Suffocating Suspense

Richard Davenport-Hines

  • Cult Criminals: The Newgate Novels 1830-47 by Juliet John
    Routledge, 2750 pp, £399.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 415 14383 7

While other Victorian novelists rested comfortably in the routines that had brought them success in the past, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) was always committed to experimentation. He was his own pitiless taskmaster, working for money as strenuously as a starveling, and received £30,000 from Routledge for a 15-year option on his novels. He wrote successful silver-fork novels like Pelham (1828); historical romances such as Rienzi (1835); an occult novel, Zanoni (1842); a domestic realist novel, The Caxtons (1849); detective thrillers; a science-fiction novel, The Coming Race (1871); a pioneering sociological study, England and the English (1833); 11 volumes of poetry; a history of Athens and translations of Horace and Schiller. He published ten plays: some bombed, but three remained stockpieces throughout the 19th century. The best of these, Money (1840), was revived last June at the Olivier Theatre, where it seemed a curious hybrid of Restoration comedy and Victorian meliorism.

In addition to literary work that would have exhausted many people, Bulwer-Lytton sat in the House of Commons as a Whig from 1831 until 1841, and as a Disraelian Conservative from 1852 until 1866. During a short period as Colonial Secretary in the late 1850s he supervised the creation of Queensland and British Columbia. On the accession of Queen Victoria, he was nominated by the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to a baronetcy as the representative man of letters at the same time as Herschel was nominated as the representative man of science. His attempts to attain a peerage were for many years frustrated by his wife, who behaved after their separation with the magnanimity of Margaret Cook. (His 1873 novel Kenelm Chillingly contains numerous jibes at the institution of marriage.) His peerage was finally gazetted in 1866.

He experimented with different genres, not (as his enemies said) as an eager caterer to the restless appetite of contemporary readers, but for personal motives which were a characteristic blend of the grave and the dandyish. Novelists, he believed, should elevate their readers by imparting their own souls to them. In this way the novel would become the supreme literary form of the 19th century. He worked at this task with a mixture of ambition, vanity and idealism. It is relevant to his high view of his function as a novelist that he was all his adult life a confirmed opium-eater. He had resplendent daydreams.

There was also a frivolous reason for the diversity of his output. He enjoyed teasing the critics and loved to be talked about at any cost. He was seldom so happy as when launching a new book without his name on it, and hearing what the critics had to say. He enjoyed being praised by people who did not know who they were talking about. He was so versatile and fluent that on several occasions he deceived critics by publishing uncharacteristic new books or staging unexpected new plays anonymously. The revelation that he was the author of The Lady of Lyons proved so humiliating to the Times in 1838 that it retaliated with an attack which W.C Macready called ‘vulgar, virulent and impotent from its display of malice’.

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[*] Paul Clifford, Eugene Aram, Lucretia and Night and Morning by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; Rookwood and Jack Sheppard by Harrison Ainsworth.