This is the second article in our occasional series, ‘Five Reasons’, in which we take a neglected figure from literary history and endeavour to unearth five interesting or surprising things about them. In our first piece, we took the Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith as our subject. This time, it’s the turn of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), or, to give him his full name, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (which should be enough Lyttons for anyone). For a short while during the 1820s and 1830s, he was the most popular novelist in Britain, until he was eclipsed by an even more popular and successful man, Charles Dickens. His popularity waned quickly, even during his own lifetime, and his reputation has never been restored. And yet, although his novels are not read much nowadays, there are still reasons to celebrate this writer. Here are our five favourite reasons.
1. He changed the way men dressed – and still influences the way they dress today. In his first successful novel Pelham (1828), published when Lytton was only in his mid-twenties (he had already published several novels prior to this), Lytton set the trend for men’s evening dress. Prior to Lytton’s novel, the colour of smart evening wear for men could be any colour; Lytton changed that. In this, a ‘silver fork’ novel about upper-class fashionable society, the men wear black evening wear, and when the novel was a runaway success this fashion was adopted by the real gentry. It has been with us ever since.
2. He coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. This first appeared in his 1839 play Richelieu. The saying has since achieved the status of general proverb, but it had a definite origin and a definite author, and it’s Bulwer-Lytton we have to thank for it. Although Bulwer-Lytton provides the true origin of the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, the sentiment it expresses had been around for some time before.
3. He wrote an early work of science fiction. While Jules Verne was writing his groundbreaking works of what became known as science fiction, Bulwer-Lytton was helping to lay the groundwork for the English tradition – in his 1871 novel The Coming Race. In this novel, the narrator accidentally finds himself in a subterranean utopian world populated by a telepathic people known as the Vril-ya. They power themselves with the help of a life-giving fluid known as Vril, whose properties are many and diverse, ranging from healing to killing. Some people, including the Theosophists, even thought that Vril actually existed. The power of fiction…
4. He helped to inspire the name for Bovril. This is thanks to The Coming Race – in which that mysterious substance with life-giving properties, which Lytton names Vril, is at the heart of the power of the Vril-ya. When the makers of Bovril, the beef extract, were casting around for a name for their new product, they formed their brand name by blending ‘bovine’ with ‘Vril’, suggesting that this beefy drink had life-giving properties similar to those provided by Lytton’s fictional elixir.
5. He was the first person to use the most famous (infamous?) opening line in all of fiction. That is, he opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Elmore Leonard once advised writers, ‘Never open a book with weather’, but Lytton didn’t shy away from using such a device, and this opening line may serve to explain why he is not widely read any more, with his novels decried as poorly written. However, this line has inspired an unusual legacy, in the shape of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University in California. The aim of the contest is to find a deliberately bad opening line for a new novel. Past winners have included this gem from Sue Fondrie, in 2011: ‘Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.’ As this contest shows, Bulwer-Lytton has not been completely forgotten; but quite what he’d make of his legacy, we cannot say. And we haven’t even mentioned that he was offered the throne of Greece in 1862 (he declined, in case you were wondering)…
If you enjoyed learning about Bulwer-Lytton, we’ve gathered together some interesting facts from the life of Sir Walter Scott here.
Image: Title page and frontis by Hablot K Browne of ‘Pelham’, 1849 (scanned by Steven J. Plunkett), Wikimedia Commons, public domain.