Lytton, Bulwer (1803–1873)
According to his baptismal certificate, the full name of this
once famous author was Edward George Earle Lytton BulwerLytton.
He was born in London, May 23, 1803. His father was
a Norfolk squire, Bulwer of Heydon Hall, and colonel of the
106th regiment (Norfolk Rangers); his mother was Elizabeth
Barbara Lytton, a lady who claimed kinship with Cadwaladr
Vendigaid, the semi-mythical hero who led the Strathclyde
Welsh against the Angles in the seventh century. As a child the
future novelist was delicate, but he learned to read at a surprisingly
early age and began to write verses before he was ten years
old. Going first to a small private school at Fulham, he soon
passed on to another one at Rottingdean, and here he continued
to manifest literary tastes, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott
being his chief idols at this time.
He was so talented that his relations decided it would be a
mistake to send him to a public school. Accordingly he was
placed with a tutor at Ealing, under whose care he progressed
rapidly with his studies. Thereafter he proceeded to Cambridge,
where he took his degree easily and won many academic
laurels. Afterward he traveled for a while in Scotland and
France, then bought a commission in the army. He sold it soon
afterward, however, and began to devote himself seriously to
writing.
Although busy and winning great fame, Lytton’s life was not
really a happy one. Long before meeting his wife, he fell in love
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with a young girl who died prematurely, and this loss seems to
have left an indelible sorrow. His marriage was anything but a
successful one, the pair being divorced comparatively soon
after their union.
His first publications of note were the novels Falkland
(1827), Pelham (1828), and Eugene Aram (1832). These won an
instant success and placed considerable wealth in the author’s
hands, the result being that in 1831 he entered Parliament as
the liberal member for St. Ives, Huntingdonshire. During the
next ten years he was an active politician yet still found time to
produce a host of stories, such as The Last Days of Pompei (1834),
Ernest Maltravers (1837), Zanoni (1842), and The Last of the Barons
(1843). These were followed shortly by The Caxtons (1849).
Simultaneously Lytton achieved some fame as a dramatist, perhaps
his best play being The Lady of Lyons (1838). Besides further
novels, he issued several volumes of verses, notably Ismael
(1820) and The New Timon (1846) while he did translations
from German, Spanish, and Italian. He produced a history of
Athens, contributed to endless periodicals, and was at one time
editor of the New Monthly Magazine.
In 1851 he was instrumental in founding a scheme for pensioning
authors and also began to pursue an active political career.
In 1852 he was elected conservative Member of Parliament
for Hertfordshire and held the post until his elevation to
the peerage in 1866. He became Secretary for the Colonies in
Lord Derby’s ministry (1858–59) and played a large part in the
organization of the new colony of British Columbia. He became
Baron Lytton of Knebworth in July 1866 and thereafter took
his place in the House of Peers.
In 1862 he increased his reputation greatly by his occult
novel entitled A Strange Story. Toward the end of the decade he
began to work at yet another story, Kenelm Chillingly (1873) but
his health was beginning to fail, and he died May 23, 1873, at
Torquay.
Even as a child, Lytton had evinced a predilection for mysticism,
while he had surprised his mother once by asking her
whether she was ‘‘not sometimes overcome by the sense of her
own identity’’ (almost exactly the same question was put to his
nurse in boyhood by another mystic, William Bell Scott). Lytton
sedulously developed his leaning towards the occult, and it is
frequently manifest in his literary output, including his poem
The Tale of a Dreamer, and in Kenelm Chillingly. In A Strange Story
he tried to give a scientific coloring to old-fashioned magic.
He was a keen student of psychic phenomena. The great
medium D. D. Home was his guest at Knebworth in 1855.
Home’s phenomena greatly aroused Lytton’s curiosity. He
never spoke about his experiences in public, but his identity
was at once detected in an account in Home’s autobiography
(Incidents in My Life, 1863) which reads
‘‘Whilst I was at Ealing, a distinguished novelist, accompanied
by his son, attended a séance, at which some very remarkable
manifestations occurred that were chiefly directed to him.
The rappings on the table suddenly became unusually firm and
loud. He asked ‘What spirit is present’ The alphabet was
called over, and the response was ‘I am the spirit who influenced
you to write Z (Zanoni).’ ‘Indeed,’ said he, ‘I wish you
would give me some tangible proof of your presence.’ ‘What
proof Will you take my hand.’ ‘Yes.’ And putting his hand beneath
the surface of the table it was immediately seized by a
powerful grasp, which made him start to his feet in evident
trepidation, exhibiting a momentary suspicion that a trick had
been played upon him. Seeing, however, that all the persons
around him were sitting with their hands quietly reposing on
the table, he recovered his composure, and offering an apology
for the uncontrollable excitement caused by such an unexpected
demonstration, he resumed his seat.
‘‘Immediately after this another message was spelt out ‘We
wish you to believe in the . . . ‘ On inquiring after the finishing
word a small cardboard cross which was lying on a table at the
end of the room was given into his hand.’’
When the press asked Lord Lytton for a statement, he refused
to give any. His wariness to commit himself before the
public was well demonstrated by his letter to the secretary of the
London Dialectical Society, February 1869
‘‘So far as my experience goes, the phenomena, when freed
from inpostures with which their exhibition abounds, and examined
rationally, are traceable to material influences of the
nature of which we are ignorant.
‘‘They require certain physical organisations or temperaments
to produce them, and vary according to these organisations
and temperaments.’’
Lord Lytton sought out many mediums after his experiences
with Home and often detected imposture. His friendship
with Home extended over a period of ten years, and when he
commenced the wildest of his romances, A Strange Story, he intended
first to portray Home in its pages, but abandoned this
intention for the fantastic conception of Margrave. The joyousness
of Home’s character, however, is still reflected in the mental
make-up of Margrave. Lytton also became acquainted with
the French occultist Éliphas Lévi, whom he assisted in magical
evocations, and Lévi was clearly a model for the character of the
magus in The Haunted and The Haunters (1857).
Sources
Howe, Ellic. The Magicians of the Golden Dawn. London
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Lytton, Bulwar. The Coming Race. London George Routledge
& Sons, 1877.
———. Complete Works. New York Thomas Y. Crowell, n.d.
———. A Strange Story. Mobile, Ala. S. H. Goetzel, 1863.
Frequently reprinted.
———. Zanoni. London Saunders & Otley, 1842.