EDWARD BULWER-LYTTON (1803-1873)
According to his baptismal certificate, the full name of this once famous author was Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton. 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 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).