Unheard Voices: Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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Bovril. The art of male dressing. ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ The list of tropes, names and conventions Edward Bulwer-Lytton passed down to us are numerous, but the man himself, and especially his literary achievement, is largely forgotten. Personally, I think this is a great oversight, as the intelligence and unusual nature of his prose, as well as his life, should be treasured.

Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most prolific writers of the mid-nineteenth century, alongside his role as an MP and later Colonial Secretary in Lord Derby’s government. He dabbled in witty and dandy-style works such as Pelham, which established rules for male dressing that later led to the introduction of the necktie as a widely used item of male clothing, as well as supernatural stories such as ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ and ‘A Strange Story’, later an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

one of the most prolific writers of the mid-nineteenth century,

However, arguably his greatest literary achievement is Zanoni, an 1842 novel detailing the fall of a mystical being alongside the events of the French Revolution. The novel is a careful balancing act, involving a number of divergent protagonists and events, ranging from a cruel and disfigured revolutionary painting to a naïve Englishman and a beautiful musical prodigy. That Bulwer-Lytton is able to both drive the plot using these characters and express thoughts and feelings about mysticism is a significant achievement. He plunges deep into the occult and especially Rosicrucianism in this novel, examining the extent to which its principles can be applied in real world situations of love and loss, which drives the Gothic style of the book and elevates it from its contemporaries. Furthermore, the book was so influential that its climactic resolution – Zanoni’s ultimate sacrifice on the guillotine – has been identified as an influence on A Tale of Two Cities. This can also be credited to Bulwer-Lytton’s close friendship with Charles Dickens, as he is credited with causing Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations to make it more palatable to the reading public. As a result, the seemingly-romantic ending where Pip and Estella end in a relationship is one of Bulwer-Lytton’s clear contributions to literary history.

The novel is a careful balancing act, involving a number of divergent protagonists and events

Other of Bulwer-Lytton’s achievements include the play Money, a comedic satire which has remained popular enough to have revivals as recently as 1999, and Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. A precursor of the science-fiction genre, this novel’s ideas of a subterranean master-race occupying a ‘hollow earth’ has influenced popular culture from the Silurians in Doctor Whoto the esoteric beliefs of neo-Nazism. Similarly, although there is no proof that Bulwer-Lytton was part of ‘strange societies’ such as the Golden Order, his novels and ideas have been adopted by those interested in supernatural forces, such as William Scott-Elliot and George Bernard Shaw. Bulwer-Lytton is therefore worth reading to show the way in which both literary and cultural trends have developed, and the power of fiction to influence people’s genuine ideas of the world.

Bulwer-Lytton is worth reading to show the way in which both literary and cultural trends have developed

Bulwer-Lytton was immensely popular in his time, with twenty-one different adaptations of his work appearing on stage between 1896 and 1915, but he has since fallen out of favour, lumped together with the excesses of Victorian ‘purple prose’ and mocked for his occasionally convoluted and tawdry plotlines.

I think that there’s a lot to love about him. His command of language; his flair for a sentence structure or imagery; his ability to mix different literary styles in a way that retains the reader’s interest. And besides – long, convoluted plots and characters have never put people off Dickens.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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