nairne's beautiful songs. This book does something the same for the equally well known Tudor settlement.
In the very notion of the lost cause there is a world of emotional possibilities to enrich the present. A settlement that is found oppressive may be countered by this spirit. We live in a world in which a number of cultures and countries have recently experienced defeat. In a demoralised culture, it is important to find some compensation for defeat. Factors such as material wealth and erotic enjoyment generally offer consolation. What is most oppressive is that we are told that what we experience as defeat is not defeat, that it is really a triumph we are simply too backward to understand. We are under pressure to think what the dominant group in society means us to think, confounding power with wisdom. Despite the occasional encouragement when dissenting points of view find their way into the newspapers, it is hard for such attitudes to sustain themselves. Bombarded with orthodox propaganda, it is hard to reject what we feel we ought to reject. How can we resist the idea that we live among reasonable people worthy of respect?
That other values than those in authority live and flourish within our society goes without saying, but typically their official status is low, and they are derided as outmoded, or unenlightened. Those who live by them are under pressure to change. Theirs is denied to be a perspective from which much develops. Against this tyranny art can operate as a subversive force. As a way of memory and of crystallisation, it opens the gate to enjoyment that is otherwise barred. Artists and writers create separate worlds where it is possible to ignore the pressure of outside opinion. The Last of the Barons is such a work. As a novel of a lost cause, preserving as literature Warwick's vision of aristocracy based on popular affection, lies much of its aesthetic value. In this sense we can see the book as successful and satisfying, the creation of a self contained other world where ideas and values do not keep changing into one another.
Even as a historical novelist Bulwer-Lytton is universally held to be inferior to such masters as Hugo, Dickens and Scott, presumably as regards character, psychological drama, and other pure literary qualities. But he has a different sort of interest. He participates in the intellectual climate in a different way. He was writing a different sort of novel, whose interest is largely in its ideas. I strongly deny that his books have lost their relevance. They maintain interesting historical theses. It is recognised that the Last of the Barons is more historically accurate than Scott’s novels, certainly than his English ones. Bulwer's historical research was deep and thorough. But even Scott is little read now.
One thesis is that the mediaeval barons were the foundation of English liberty. Even by Warwick's day, as Bulwer points out, they were still half Norman. He puts forward an argument for the value of feudalism, contending that English liberty grew out of the feudal past, the Norman freedom of the barons, their history and traditions. These values were to lay dormant for 150 years to re-emerge in the Cromwellian republic. This view is an alternative to the Saxonism that is emphasised in Harold, and sits more easily with the cosmopolitanism of the post war era. Feudalism involves voluntary commitment to rightful authority. Against this was the new monarchical absolutism with its basis in Machiavelli, appealing to the thrusting new middle class, and promoted by Edward IV, Richard III and the Tudors. Bulwer presents the young Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, as a serious student of these new ideas. Not only is he intelligent, ruthless and brave, as Shakespeare portrays him, but also a more sympathetic character, in his own way an idealist rather than a mere villain.
Machiavelli represents rationalisation. We may think of him as a revolutionary, the Marx or Lenin of his day. One dispenses with morality for the duration of the revolution; after that it is presumably to return. Machiavellianism means cynicism about power and about the immovable beliefs of the people, to which hypocrisy has to be paid as tribute. Some basic questions of political philosophy present themselves. How much can a society be based upon true beliefs? There is a dialogue with Shakespeare, especially on the character of Gloucester, the significance of Machiavelli and the merits of the Tudor despotism. We see how much Shakespeare was writing Tudor propaganda.
There are various sub themes that might have some contemporary resonance. The descriptions of the court of Edward IV in the Tower of London reveal much about nineteenth century ideas of effeminacy. Despite Edward's military prowess and somewhat brutal courage when called upon, he presides over a frivolous feminine culture, preoccupied with fashion, entertainment and display. Another theme is the political use made of hypocritical piety. Another is that of the newly created aristocrats, represented by Hastings, relatives of the Queen, pitted against the old baronage in the effort to undermine its power. And it is instructive to see Warwick as putting Edward IV in power then regretting what he had done.
Today, when England is looking for a new identity, it is worth looking at earlier settlements. For this reason alone The Last of Barons would be worth rereading. Even for making modern points, it can be useful to focus on something from history. There is much in national life that is only tolerable once we have risen to a vision, one might call it illusion, of mutual agreement. Where there are few we can agree with completely, politics becomes a matter of alliances. To be against something can give a feeling of unity, though our individual voices are unheard. The unifying cause here is regret at the triumph of a modernising despotism. Here is a vision of England in one of its most formative eras, as engaging and thought provoking as much of Shakespeare.
New Labour's reforms seem likely to create a nostalgia for the things it is setting out to destroy. Most obvious of these is the vestigial political power of the old hereditary nobility. Encouraged by this attack, new voices are raised against the monarchy. Soon the nation itself may be called upon to give up its sovereignty to join a new European federation. Also some people are talking about the crisis of English identity as Scotland and Wales make moves away from the union, and the Union Jack is decried as a racist symbol. There is potential solace in the England before the Tudors, and a lament for freedoms and values that went into eclipse. This is not jingoism. There is little imperialism in The Last of the Barons, unless against the French who are still regarded as fair game. And it is a perfectly readable book, certainly as much so as much of what is still published in popular paperback editions and expected to be taken seriously as great literature. Much of its merit is its intellectual content. It is meaty enough in this respect. Also it evokes a believable picture of a unique, complex and little known era, and compelling psychological portraits of interesting historical characters. There are riches for which there is no space in this introduction. It is hard to think of any significant feature of the period that has been altogether omitted.
Until recently the motive for this journey into the roots of English national feeling and identity would have been generally obvious. The former is increasingly marginalised to the frivolity of football and out of the way places like Northern Ireland. In some quarters it is so unfashionable as to have become almost incomprehensible. In others it is identified with a narrow party line. Historical understanding is obscured by the moralistic prejudices of right and left. The Last of the Barons is good enough to bear a new interpretation. This well constructed book with its far from happy ending can speak a new message as much of the mere background becomes a source of illumination to a generation that is forgetting what once was common currency. It relates to a traditional image and interpretation of England that has played a large role in history and if only for this reason would be worth remembering.
Enthusiasts for reform may be tempted to dismiss the whole idea of
an artistic value as mere right wing tosh. In one sense, of course,
the lost cause is inevitably a reactionary idea. But that is not
the point that is being made. The object is not directly political, it
speaks more to frustration of the will, disillusion and disgust with
For aesthetic purposes the lost cause is often far more valuable than
live political option. With the revolt against a one-sided, often
rationalism, comes restoration of imaginative balance. A vision, even a
fantasy, of historical rootedness offers an antidote to the rootless
of an obnoxious zeitgeist. Such a counteragent is not necessarily
unless as conflicting with certain current loyalties, self righteously
assured of their unimpeachable rationality.
© SRP Publications 1998
* With respect to Ernest Maltravers, I have been put right by Frank
O'Donoghue, who unlike me has read the book and tells me it is
Visit his home page here:-
Fri, 27 Nov 1998 20:33:44 -0000
I was interested to read your Bulwer-Lytton piece on your website
but I must take issue
with your opinion of
Earnest Maltravers. Do you include Alice, or the Mysteries in the
same category? As you
may have gathered these
are two (one?) of my favourite works and I am hoping you are not
basing your opinion on
a thorough reading.
I hope I don't sound over-critical; apologies, if I do because the piece was generally good.
Can you recommend any other sources of information on EGBL and his works?
Thank you for your time.
Sat, 28 Nov 1998 23:30:02 +0000
John S Moore <email@example.com>
Mea culpa. I have not read Ernest Maltravers. I should remedy
My remark about it is
based on a negative report from one of my friends. I do not mean
to disparage any of
only to argue for the merits of what I enjoy, which is most of
I have read of him, and
understand why he has fallen into such oblivion. I confess to a
reading the whole oeuvre. Your own opinion is a fact of which I
take account. As for
Bulwer-Lytton, the Internet you can explore as well as I can. I
the British Library
and read a few books and articles there, including Christensen
Zipser, an interesting
Liljegren, Bulwer-Lytton and Isis Unveiled, & dipped into the
multi volume biographies
by his son
and his grandson. I would like to bring our a new edition of The
Last of the Barons. I
spoke to the
editor of Penguin Classics about this, and though he seemed to
it might be a good
idea, he was
discouraging as people like that usually are.
Mon, 30 Nov 1998 20:44:06 -0000
"John S Moore" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding Earnest Maltravers.
I am pleased that I was right about you not having read the book.
I don't have a TV
myself but it would make
(together with Alice) a marvellous costume drama; I cannot praise the books too highly.
If you do get around to reading them, I'd be very interested in your opinions.
PS. My interest in EGBL was sparked by Wagner's mentions of his works in Mein Leben.
† Download The Haunted and the Haunters from http://www.knebworthhousegiftshop.com
update 8.7.2000. Since attending the
conference 5-7th July 2000, at the Institute of English Studies,
School of Advanced Study, University of London, I have learnt so much
about Bulwer-Lytton that I would modify some of my judgements.
I may have been wrong that The Haunted and Haunters was downloadable.
Bulwer-Lytton's Harold by John S Moore
* Recently published book*
*Aleister Crowley, a Modern Master*
(Placing the Beast in his cultural background)
I talk about the book on youtube
(If you donít want to buy it please order from your local library)