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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934)
 
THE PATRICIAN in literature is always an interesting spectacle. We are prone to regard his performance as a test of the worth of long descent and high breeding. If he does well, he vindicates the claims of his caste; if ill, we infer that inherited estates and blue blood are but surface advantages, leaving the effective brain unimproved, or even causing deterioration. But the argument is still open; and whether genius be the creature of circumstance or divinely independent, is a question which prejudice rather than evidence commonly decides.  1
  Certainly literature tries men’s souls. The charlatan must betray himself. Genius shines through all cerements. On the other hand, genius may be nourished, and the charlatan permeates all classes. The truth probably is that an aristocrat is quite as apt as a plebeian to be a good writer. Only since there are fewer of the former than of the latter, and since, unlike the last, the first are seldom forced to live by their brains, there are more plebeian than aristocratic names on the literary roll of honor. Admitting this, the instance of the writer known as “Bulwer” proves nothing one way or the other. At all events, not, Was he a genius because he was a patrician? but, Was he a genius at all? is the inquiry most germane to our present purpose.  2
  An aristocrat of aristocrats undoubtedly he was, though it concerns us not to determine whether the blood of Plantagenet kings and Norman conquerors really flowed in his veins. On both father’s and mother’s side he was thoroughly well connected. Heydon Hall in Norfolk was the hereditary home of the Norman Bulwers; the Saxon Lyttons had since the Conquest lived at Knebworth in Derbyshire. The historic background of each family was honorable, and when the marriage of William Earle Bulwer with Elizabeth Barbara Lytton united them, it might be said that in their offspring England found her type.  3
  Edward, being the youngest son, had little money, but he happened to have brains. He began existence delicate and precocious. Culture, with him, set in almost with what he would have termed the “consciousness of his own identity,” and the process never intermitted: in fact, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, his spiritual and intellectual emancipation was hindered by many obstacles; for, an ailing child, he was petted by his mother, and such germs of intelligence (verses at seven years old, and the like) as he betrayed were trumpeted as prodigies. He was spoilt so long before he was ripe that it is a marvel he ever ripened at all. Many years must pass before vanity could be replaced in him by manly ambition; a vein of silliness is traceable through his career almost to the end. He expatiated in the falsetto key; almost never do we hear in his voice that hearty bass note so dear to plain humanity. In his pilgrimage toward freedom he had to wrestle not only with flesh-and-blood mothers, uncles, and wives, et id genus omne, but with the more subtle and vital ideas, superstitions, and prejudices appertaining to his social station. His worst foes were not those of his household merely, but of his heart. The more arduous achievement of such a man is to see his real self and believe in it. There are so many misleading purple-velvet waistcoats, gold chains, superfine sentiments, and blue-blooded affiliations in the way, that the true nucleus of so much decoration becomes less accessible than the needle in the haystack. It is greatly to Bulwer’s credit that he stuck valiantly to his quest, and nearly, if not quite, ran down his game at last. His intellectual record is one of constant progress, from childhood to age.  4
  Whether his advance in other respects was as uniform does not much concern us. He was unhappy with his wife, and perhaps they even threw things at each other at table, the servants looking on. Nothing in his matrimonial relations so much became him as his conduct after their severance: he held his tongue like a man, in spite of the poor lady’s shrieks and clapper-clawings. His whimsical, hair-splitting conscientiousness is less admirable. A healthy conscience does not whine—it creates. No one cares to know what a man thinks of his own actions. No one is interested to learn that Bulwer meant ‘Paul Clifford’ to be an edifying work, or that he married his wife from the highest motives. We do not take him so seriously: we are satisfied that he wrote the story first and discovered its morality afterwards; and that lofty motives would not have united him to Miss Rosina Doyle Wheeler had she not been pretty and clever. His hectic letters to his mamma; his Byronic struttings and mouthings over the grave of his schoolgirl lady-love; his eighteenth-century comedy-scene with Caroline Lamb; his starched-frill participation in the Fred Villiers duel at Boulogne,—how silly and artificial is all this! There is no genuine feeling in it: he attires himself in tawdry sentiment as in a flowered waistcoat. What a difference between him, at this period, and his contemporary Benjamin Disraeli, who indeed committed similar inanities, but with a saturnine sense of humor cropping out at every turn which altered the whole complexion of the performance. We laugh at the one, but with the other.  5
  Of course, however, there was a man hidden somewhere in Edward Bulwer’s perfumed clothes and mincing attitudes, else the world had long since forgotten him. Amidst his dandyism, he learned how to speak well in debate and how to use his hands to guard his head; he paid his debts by honest hard work, and would not be dishonorably beholden to his mother or any one else. He posed as a blighted being, and invented black evening-dress; but he lived down the scorn of such men as Tennyson and Thackeray, and won their respect and friendship at last. He aimed high, according to his lights, meant well, and in the long run did well too.  6
  The main activities of his life—and from start to finish his energy was great—were in politics and in literature. His political career covers about forty years, from the time he took his degree at Cambridge till Lord Derby made him a peer in 1866. He accomplished nothing of serious importance, but his course was always creditable: he began as a sentimental Radical and ended as a liberal Conservative; he advocated the Crimean War; the Corn Laws found him in a compromising humor; his record as Colonial Secretary offers nothing memorable in statesmanship. The extraordinary brilliancy of his brother Henry’s diplomatic life throws Edward’s achievements into the shade. There is nothing to be ashamed of, but had he done nothing else he would have been unknown. But literature, first seriously cultivated as a means of livelihood, outlasted his political ambitions, and his books are to-day his only claim to remembrance. They made a strong impression at the time they were written, and many are still read as much as ever, by a generation born after his death. Their popularity is not of the catchpenny sort; thoughtful people read them, as well as the great drove of the undiscriminating. For they are the product of thought: they show workmanship; they have quality; they are carefully made. If the literary critic never finds occasion to put off the shoes from his feet as in the sacred presence of genius, he is constantly moved to recognize with a friendly nod the presence of sterling talent. He is even inclined to think that nobody else ever had so much talent as this little red-haired, blue-eyed, high-nosed, dandified Edward Bulwer; the mere mass of it lifts him at times to the levels where genius dwells, though he never quite shares their nectar and ambrosia. He as it were catches echoes of the talk of the Immortals,—the turn of their phrase, the intonation of their utterance,—and straightway reproduces it with the fidelity of the phonograph. But, as in the phonograph, we find something lacking; our mind accepts the report as genuine, but our ear affirms an unreality; this is reproduction, indeed, but not creation. Bulwer himself, when his fit is past, and his critical faculty re-awakens, probably knows as well as another that these labored and meritorious pages of his are not graven on the eternal adamant. But they are the best he can do, and perhaps there is none better of their kind. They have a right to be; for while genius may do harm as well as good, Bulwer never does harm, and in spite of sickly sentiment and sham philosophy, is uniformly instructive, amusing, and edifying.  7
  “To love her,” wrote Dick Steele of a certain great dame, “is a liberal education;” and we might almost say the same of the reading of Bulwer’s romances. He was learned, and he put into his books all his learning, as well as all else that was his. They represent—artistically grouped, ingeniously lighted, with suitable accompaniments of music and illusion—the acquisitions of his intellect, the sympathies of his nature, and the achievements of his character.  8
  He wrote in various styles, making deliberate experiments in one after another, and often hiding himself completely in anonymity. He was versatile, not deep. Robert Louis Stevenson also employs various styles; but with him the changes are intuitive—they are the subtle variations in touch and timbre which genius makes, in harmony with the subject treated. Stevenson could not have written ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in the same tune and key as ‘Treasure Island’; and the music of ‘Marxheim’ differs from both. The reason is organic: the writer is inspired by his theme, and it passes through his mind with a lilt and measure of its own. It makes its own style, just as a human spirit makes its own features and gait; and we know Stevenson through all his transformations only by dint of the exquisite distinction and felicity of word and phrase that always characterize him. Now, with Bulwer there is none of this lovely inevitable spontaneity. He costumes his tale arbitrarily, like a stage-haberdasher, and invents a voice to deliver it withal. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ shall be mouthed out grandiloquently; the incredibilities of ‘The Coming Race’ shall wear the guise of naïve and artless narrative; the humors of ‘The Caxtons’ and ‘What Will He Do with It?’ shall reflect the mood of the sagacious, affable man of the world, gossiping over the nuts and wine; the marvels of ‘Zanoni’ and ‘A Strange Story’ must be portrayed with a resonance and exaltation of diction fitted to their transcendental claims. But between the stark mechanism of the Englishman and the lithe, inspired felicity of the Scot, what a difference!  9
  Bulwer’s work may be classified according to subject, though not chronologically. He wrote novels of society, of history, of mystery, and of romance. In all he was successful, and perhaps felt as much interest in one as in another. In his own life the study of the occult played a part; he was familiar with the contemporary fads in mystery and acquainted with their professors. “Ancient” history also attracted him, and he even wrote a couple of volumes of a ‘History of Athens.’ In all his writing there is a tendency to lapse into a discussion of the “Ideal and the Real,” aiming always at the conclusion that the only true Real is the Ideal. It was this tendency which chiefly aroused the ridicule of his critics, and from the ‘Sredwardlyttonbulwig’ of Thackeray to the ‘Condensed Novels’ burlesque of Bret Harte, they harp upon that facile string. The thing satirized is after all not cheaper than the satire. The ideal is the true real; the only absurdity lies in the pomp and circumstance wherewith that simple truth is introduced. There is a ‘Dweller on the Threshold,’ but it, or he, is nothing more than that doubt concerning the truth of spiritual things which assails all beginners in higher speculation, and there was no need to call it or him by so formidable a name. A sense of humor would have saved Bulwer from almost all his faults, and have endowed him with several valuable virtues into the bargain; but it was not born in him, and with all his diligence he never could beget it.  10
  The domestic series, of which ‘The Caxtons’ is the type, are the most generally popular of his works, and are likely to be so longest. The romantic vein (‘Ernest Maltravers,’ ‘Alice, or the Mysteries,’ etc.) are in his worst style, and are now only in existence as books because they are members of “the edition.” It is doubtful if any human being has read one of them through in twenty years. Such historical books as ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ are not only well constructed dramatically, but are painfully accurate in details, and may still be read for information as well as for pleasure. The ‘Zanoni’ species is undeniably interesting. The weird traditions of the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and the ‘Elixir of Life’ can never cease to fascinate human souls, and all the paraphernalia of magic are charming to minds weary of the matter-of-factitude of current existence. The stories are put together with Bulwer’s unfailing cleverness, and in all external respects neither Dumas nor Balzac has done anything better in this kind: the trouble is that these authors compel our belief, while Bulwer does not. For, once more, he lacks the magic of genius and the spirit of style which are immortally and incommunicably theirs, without which no other magic can be made literarily effective.  11
  ‘Pelham,’ written at twenty-five years of age, is a creditable boy’s book; it aims to portray character as well as to develop incidents, and in spite of the dreadful silliness of its melodramatic passages it has merit. Conventionally it is more nearly a work of art than that other famous boy’s book, Disraeli’s ‘Vivian Grey,’ though the latter is alive and blooming with the original literary charm which is denied to the other. Other characteristic novels of his are ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ ‘Ernest Maltravers,’ ‘Zanoni,’ ‘The Caxtons,’ ‘My Novel,’ ‘What Will He Do with It?’ ‘A Strange Story,’ ‘The Coming Race,’ and ‘Kenelm Chillingly,’ the last of which appeared in the year of the author’s death, 1873. The student who has read these books will know all that is worth knowing of Bulwer’s work. He wrote upwards of fifty substantial volumes, and left a mass of posthumous material besides. Of all that he did, the most nearly satisfactory thing is one of the last, ‘Kenelm Chillingly.’ In style, persons, and incidents it is alike charming: it subsides somewhat into the inevitable Bulwer sentimentality towards the end—a silk purse cannot be made out of a sow’s ear; but the miracle was never nearer being accomplished than in this instance. Here we see the thoroughly equipped man of letters doing with apparent ease what scarce five of his contemporaries could have done at all. The book is lightsome and graceful, yet it touches serious thoughts: most remarkable of all, it shows a suppleness of mind and freshness of feeling more to be expected in a youth of thirty than in a veteran of threescore and ten. Bulwer never ceased to grow; and what is better still, to grow away from his faults and towards improvement.  12
  But in comparing him with others, we must admit that he had better opportunities than most. His social station brought him in contact with the best people and most pregnant events of his time; and the driving poverty of youth having established him in the novel-writing habit, he thereafter had leisure to polish and expand his faculty to the utmost. No talent of his was folded up in a napkin: he did his best and utmost with all he had. Whereas the path of genius is commonly tortuous and hard-beset: and while we are always saying of Shakespeare, or Thackeray, or Shelley, or Keats, or Poe, “What wonders they would have done had life been longer or fate kinder to them!”—of Bulwer we say, “No help was wanting to him, and he profited by all; he got out of the egg more than we had believed was in it!” Instead of a great faculty hobbled by circumstance, we have a small faculty magnified by occasion and enriched by time.  13
  Certainly, as men of letters go, Bulwer must be accounted fortunate. The long inflamed row of his domestic life apart, all things went his way. He received large sums for his books; at the age of forty, his mother dying, he succeeded to the Knebworth estate; three-and-twenty years later his old age (if such a man could be called old) was consoled by the title of Lord Lytton. His health was never robust, and occasionally failed; but he seems to have been able to accomplish after a fashion everything that he undertook; he was “thorough,” as the English say. He lived in the midst of events; he was a friend of the men who made the age, and saw them make it, lending a hand himself too when and where he could. He lived long enough to see the hostility which had opposed him in youth die away, and honor and kindness take its place. Let it be repeated, his aims were good. He would have been candid and un-self-conscious had that been possible for him; and perhaps the failure was one of manner rather than of heart.—Yes, he was a fortunate man.  14
  His most conspicuous success was as a play-writer. In view of his essentially dramatic and historic temperament, it is surprising that he did not altogether devote himself to this branch of art; but all his dramas were produced between his thirty-third and his thirty-eighth years. The first—‘La Duchesse de la Valliere’—was not to the public liking; but ‘The Lady of Lyons,’ written in two weeks, is in undiminished favor after near sixty years; and so are ‘Richelieu’ and ‘Money.’ There is no apparent reason why Bulwer should not have been as prolific a stage-author as Molière or even Lope de Vega. But we often value our best faculties least.  15
  ‘The Coming Race,’ published anonymously and never acknowledged during his life, was an unexpected product of his mind, but is useful to mark his limitations. It is a forecast of the future, and proves, as nothing else could so well do, the utter absence in Bulwer of the creative imagination. It is an invention, cleverly conceived, mechanically and rather tediously worked out, and written in a style astonishingly commonplace. The man who wrote that book (one would say) had no heaven in his soul, nor any pinions whereon to soar heavenward. Yet it is full of thought and ingenuity, and the central conception of “vril” has been much commended. But the whole concoction is tainted with the deadness of stark materialism, and we should be unjust, after all, to deny Bulwer something loftier and broader than is discoverable here. In inventing the narrative he depended upon the weakest element in his mental make-up, and the result could not but be dismal. We like to believe that there was better stuff in him than he himself ever found; and that when he left this world for the next, he had sloughed off more dross than most men have time to accumulate.  16
 
 
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