Five Reasons Everyone Should Know Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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.

Bulwer11. 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.

56 thoughts on “Five Reasons Everyone Should Know Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton”

  1. Oh, this was so interesting and entertaining! Indeed, what would the man think of his legacy. Perhaps he (like many unsung authors) might just be happy to have one :) Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks! I think you’re right – he knew his writing would dwindle in popularity as it happened quite early on in his career, but I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that he had a lasting impact in a number of areas :)

  2. Great stuff, as always! One additional fun fact is that his home, Knebworth, has been featured in a host of movies, including “The King’s Speech” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” (in which it served as Wayne Manor).

    • Thank you! And that’s fabulous: I’d forgotten about Knebworth (wonder what he’d think about all the rock concerts held there, too?). Maybe I should have made this ‘six reasons’ or even seven or eight (the King of Greece thing deserves more of a write-up)…

  3. A very interesting article. I have just read a short story by him; Monos and Daimonos, a story of psychological horror, which again is, perhaps, the first of its kind in literature. There are a number of authors who were well known in their time during the Victorian era but who have faded into near obscurity now. In 150 years or so, I wonder who will be remembered and read among the authors popular today?

    • Thanks for the generous comment, and also for directing me to ‘Monos and Daimonos’, which, on your recommendation, I shall seek out. It sounds an interesting read! There are a few other Victorian writers in this series whom I’ll blog about in coming weeks, who have suffered a similar fate and been largely forgotten by history. Prediction is always difficult (especially about the future, as Niels Bohr, I think, said), but one does wonder whether any of the hugely bestselling novelists of recent years (Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, E. L. James, Stephanie Meyer) will still be read 150 years down the line. For my part, I think Rowling may well be (children’s literature often survives better, it seems), but I’m not confident about the other three…

      • You are welcome. It is a short story, I read it in a collection of Gothic style tales. Regarding authors’ longevity, It is a hard one to predict. Walter Scott was extremely popular in his day but not many read him now. Modern culture would point to the fact that nothing lasts as long as it once did, I think we are more faddish culturally now. With Rowling, it could be argued that it is based on themes and stories that have existed for a long time so will be part of that continuous stream. At present, I am looking into authors that were writing detective fiction between 1850-1930. There was a huge appetite for them and many a periodical that filled its pages with such stories. A lot of the author’s such as Richard Marsh have passed into obscurity, some of whom were best sellers in their day.

        • AH yes, Richard Marsh is a prime example. The Beetle outsold Dracula in 1897, and yet it’s only recently been reprinted. I bet you’ve uncovered many many forgotten authors of detective fiction from that period! One of my research interests is the psychic detectives created by writers such as Algernon Blackwood, M. P. Shiel, William Hope Hodgson, and so on in the wake of the success of Sherlock Holmes – few of those characters are widely known these days…

          • John Silence! I like Blackwood a lot, an interesting mix of the paranormal and psychological. I have some John Silence to read. The Beetle is an interesting story, worth reading. I hope to seek out a few more stories by Marsh. Fergus Hume was another name that is forgotten; noted, mostly, for The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. There was quite a plethora of stories, characters and authors. The quality ranged from penny dreadfuls to work that should not have been so forgotten. I think this may inspire me to write a bit about this genre!

  4. This was a really interesting blog post. I have never heard of Bulwer-Lytton, there is always something new to learn! It is cool to hear about these writers who have sort of faded into obscurity – rightly or wrongly.

  5. Great stuff. Forgive my cheek (with tongue within), for appending this:

    If the first Baron Lytton – Edward George Bulwer –
    who wrote in 1839 a play called Richelieu,
    hadn’t had a spelling checker on his wordprocessor,
    he might have struck a very different chord

    For a century and a half the world’s been smitten
    by those famous words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton;
    but would the world be different if he’d actually written:
    ‘The penis mightier than the sword’ ?

  6. This is a great series of posts. It is the nature of the popular writer to be largely forgotten – who remembers Sapper, John Creasey and Ethel M Dell already, and they were all less that a hundred years ago. Maybe it’s because to be truly popular in an age you catch the zeitgeist, and when that goes you go with it, regardless of quality (or not, in some cases)? Who was it said ‘It is not just necessary to write well, it is necessary to write to be noticed?’ Seriously – I read this a while back and can’t recall, which is ironic, but nonetheless a good point.

  7. I think it’s a shame that the colour of smart evening wear for men could be any colour but isn’t so now. That type of variety should come back. I don’t even have to mention that the next time I go to a formal, evening event I’ll be wearing anything but black . . .

    He was offered the throne of Greece in 1862?! That part of his life alone deserves a full article.


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