History of English Literature is a comprehensive, eight-volume survey of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early twenty-first century. This reference work provides insightful and often revisionary readings of core texts in the English literary canon. Richly informative analyses are framed by the biographical, historical and intellectual context for each author.
Volume 5 focuses on the fiction of the early and mid-Victorian period. After acknowledging the pioneering work of Disraeli, Bulwer Lytton and Ainsworth, the author turns to the masterworks of Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope. Significant attention is also dedicated to the work of the Brontë sisters and of Elizabeth Gaskell. Along with these major figures, novelists soon forgotten in their time and only now rediscovered – such as Yonge, Oliphant, Mulock Craik, Wood, Borrow, Blackmore, the ‘muscular’ Kingsley and his followers, and the sensationalists Wilkie Collins, Reade and Le Fanu – are discussed extensively. The final sections evaluate George Eliot’s and Meredith’s formidable oeuvres.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of abbreviations
- Part I The Groundbreakers
- § 1. Bulwer Lytton I: The enfant prodige, the Byronic double, the versatile routinier
- § 2. Bulwer Lytton II: The beginnings
- § 3. Bulwer Lytton III: The Newgate triptych
- § 4. Bulwer Lytton IV: The historical novels
- § 5. Bulwer Lytton V: The supernatural tales
- § 6. Bulwer Lytton VI: The comic novels
- § 7. Bulwer Lytton VII: The plays
- § 8. Disraeli I: From the ghetto to the corridors of power
- § 9. Disraeli II: Biography
- § 10. Disraeli III: The first trilogy
- § 11. Disraeli IV: Other early novels
- § 12. Disraeli V: Venetia
- § 13. Disraeli VI: The second trilogy
- § 14. Disraeli VII: Coningsby. The education of the young Tory
- § 15. Disraeli VIII: Sybil. The wedding of commoners and aristocracy
- § 16. Disraeli IX: Tancred. The mystic in the melee
- § 17. Disraeli X: Lothair. The siege of Rome
- § 18. Disraeli XI: Endymion
- § 19. Novelists and prose writers before Dickens
- § 20. Ainsworth
- § 21. Dickens I: The excommunicated entertainer and his posthumous apotheosis
- § 22. Dickens II: The parody of sources: the picaresque, dramatic and visual tradition
- § 23. Dickens III: The corruption of capitalism and redemption through love
- § 24. Dickens IV: The game of roles
- § 25. Dickens V: Biography
- § 26. Dickens VI: Sketches by Boz. From photographic to visionary realism
- § 27. Dickens VII: The Pickwick Papers I. The explosion of Dickens’s humour
- § 28. Dickens VIII: The Pickwick Papers II. The paralysis of institutions
- § 29. Dickens IX: The Pickwick Papers III. The Christological joke
- § 30. Dickens X: Oliver Twist. The founding narrative of threatened childhood
- § 31. Dickens XI: Nicholas Nickleby I. The kaleidoscope of pretentiousness
- § 32. Dickens XII: Nicholas Nickleby II. How to tackle the crisis
- § 33. Dickens XIII: The Old Curiosity Shop. The ascetic alternative
- § 34. Dickens XIV: Master Humphrey’s Clock
- § 35. Dickens XV: Barnaby Rudge. Exorcizing the Revolution
- § 36. Dickens XVI: American Notes
- § 37. Dickens XVII: Martin Chuzzlewit I. Mastery of the serial
- § 38. Dickens XVIII: Martin Chuzzlewit II. The American chapters
- § 39. Dickens XIX: Pictures from Italy
- § 40. Dickens XX: The Christmas stories
- § 41. Dickens XXI: Dombey and Son I. Emotional avarice
- § 42. Dickens XXII: Dombey and Son II. The social and political mosaic
- § 43. Dickens XXIII: Dombey and Son III. The new alliance
- § 44. Dickens XXIV: David Copperfield I. Balancing the autobiography within a choral structure
- § 45. Dickens XXV: David Copperfield II. Exodus from the middle classes
- § 46. Dickens XXVI: Bleak House I. The legal arch-metaphor
- § 47. Dickens XXVII: Bleak House II. The ironmaster
- § 48. Dickens XXVIII: Bleak House III. ‘Go and sin no more’
- § 49. Dickens XXIX: Hard Times. Dickens in arms against the factory system
- § 50. Dickens XXX: Little Dorrit I. Inside and outside the prison
- § 51. Dickens XXXI: Little Dorrit II. The nemesis of repressive religion
- § 52. Dickens XXXII: Little Dorrit III. The stock market craze and the autarchy of the destitute
- § 53. Dickens XXXIII: A Tale of Two Cities. The onset of the Dickensian double
- § 54. Dickens XXXIV: Great Expectations. The second autobiography
- § 55. Dickens XXXV: The Uncommercial Traveller. Daytime sociability and night-time solipsism
- § 56. Dickens XXXVI: Our Mutual Friend I. The blight of greed
- § 57. Dickens XXXVII: Our Mutual Friend II. The ambiguous epilogue
- § 58. Dickens XXXVIII: ‘Mugby Junction’ and ‘No Thoroughfare’
- § 59. Dickens XXXIX: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Homicidal psychopathology in Dickens’s unfinished work
- § 60. Thackeray I: The anxiety of Dickens’s influence
- § 61. Thackeray II: From fragmentariness to cyclicism
- § 62. Thackeray III: Thackeray under trial
- § 63. Thackeray IV: Biography
- § 64. Thackeray V: The footman’s sketches
- § 65. Thackeray VI: Further epics of the ‘rook’ and the ‘pigeon’
- § 66. Thackeray VII: Parodic and militant novels
- § 67. Thackeray VIII: The travel diaries
- § 68. Thackeray IX: The journalist
- § 69. Thackeray X: Barry Lyndon. Elegy and apology of the libertine eighteenth century
- § 70. Thackeray XI: The two chivalric remakes
- § 71. Thackeray XII: The Book of Snobs. The dictionary of pretentiousness
- § 72. Thackeray XIII: The Christmas tales
- § 73. Thackeray XIV: Vanity Fair I. The great Napoleonic bluff
- § 74. Thackeray XV: Vanity Fair II. The European classic
- § 75. Thackeray XVI: Pendennis
- § 76. Thackeray XVII: The History of Henry Esmond I. The apex of Thackeray’s illusionism
- § 77. Thackeray XVIII: The History of Henry Esmond II. Further observations on the use of first-person narration
- § 78. Thackeray XIX: The Newcomes. The mystical alternative
- § 79. Thackeray XX: The Virginians. The Anglo-American counterpoint
- § 80. Thackeray XXI: The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century and The Four Georges
- § 81. Thackeray XXII: The Roundabout Papers
- § 82. Thackeray XXIII: Lovel the Widower
- § 83. Thackeray XXIV: Philip
- § 84. Thackeray XXV: Denis Duval
- § 85. Trollope up to 1870 I: The record holder for serial fiction
- § 86. Trollope up to 1870 II: Strategies and techniques
- § 87. Trollope up to 1870 III: An unofficial Trollope?
- § 88. Trollope up to 1870 IV: Biography
- § 89. Trollope up to 1870 V: The three debut novels
- § 90. Trollope up to 1870 VI: The Barsetshire cycle I. In the shadow of the cathedral
- § 91. Trollope up to 1870 VII: The Barsetshire cycle II. The Warden and Barchester Towers
- § 92. Trollope up to 1870 VIII: The Barsetshire cycle III. Dr Thorne and Framley Parsonage
- § 93. Trollope up to 1870 IX: The Barsetshire cycle IV. The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset
- § 94. Trollope up to 1870 X: Intermediate novels on triads of heroes
- § 95. Trollope up to 1870 XI: Orley Farm I. The legal frame
- § 96. Trollope up to 1870 XII: Orley Farm II. The old and the young
- § 97. Trollope up to 1870 XIII: Standalone novels of the 1860s
- § 98. Trollope up to 1870 XIV: Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel. Geographical variations on the theme
- § 99. Trollope up to 1870 XV: The Claverings. A concentric study of regret
- § 100. Trollope up to 1870 XVI: He Knew He Was Right I. England in transition
- § 101. Trollope up to 1870 XVII: He Knew He Was Right II. The outlying plots
- § 102. Trollope up to 1870 XVIII: Short novels and stories up to 1870
- Part II Women’s Writing
- § 103. Harriet Martineau
- § 104. Gaskell I: The art of omission
- § 105. Gaskell II: The awakening of female desire
- § 106. Gaskell III: The Unitarian background
- § 107. Gaskell IV: Biography
- § 108. Gaskell V: Mary Barton I. The panegyric of non-unionized workers
- § 109. Gaskell VI: Mary Barton II. The armistice between capital and workforce
- § 110. Gaskell VII: Mary Barton III. Archaic feminism
- § 111. Gaskell VIII: Mary Barton IV. Crime and punishment
- § 112. Gaskell IX: Early sketches of the farmyard and the hearth
- § 113. Gaskell X: Ruth
- § 114. Gaskell XI: Cranford. The utopia of an all-female society
- § 115. Gaskell XII: North and South
- § 116. Gaskell XIII: Works between 1855 and 1863
- § 117. Gaskell XIV: Cousin Phillis
- § 118. Gaskell XV: Sylvia’s Lovers I. The explosion of anarchic sensuality
- § 119. Gaskell XVI: Sylvia’s Lovers II. Sylvia’s submission
- § 120. Gaskell XVII: A Dark Night’s Work
- § 121. Gaskell XVIII: Wives and Daughters I. The ambitious ‘unfinished’
- § 122. Gaskell XIX: Wives and Daughters II. The fairy-tale of a sleeping beauty
- § 123. Yonge
- § 124. Mulock Craik
- § 125. The Brontë sisters. From the heart of the moors
- § 126. Biography of the Brontë sisters
- § 127. Charlotte Brontë I: Three interpretative keys
- § 128. Charlotte Brontë II: Sagas and poems
- § 129. Charlotte Brontë III: The Professor. Charlotte’s stand-in in Brussels
- § 130. Charlotte Brontë IV: Jane Eyre I. The Victorian best-seller. Innovative seeds and serial-novel strategies
- § 131. Charlotte Brontë V: Jane Eyre II. The redeemed reprobate, a missionary manquée
- § 132. Charlotte Brontë VI: Jane Eyre III. The extinct volcano
- § 133. Charlotte Brontë VII: Shirley. The masculine woman, an unarmed warrior
- § 134. Charlotte Brontë VIII: Villette I. The second Belgian retrospective
- § 135. Charlotte Brontë IX: Villette II. The Pauline agon between the spirit and the flesh
- § 136. Emily Brontë I: Face to face with the Absolute
- § 137. Emily Brontë II: The poetry. From the ‘God of creeds’ to the ‘God of visions’
- § 138. Emily Brontë III: Wuthering Heights I. Anomaly and topicality
- § 139. Emily Brontë IV: Wuthering Heights II. The conceptual framework
- § 140. Emily Brontë V: Wuthering Heights III. The enunciative imbrications and the two temporal planes
- § 141. Emily Brontë VI: Wuthering Heights IV. Return to the status quo
- § 142. Emily Brontë VII: Wuthering Heights V. The diligent housekeeper and the fatuous fop
- § 143. Anne Brontë I: Piety and firmness
- § 144. Anne Brontë II: The poetry
- § 145. Anne Brontë III: Agnes Grey. The redemptive etiquette of the newly-weds
- § 146. Anne Brontë IV: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The daring protest manifesto
- § 147. Mrs Oliphant I: Nostalgia and neurosis in provincial life
- § 148. Mrs Oliphant II: Stories of the seen and unseen
- Part III ‘Muscular’ and Sensational Novelists
- § 149. Charles Kingsley I: Thumping the drum of pacifist England
- § 150. Charles Kingsley II: Spiritual biography
- § 151. Charles Kingsley III: Lyric and dramatic poetry
- § 152. Charles Kingsley IV: The Chartist diptych
- § 153. Charles Kingsley V: Hypatia. The disavowal of inactive Platonism
- § 154. Charles Kingsley VI: Westward Ho! An Elizabethan saga
- § 155. Charles Kingsley VII: The fairy-tales
- § 156. Charles Kingsley VIII: Hereward the Wake
- § 157. Other ‘muscular’ novelists. Henry Kingsley, Hughes, G. A. Lawrence
- § 158. Borrow I: A nomadic, missionary ‘scholar-gipsy’
- § 159. Borrow II: The Bible in Spain
- § 160. Borrow III: Lavengro
- § 161. Borrow IV: Wild Wales
- § 162. Reade I: A gifted, eclectic and versatile writer
- § 163. Reade II: Plays and early novels
- § 164. Reade III: It Is Never Too Late to Mend
- § 165. Reade IV: The Cloister and the Hearth. The fresco of the waning of the Middle Ages
- § 166. Reade V: Hard Cash
- § 167. Reade VI: Griffith Gaunt
- § 168. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 I: The ‘master of the detective novel’? A debatable label
- § 169. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 II: The floor to the witnesses
- § 170. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 III: The apprenticeship novels
- § 171. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 IV: The major phase. The Woman in White
- § 172. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 V: No Name
- § 173. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 VI: Armadale. Wrestling with Fate
- § 174. Wilkie Collins up to 1868 VII: The Moonstone. After the Apocalypse, the joke
- § 175. Mrs Henry Wood
- § 176. Le Fanu I: A metaphysical sensationalist
- § 177. Le Fanu II: In a Glass Darkly and Carmilla
- § 178. MacDonald
- § 179. Blackmore
- Part IV George Eliot’s and Meredith’s Ideological and Experimental Novels up to 1870
- § 180. George Eliot up to 1872 I: Continuity and innovation
- § 181. George Eliot up to 1872 II: The cultural context
- § 182. George Eliot up to 1872 III: A sophisticated and non-party feminism
- § 183. George Eliot up to 1872 IV: Sympathetic realism undermined
- § 184. George Eliot up to 1872 V: Biography
- § 185. George Eliot up to 1872 VI: Essays, reviews and translations
- § 186. George Eliot up to 1872 VII: Scenes of Clerical Life. The first provincial epic
- § 187. George Eliot up to 1872 VIII: Adam Bede I. The deterioration of rural Eden
- § 188. George Eliot up to 1872 IX: Adam Bede II. The ungoverned passions
- § 189. George Eliot up to 1872 X: Adam Bede III. Apocalypse and regeneration
- § 190. George Eliot up to 1872 XI: The Mill on the Floss I. A small-minded world
- § 191. George Eliot up to 1872 XII: The Mill on the Floss II. The river saga
- § 192. George Eliot up to 1872 XIII: The Mill on the Floss III. The Way of the Cross
- § 193. George Eliot up to 1872 XIV: The Mill on the Floss IV. The aquatic Golgotha
- § 194. George Eliot up to 1872 XV: Silas Marner I. The healing of a misanthropist
- § 195. George Eliot up to 1872 XVI: Silas Marner II. The jocoserious paradigm of authentication
- § 196. George Eliot up to 1872 XVII: ‘The Lifted Veil’ I. The ambiguous disavowal of visionary solipsism
- § 197. George Eliot up to 1872 XVIII: ‘The Lifted Veil’ II. Latimer’s evocative monologue
- § 198. George Eliot up to 1872 XIX: ‘Brother Jacob’
- § 199. George Eliot up to 1872 XX: Romola I. The Savonarolian novel
- § 200. George Eliot up to 1872 XXI: Romola II. Tito Melema, Victorian Apollo-Dionysus
- § 201. George Eliot up to 1872 XXII: Romola III. The returning fugitive
- § 202. George Eliot up to 1872 XXIII: Felix Holt. Inconsistencies of radicalism
- § 203. George Eliot up to 1872 XXIV: Middlemarch I. The organizing metaphor of the web
- § 204. George Eliot up to 1872 XXV: Middlemarch II. England in 1832
- § 205. George Eliot up to 1872 XXVI: Middlemarch III. The anachronistic saint, the living dead man and the artist in Parliament
- § 206. George Eliot up to 1872 XXVII: Middlemarch IV. Reward, redemption, condemnation
- § 207. George Eliot up to 1872 XXVIII: The poetry
- § 208. Meredith up to 1871 I: The borderline mannerist
- § 209. Meredith up to 1871 II: The therapeutic function of comedy
- § 210. Meredith up to 1871 III: Biography
- § 211. Meredith up to 1871 IV: The Shaving of Shagpat and Farina
- § 212. Meredith up to 1871 V: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel I. The autobiographical palimpsest masked in parody
- § 213. Meredith up to 1871 VI: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel II. For or against the system?
- § 214. Meredith up to 1871 VII: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel III. Rebellion, romance and catastrophe
- § 215. Meredith up to 1871 VIII: Evan Harrington
- § 216. Meredith up to 1871 IX: Poetry up to 1870
- § 217. Meredith up to 1871 X: Modern Love
- § 218. Meredith up to 1871 XI: Sandra Belloni. The English prevaricator in the 1848 revolutions
- § 219. Meredith up to 1871 XII: Rhoda Fleming. The tragic rural idyll
- § 220. Meredith up to 1871 XIII: Vittoria. Meredith’s virtuosic masterpiece
- § 221. Meredith up to 1871 XIV: The Adventures of Harry Richmond. The provisional conclusion of the formative journey
- Index of names
- Thematic index
BAUGH A Literary History of England, 4 vols, ed. A. C. Baugh, London 1967.
CEV D. Cecil, Early Victorian Novelists, London 1964 (1st edn 1934).
CHI The Cambridge History of English Literature, 14 vols, Cambridge 1933.
CRHE The Critical Heritage of individual authors, London, with editors and publication years indicated in the bibliographies.
DAI D. Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature, 2 vols, New York 1970.
GGM S. M. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, CT and London 1984.
LCA E. Legouis and L. Cazamian, A History of English Literature, Eng. trans., London 1967 (1st French edn 1925).
MAR F. Marenco, Storia della civiltà letteraria inglese, 4 vols, Torino 1996.
NCF Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
OCE G. Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. S. Orwell and I. Angus, 4 vols, Harmondsworth 1970.
PGU The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. B. Ford, 7 vols, Harmondsworth 1966.
PHE M. Praz, The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, Eng. trans., London 1969 (1st Italian edn La crisi dell’eroe nel romanzo vittoriano, Firenze 1952).
PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association of America.
PRA M. Praz, The Romantic Agony, Eng. trans., Oxford 1970 (1st Italian edn La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica, Firenze 1930).
PSL M. Praz, Storia della letteratura inglese, Firenze 1968.
SAI G. Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature, London 1948 (1st edn 1898).
SSI M. Praz, Studi e svaghi inglesi, 2 vols, Milano 1983 (1st edn 1937).
TCR V. Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, Harmondsworth 1938 (1st edn London 1925), and Second Series, London 1935 (1st edn London 1932).
TLS The Times Literary Supplement.
TNE K. Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, London 1954.
VAL G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature, London 1913.
VP Victorian Poetry.
WOL R. L. Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, London 1977.
Volume 1 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 1, Oxford 2018.
Volume 2 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 2, Oxford 2018.
Volume 3 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 3, Oxford 2018.
Volume 4 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 4, Oxford 2019.
Volume 6 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 6, Oxford 2019.
Volume 7 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 7, Oxford 2019.
Volume 8 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 8, Oxford 2019.
Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliography for each author.
The fame that Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803–1873) nowadays enjoys is almost exclusively due to his youthful – and consequently short-lived – reputation as a dandy and, much more marginally, to a handful of precocious novels, or rather to a single novel, Pelham.2 These novels, like Disraeli’s, faithfully depicted the always slightly amateurish and derivative ← 3/I | 4/I → Regency follies with great richness of detail, without, however, undue smugness, and with a touch of moralizing satire. Thus his fame is merely due to a minor biographical myth, or even to the history of customs. Unlike Disraeli, a Jewish social climber, Bulwer Lytton came from a bona fide prestigious upper-class family, the son of a general who left him an orphan at four, and a descendant of the Herefordshire Lyttons. He followed the conventional educational route of the aristocracy, gaining distinction at Cambridge, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry and had published additional verse. Having launched himself into a public career when not yet twenty, by 1832 he had already won a parliamentary seat, and would later be created a baronet. His early, youthful Whig sympathies petered out into uninterrupted activism within Tory ranks, rewarded with government appointments such as the 1857 Colonial Secretary appointment that would pave the way to his Peerage. Disraeli and Tennyson already were, or would become, peers; significantly, before him Byron had been one. It was the adolescent Bulwer, ‘exalted by fame and by misfortune’, who would long be on his contemporaries’ lips and those of their immediate successors. He was to be forever marked by his never forgotten experience, while still a boy, of requited first love for a pure young girl whose name he never would reveal, which swept him off his feet while at a boarding school in Ealing, on the banks of the Brent. She would later be made to marry someone else by her father’s tyrannical will. Bulwer later visited her grave after her early death. During his long stays in Paris, he met the heroine of the Vendee, Mme de la Rochejacquelin, whom Trollope was to immortalize,3 and cultivated the acquaintance of older ladies. There he had immediately become a recognizable figure for his ‘beautiful curls’, his fine and voluminous hair, dreamy gaze and Byronic fits of melancholy; he was even rumoured to have invented the dinner jacket, although by his own admission he spoke French imperfectly. Returning home, he wanted to be a war poet, and thus obtained a commission in the army without ever actually serving, and sold it almost immediately afterwards. From the age of fifteen to thirty-three Bulwer was seen, and wanted to ← 4/I | 5/I → be seen, as a Byron double. But contemporary witnesses already perceived something false about him, the ‘pseudo-Byron of our literature, the feeble, flashy imitation of the great Romantic’.4 Not without reason Byron’s scorned mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, fell back on the fifteen-year-old,5 overwhelming him with dubious attentions. When, in 1827, there came about his marriage with Rosina Doyle Wheeler, the adoptive daughter of an Irish general, and, ten years later, divorce, followed by a painful slew of defamations, the similarity became even more obvious. These public and literary episodes explain why in the early 1830s Bulwer was the target of parodies: Thackeray mocked his pompous style in his first sketches, as poisonous as they were delightful, where he also introduced absent-minded heroes and ladies’ men lost in thought. Ernest Maltravers, the Bulwer character that Thackeray keeps mentioning, is also, up to a point, one of Thackeray’s own characters, comparable to Philip of the eponymous novel.6 In no other way can the durable misunderstanding that depicts Bulwer as an ante litteram Oscar Wilde, in his blatant dandyism, his sinister, shadowy beauty, and aristocratic haughtiness, be understood.7
2. This Byronic decade of his – 1824 to 1835, a seamless aftermath, since Byron actually died in 1824 – was immortalized and made the stuff of myth by Bulwer himself, who wrote of his life but stopped short at the early 1830s – because, after that, myth and poetry gave way to prose – and thus cutting his life short of another thirty years. By chance or perhaps on purpose, many subsequent biographical and critical works on him dwelt mainly on the first part of his life.8 What is curious is that, while the bibliography on most Victorians is abundant and repetitive, scholars tackling Bulwer will find themselves desperately searching for material that simply isn’t there, because bibliographical production is sparse, or mainly focused on texts dating back to before 1836. Thus Bulwer, or a certain Bulwer – or ← 5/I | 6/I → better, the Bulwer who really counted for many of his contemporaries and posterity – ceased to exist and practically passed away in 1836, when the Victorian age was still to come. Bulwer’s biographical ‘prose’, and his literary prose, were actually born right after his wedding, which his mother did not approve of. Since she herself had been denied freedom to marry, she could find nothing better than to take it out on her son and deny him all support. Bulwer, as a result, became a writer out of necessity, in a small house in Woodcot, where, smoking ceaselessly, he wrote well into the night to support his family. Silver fork novels were soon superseded in a career amongst the most varied, hectic and Protean in the whole Victorian period up to 1870, a career that also ranged into the fields of drama and poetry, sociology, literary criticism and biography. Like a bee, flitting amongst flowers of all types, shapes and colour, and sucking their nectar, Bulwer, a true polymath, smelt and inhaled all the genres of the time, upheld by incredible ease and skill in writing, always sustained by an ever pleasing style, though lacking the quality of permanence. Like Disraeli he was a time-server, a chameleon-like juggler who skilfully and untiringly prepared novels that met the current taste and any variations thereof; he would follow a fashion, exploit it, deplete it and then abandon it. His opera omnia is chaotic, proceeding in jolts, ranging from the alpha to the omega of all possible genres and themes. His works are abysmally diverse, as if produced by several writers living together, albeit inharmoniously, in just one man. Bulwer’s misfortune was that of being a novelist born too early in a post-Romantic age which was still fluid on genre orientation, thus being a transitional figure first, a pioneer quickly overtaken later, and finally a tired and outmoded novelist. A goodly half and more of his narrative belong to the prehistory of the Victorian age; actually, as already mentioned, it formally lies well outside its confines. After 1844 his pace slackened, and in the remaining thirty years he was to publish only nine novels, compared to the fourteen of the preceding two decades. Even before the silver fork novels his debut had been in the shadow of the Radcliffian Gothic and in particular of Richardson’s novels in letters, with the libertine as a central figure and a sexual scandal as the plot-driving situation. Immediately after the silver fork novels it was the turn of novels agitating for penal reform, then followed by a massive engagement in historical novels. As a historical ← 6/I | 7/I → novelist Bulwer belongs, with Ainsworth, to the stage after Scott and is the pioneer whom Dickens, Charles Kingsley and even the early Wilkie Collins are indebted to. With Kingsley, Bulwer shared habits of painstaking investigation resulting in prefaces, footnotes and erudite, verbose devices, and a certain flattening of the imagination, sacrificed to a close examination of public events. No historical novelist was to show more merely factual knowledge than Butler: his epigraphs remain memorable, unsurpassed in quality and quantity, always cumbersome at the beginning of his chapters and often diametrically different in their tenor, harvested both from Homer and the lowest hacks. His erudition happily dwindled in his realistic comedies, for that matter rather cloying in their striving too hard for parody, and in his works for the stage, of which at least one could and should, with good reason, be rediscovered now as one of the incunabula of nineteenth-century drama. A different type of erudition is made the most of in the most remarkable genre that he explored, that is his metaphysical, occultist and science-fiction tales. Fanciful raids in science books and hearsay echoes of contemporary debates were enough to fire his imagination. Bulwer was to be saluted as a pioneer of the occult by a pupil who surpassed his master, Edgar Allan Poe, with a giddy, delirious, unreserved judgement. Bulwer boasted an aesthetics of variety; he made it abundantly clear that he did not seek ‘repetition’ of a theme but the ‘contrast of multiplicity’.9 It is against this programmed dispersion, this conscious and practiced rule of variety that the most recent and tenacious efforts to find in Bulwer one or more organizing patterns collide.10
* New Knebworth Edition, 29 vols, London 1895–1898; dramatic works, London 1883; a modern edition, introduced and annotated, of England and the English is edited by S. Meacham, Chicago, IL 1970. Letters in Life, Letters and Literary Remains, ed. E. R. B. Lytton (whose nom de plume as a poet was Owen Meredith), 2 vols, London 1883 (vol. I includes Bulwer’s own autobiography, which breaks off on reaching the year 1825; vol. II reaches the early 1830s).
Life. T. H. S. Escott, Edward Bulwer, First Baron of Knebworth, London 1910; V. A. Bulwer Lytton, The Life of Edward Bulwer, First Lord Lytton, 2 vols, London 1913, and, by his great grandchild V. A. Lytton, Bulwer Lytton, London 1948.
Criticism. P. J. Cooke, Bulwer Lytton’s Plays, London 1894; E. B. Burgum, The Literary Career of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, London 1924; C. N. Stewart, Bulwer Lytton as Occultist, London 1927; M. W. Rosa, The Silver Fork School: Novels of Fashion Preceding Vanity Fair, London 1930, repr. Port Washington 1964, 74–98; M. Sadleir, Bulwer: A Panorama, London 1931 and 1933; K. Hollingsworth, The Newgate Novel, 1830–1847, Detroit, MI 1963; R. L. Wolff, Strange Stories and Other Explorations in Victorian Fiction, Boston, MA 1971, chapter 3 (143–366) (on Bulwer as an occultist); A. C. Christensen, Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Fiction of New Regions, Athens, GA 1976 (a fully detailed monograph, which exalts its subject, and manages to find a central theme), also editor of The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections, Newark, DE 2004; E. M. Eigner, The Metaphysical Novel in England and America: Dickens, Bulwer, Melville, and Hawthorne, Berkeley, CA 1978; A. Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel, London 1978, in particular 47–67, discussing Harold; F. Picchi, ‘Zanoni’. Fonti e dottrina, Napoli 1982; M. F. King and E. Engel, The Victorian Novel before Victoria, London 1984, 39–60; W. Göbel, Edward Bulwer Lytton. Systemreferenz, Funktion, literarischer Wert in seinem Erzählwerk, Heidelberg 1993; D. Huckvale, A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre: Crime, Magic and Power in the Novels of Edward Bulwer Lytton, Jefferson, NC 2016. A witty profile by J. Sutherland, full of gossip and teasing, appeared in TLS, 28 July 2000.
1 For a general introduction on the literary genres and on the social and cultural history of the Victorian period see Volume 4, §§ 1–6.
2 In The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Conrad this novel is read by a humble sailor.
3 § 89.5.
4 Sadleir 1933, 60.
5 Ibid., 54.
6 § 83, and see Sadleir 1933, 254, on the similarities between the author parodying and the one parodied.
7 Chesterton in VAL, 135–7.
8 As in Sadleir 1933.
9 Literary Remains, II, 232.
10 Eigner 1978 and Christensen 1976 defend an informing principle, or at least a supporting axis: the former aims at the ‘metaphysical’ genre, the second at an itinerary searching for the ‘salvation’ of an ego sunk in the era’s materialism: a Bulwerian ‘ordeal’.
The first two novels finished and published by Bulwer, among a choppy sea of fragments and sketches in verse and prose, are two masked complementary autobiographies, and for this reason they are very dissimilar. ← 7/I | 8/I → His first hero represents the absolute anarchy of senses, the second has them scrutinized under the lens of reason and conscience, albeit without renouncing the temptation of free love and the amorous life. The allegoric stunt regulating them is the therapeutic and freeing function of a dissipated, worldly lifestyle, a preparatory training to social commitment. The area explored by Falkland, published anonymously in 1827, is the introspective one of the careful examination of passions and inner longings, in the heated atmosphere of slushy post-Romanticism, not totally devoid of Richardsonian memories. In a two-focus structure Falkland loves Emily, a married woman, and plots her abduction with her consent, and the ripening of the plan is observed in their epistolary exchange. In the wake of the scandal for the insufficient condemnation of the libertine, whose plans are foiled by the easy gimmick of having his beloved die, the novel was withdrawn. Bulwer later claimed that it had the same effect Werther had on Goethe: ‘I had rid my bosom of the perilous stuff; I had confessed my sins and was absolved’.11 The second novel, Pelham (1828), one of the first silver forks together with Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, was misunderstood by Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, as a shameless apology of Regency soulless and shameless frolicking.12 Henry Pelham is, of course, a dandy, yet not an impure or self-satisfied one; he observes a society playing at vice without actually taking it too seriously, and meeting in salons where conversations are almost never frivolous, but focused on serious, constructive matters, despite being dotted with multilingual erudition. Rather, it is a novel that exorcizes unhealthy, dour Romanticism, expresses an optimistic faith in the healing experience of mistakes, and is thus inspired by a cheerful and peaceful acceptance of the world. Even more justifiably it is a precocious vaccination against Byronism, four years after the sensational death of the great poet. Pelham is, like Bulwer himself, a scion of the aristocracy emerging from Eton and Cambridge, ready for life in society and immaturely ← 8/I | 9/I → desiring to cut a fine figure in the political arena, and who, in this perspective, soon straightens himself out.13 In Paris he cannot avoid playing the ladies’ man, dressing smartly and fashionably, but he courts moderately, duels only when obliged to, observes the swindling, and in particular the swindled amongst his fellow countrymen, hinting at the vice – gambling – that was to be the raw material of Thackeray’s early novels. In the long run there is a lapse in a series of separate, or very tenuously connected episodes in a plot lacking cohesion: the hero’s figure is purposely placed aside in order to photograph, without lashing – rather, sketching with suave humour - Frenchified England, often tempted by expatriation, in a moment when anxiety about reforms was spreading, Whigs were about to regain power, and Tories felt threatened by Catholic emancipation. The descriptions are always amiably impressionistic, as they recount adventures, duels, pranks, salon life, chance meetings always yielding small, light anecdotes, harking back to the eighteenth-century picaresque tradition of threading episode after episode, and they also set down a model for subsequent Victorian writers. Pelham appears to be lacking a real centre – when not appearing as two novels in one – because it disseminates a mystery that is only cleared at the very end. Henry Pelham, the redeemed and self-aware, even ‘undandyfied’, dandy, unravels a homicide case in which his beloved is inveigled, as sister of the presumed murderer, who is also his dour, passionate fellow student. This last part, comprising visits to a mental asylum and morbid confessions from members of the underworld of London’s East End, emerges into a narrative register that is irredeemably but happily different. Bulwer sets passion as emblem of the Byronic poseur, but the hero and his story already belong to Dickens’s mysterious overturning of reality.
11 Sadleir 1933, 186.
12 Volume 4, § 16.2 n. 53. Undoubtedly Pelham exposes and lays down a series of maxims on the dandy’s clothing having an aphoristic flavour that preannounces Wilde, and that may appear as an exaltation of clothing affectation. On Carlyle’s misunderstanding, or haste, see Rosa 1964, 18–19.
13 Pelham campaigns assuring voters that he is contrary to ‘anarchy and confusion’, as well as ‘ancient abuse and modern corruption’: his election is, however, contested as soon as he is appointed, and the novel ends before his further attempt to enter politics.
Bulwer’s three novels of the early 1830s on lowlifes, thieves and criminals could be taken to aim at illustrating a basic issue – distantly deriving ← 9/I | 10/I → from the Enlightenment and prophetically anticipating Foucault – of penitentiary tolerance, indeed a discourse on free will and predestination: there is no need to punish, and in particular to punish using wrong methods, but rather correct. Delinquency is not innate but the outcome of circumstance – an evolutionary concept dating back to Lamarck – and consequently it was the circumstance that had to be acted upon. Such an assumption was the child of the French Enlightenment. It echoed Cesare Beccaria, and in Britain it owed much to Godwin, who gave his blessing, while still alive, to the novel Paul Clifford (1830), because therein he saw a close link being established and proved between Paul’s deliberate and consequential depravity and the injustices of society. An illegitimate child, in the novel Paul is brought up in a London inn, ends in prison as a pickpocket, not having committed the crime, unbeknownst to his father; in fact, his father is the very lawyer who unwittingly accuses him and has him condemned for the first time. But Paul escapes from Bridewell, where he has learned vice more than in his preceding life, and spends seven years as a bandit, passes himself off as a member of high society and, in Bath, makes Lucy, who will be revealed to be his cousin, fall in love with him. Once arrested, he is condemned to death by his father, who has become a judge; his father dies after the trial, having learned the convict’s true identity. At the eleventh hour the sentence is commuted in deportation and Paul marries Lucy in America. Browsing this novel one would be tempted to downsize Oliver Twist’s historic importance, and suppose that Dickens was rather more derivative than previously thought. The beginning, which is the best part of an always rather verbose plot, constitutes a dull preview, less extravagant and undoubtedly less engaging than Oliver Twist’s. It starts from the same event that opens Oliver Twist, the birth of a child followed by the death of the mother, and the baby being saved by the crude, good-natured forces of a female innkeeper and a drunkard. This environment is described with the weapons Dickens used, caricature, effective in its slangs and dialect idiosyncrasies, in proper names retrieved goodness knows whence, and in the strong semantic and cacophonic echoes, in the sarcastic and sharp tone, in an invasive calling out to the reader who must be provoked and jarred into reflection; lastly, in barbs aimed at the establishment and at the faulty pragmatism of criminal legislation. Paul’s growth is an example of ← 10/I | 11/I → Dickens’s case records on human nature, malleable by circumstances and thus at risk, yet easily steerable to good. But, since Paul is allowed to grow up, and the chronology is stretched out, Paul Clifford deviates from the classic Dickensian route. Bulwer shows his hero acquiring an education on his own, avidly reading adventure books and the current picaresque novels, and then longing to know high society and become part of it. He even has him enter the ranks of the underpaid class of hacks, and then be corrupted despite himself, infected by two louts. The novel lacks its Fagin,14 but after the escape from prison a trio is formed in which Paul, by now a personable young man, is elected captain under a false name. Now, this trio is, typically, one of delicate, gentlemen thieves: none of them is vulgar, they all steal from the nobles travelling at night in coaches with deference and good manners, and before robbing the latter they chat with them, wittily and elegantly. The street robbery scenes are not lacking in liveliness, both for the polished manners the thieves have in picking wallets dry, and for the clever reactions of the victims. The inner misgivings Paul suffers for his dishonest actions are not wholly consistent: Bulwer endows him with a noble, always fiery soul, and with the justification of robbing the rich to give to the poor, like a modern-day Robin Hood. The curious paradox is that he always holds his accomplices back, curbs their possible violent excesses, and it is he who often forces them to flee, pretending to be the victims’ rescuer. The arrest of his two comrades in a hideout happens on the night Paul has decided to abandon his career as a thief, and, having revealed his humble origins to Lucy, to leave England. Paul frees his two friends in a daring, clever move, but he is wounded and arrested. The picaresque turns into the artifice of the recognition between father and son, upon which subsequent serial novels would hinge. Lawyer, and later judge, Brandon – which is, by the way, a name Thackeray would re-use –15 has disclaimed his woman who would then pronounce a Wilkie Collins-worthy deathbed curse:16 he will be the one to suffer for the child, he will search for him, ← 11/I | 12/I → and, on finding him, will curse the moment he was born. The certainty that the defendant is his own son is skilfully conveyed to the judge on the moment he is about to pronounce the death sentence: he will do so, but die himself shortly afterwards. Paul Clifford’s firm words before his sentence, accusing the judicial and prison systems, denounce, once again, the necessity for correction, not punishment. All that has occurred can be reduced and attributed to a judicial mistake: the innocent convict has been driven by detention to a more criminal path in life. However, once deported to America, Clifford becomes, but as a mere exception confirming the rule, a benefactor to mankind.
2. Bulwer did not actually have the makings of a militant and protesting storyteller. His perorations are timid, made for show, with no grandstanding ambitions.17 After his gentleman thief, a resurrected Robin Hood, came the turn of the superhuman assassin, an adept of absolute knowledge; later on, the criminal seducer, unknown to himself, of innocent maidens. Eugene Aram (1832) was the transformation of an abandoned play, apparently traced on a true story which had become a legend, on which the Romantic poet Thomas Hood had composed a ballad. Aram, a recluse committed to study, falls in love with Madeline Lester, whom the orphan Walter yearns for. Despite this, the latter will end up marrying her sister, Ellinor. Walter is searching for his father; he will discover, in a suspenseful turn of events, that it was Aram who killed him, to finance his studies. Bulwer’s indulgence surfaces during the trial, when the accused defends himself: Aram killed because he was poor, although, ironically, shortly after his misdeed, he inherited a sum that would have made the murder unnecessary. The hero of this novel is one of the first downsized transpositions of the Faust persona in Victorian literature: he follows the mirage of total knowledge, of total dedication to science, thus he shuts himself off from the world, and bans it, as Browning’s Paracelsus and Sordello do; but he must submit and bend to the rule of love. Such knowledge, after all, is only of use to himself, and it is purely a gesture of Titanic omnipotence: ‘Aram gave little or nothing to the world himself’. At the same time, Aram anticipates the ← 12/I | 13/I → dilemma of another of Bulwer’s supermen, Zanoni. Ernest Maltravers (1837) is a Newgate novel initially set against an industrial background that gives rise to the Bildungsroman of a young aristocrat, weak and erring, fitful and incapable not only of controlling, but also of understanding his impulses, not inherently wicked but needing to be settled. Not just because he has studied in Germany and has absorbed German philosophy, he is a declared Meister doppelganger undergoing moral apprenticeship. The opening is cadenced in gripping, vigorous scenes the like of which are seldom seen in Bulwer’s work: in an undefined rundown area the recently returned home young student symbolically asks the way at sweet, innocent Alice’s hut, whose father tries to rob him during the night; forewarned, Maltravers kidnaps her and educates and trains her incognito until the father reappears on the scene to claim her back. Alice is the naïve child who, like Kingsley’s chimney-sweep,18 ignores God and has not been instructed in religious matters, but possesses an innate moral sense and a feeling for justice; there is only a vague hint of the ideological and critical motif of a miraculous exception confirming the common rule of poverty, infectious par excellence and transmission to prostitution, reflected in the father’s compulsory delinquency, but to which the daughter is immune. Alice is one of the first Victorian proletarians seduced by an aristocrat, but she is not as vain as George Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel, and the child she conceives is not the result of sins of the flesh but only of her thoughtlessness and spontaneous spirit for giving; Maltravers himself is unaware of his guilt, like Arthur in Adam Bede. This prologue concluded, Ernest Maltravers splits in two narrative tracks that are also counterpoised and abysmal foci, first intersected and then kept apart, but always approaching, as in Dickens’s novels. After the first half, it crumbles and goes astray, waiting for a showdown both presumed and expected, but delayed in tired drawing-room scenes and trivial incidental subplots.19 Bulwer himself uses the Italian name of ‘cicisbeo’ for Maltravers roving across Europe, becoming famous as a poet but internally alone, an ← 13/I | 14/I → intimately broken man in the midst of pleasure-seekers and Epicureans, while Alice often wanders unknowingly close to him. The formative and corrective process, left open with Maltravers in a sickened exile, reaches closure in the sequel Alice, or the Mysteries (1838). Here the interest dwindles in a tired intrigue set up by a nobleman to marry an enchanting girl called Evelyn, in whose mother the reader discovers Alice from the preceding novel’s first pages. The device Dickens was to treasure is recognition delayed until the last pages: Maltravers is sentimentally attracted to, and rejuvenated in his spirit by this girl in whom he recognizes a known face, and he wins the hand of one whose mother he discovers is the woman he seduced years before.
3. The Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834) broke the sequence of militant and realist novels. Behind this there was the trip Bulwer took on the Rhine with his brother, expressly recalled in his dedication; but this male pair is camouflaged in the imaginary couple of devoted and chaste fiancés who, while descending the river from the north of Germany tell each other Germanic fairy tales, myths, and sagas, also to soothe her fits of consumption. So this is not actually a novel, but a nuga, both because the engaged couple are airy unreal marionettes in a tale belonging to the genre of poetic prose, and because its short chapters describe the monuments and views encountered along the river, and also because this trip, made for pleasure, instruction and, above all, for convalescing, is an excuse to frame various tales inspired by the most exquisite and delicate pathos,20 by animal fabliaux, by slightly bitter apologues, by the magical motifs and superstitions of ancient Germanic mythology.21 The poet Arthur Hugh Clough perhaps recalled this pleasant and fluent anthology; but it also announces the poetry of the ruined ← 14/I | 15/I → castles of the Rhine on which George Eliot would dwell in one of her own ‘poetic’ preludes in The Mill on the Floss.22
14 Precious loot is stolen, such as banknotes and watches amounting to over fifty guineas, not mere ‘fogles’ – slang for handkerchiefs – as was to happen in Oliver Twist.
15 § 83.1.
16 § 168.3.
17 I agree with King-Engel 1984, 43, that, excepting the beginning and conclusion, one forgets that Paul Clifford is a roman-à-thèse.
18 § 155.2.
19 The criticism of spasmodism has a double in the Italian poet, émigré in England, Castruccio Cesarini, whose adventures and morbid manias, eventually driving him to a mental asylum, take up far too much of the novel.
20 In the first German tale a blind man falls in love with an innocent maiden, but upon recovering his sight he confuses her with a more beautiful woman; after many vicissitudes he goes back to being blind and consequently to his first love. With an inversion of role, Wilkie Collins would remember this idea in Poor Miss Finch. Lucile’s devotion is also recalled in the blind flower-seller in Bulwer’s The Last Days of Pompeii.
21 Badly blended, in fact, affected, is a second frame, the purely fairy-tale one of the queen of fairies who, due to boredom, descends the Rhine with her retinue.
22 The fiancé’s surname is Trevylyan, almost the same as Mary’s in Clough’s Amours de Voyage (Volume 4, § 140.2), which has also the form of a travelogue in verse; the analogy is more obvious when a brief interlude is a letter from Trevylian to an English friend.
It has been noticed that Bulwer Lytton’s historical novels all have, in their titles, either implicitly or explicitly, the character of finality.23 This is due to a widespread cliché absorbed by other novelists, too. Gibbon had set, in his seminal work on the late Romans, a mechanism of rhythmical expansion and contraction, a litmus paper to which, perhaps, Vico’s cyclic dynamism could be added. Bulwer is the first Victorian to read history according to the sinusoidal progression of birth, rise and twilight, or, as it were, decline and fall. It is a pattern on which also the debuting Tennyson was working at the same time, creating poetry on buried or legendary civilizations.24 The most widespread notion at the time was that, all things coming to an end, the Roman world itself had dissolved; every civilization would set due to a fatalistic, endogenous gene, or corruptible human nature, although Protestant bias ascribed this unavoidable decline to the earthly endeavours of a Mediterranean, Catholic religiousness; so that not even Christianity had managed to revitalize Rome on her deathbed, dying after the end of the apparently timeless Hellenic civilization. Every civilization reached its apex, and then – and here Vico’s thought would come to the rescue – it would fall; the fall, caused by external and internal destructive germs, would then translate to a rebirth, allowing successive civilizations to rise to their zenith, and then their own fall. I have tried to explain why Bulwer, in his novels, almost invariably examines periods ← 15/I | 16/I → of decadence, historically liminal moments, and turning points between epochs. One of the most successful eras for Victorian novelists after Bulwer was to be Gibbon’s decadence of Rome: a prolonged decadence seen as already starting in the first century of the modern era, and whose symbol was the destruction of Pompeii, and reaching, with Kingsley’s Hypatia, the fifth. It was an implied, shared given that only untainted forces from the north could straighten out and shore up an already tottering model. But Bulwer identifies another instance of Roman civilization in Cola di Rienzi’s fourteenth-century Rome, the harbinger of a forward-thrusting change, as well as a salvage of what existed before. A historian’s approach is exhibited with no reservations: a historical novelist must first study the sources and first and foremost reconstruct the mores and ‘way of thinking’. Indeed, fiction becomes the tool to test hidden truths of a principally historical nature. Bulwer is often a revisionist historian, and he actually upholds a personal theory against the chorus of professional historians in The Last of the Barons. His historical novels thus represent the intoxication of unverified theories, and investigate the following question, common to all his works: what would have happened if this last and untiring defender of a certain idea of the state hadn’t been beaten and overcome? Two or three of the historical novels choose as their main characters figures that, although in different times and nations, belong to one single type, that of a magnetic warlord fighting for the people and wanting to protect it. Rienzi and Warwick are the same figure, despite one being an educated plebeian and the other a baron, that is, an aristocrat. In the 1840s, from the benches of Westminster, Bulwer embraced a conservatism that sided with the people; the people, however, were to be guided by the aristocracy, an idea which is not actually very different from that of Disraeli’s Young England. On the plane of actual results, Bulwer is an author of massive plots penalized by poor invention, and he fails because he is too derivative, too much of a historian, and consequently not enough of a novelist. When, as in The Last Days of Pompeii, he pulls his novel out of thin air, he succeeds; when, as in Rienzi, he is a slave to history, he utterly fails. As we proceed, a singular resemblance between Bulwer and Charles Kingsley will emerge: the latter wins the comparison because, although similarly pedantic and erudite, he is more inventive and occasionally he is illuminated by flashes of imagination; in Bulwer, instead, romance is always at the service of historical accuracy. ← 16/I | 17/I →
2. The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), although by and large a sentimental and sensationalistic melodrama, is an acceptable novel, fast-paced and having a remarkable historical significance. Starting from this last aspect, it is the first important non-extemporaneous – and actually, not even strictly Victorian – visitation of the late, or rather, second-period Roman world, and ipso facto of the dawn of Christianity; it thus dialogues with later novels having analogous scenarios such as those by Wilkie Collins, Kingsley, Newman, and Pater. The chosen background corresponds to a symbolic moment, that of the still controversial and unsettled transition from paganism to Christianity, which seemed to the Victorians so dilated as actually to reach, with Kingsley and Pater, the Antonine and Alexandrine ages. In Gibbon’s compulsory wake, Bulwer draws a precociously gone-to-seed and almost worn-out Roman civilization; an amateurish copy of Greek civilization, which was at the same time a melting pot of religions, superstitions and philosophies in fluid and also heated internal dialectics. Bulwer defines Pompeii a ‘microcosm’ of Rome, and in his novel’s Pompeii, which is a patchwork of ethnicities, there live together Roman mythology, Greek religion, and Epicurean and stoic philosophies, the cult of Isis together with a minority of ‘Nazarenes’ who, instead of gathering proselytes, must defend themselves from accusations and suspicions of atheism from a scandalized community. He does not scorn giving succinct indications of his sources in footnotes, and is very much less scholarly and pedantic than Kingsley and Pater. However, he takes precedence over Collins and his Antonina because, instead of weighing down the writing with subtle dialectical disquisitions, he favours the dramatic clash of single positions through the characters representing them. If, on the one hand, he empties the novel of deep ideological content, and almost touches succinctness, on the other hand he draws his characters, or some of them, as stylized and superficial. Clandestine Christianity is identified with Olinthus, who not only converts a priest of Isis but also, in extremis, the hero, Glaucus, who is in love with Olinthus’ sister, Ione. Correctly, Bulwer shows the diffusion of the Good News in Caligula’s Rome as fragmentary and indirect. Jesus’ miracles are told to incredulous passers-by by an old traveller once miraculously saved by Jesus, while Glaucus, a Greek emigrant, tells of his father, who years before witnessed Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. The historical and anthropological reflection on the development of religions, ← 17/I | 18/I → pivotal to much of Victorian narrative and essays, here starts with the rough genealogy of a Christianity descending from Plato’s philosophy, as a ‘form of virtue’ that the philosopher ‘desired to see embodied’, and adapts the myths of the birth, life, death and rebirth of the god, and even obscurely hints at the theory, later central to Heine and Pater, of the Greek gods in exile. The Egyptian cult of Isis is Bulwer’s true and only target, in the character of Arbaces, a wizard-priest, who has no sacral dignity and is the animating centre of the wholly imaginary plot. The eruption of Vesuvius, described in scenes free of gratuitous concessions to descriptive excess, is a punitive and at the same time regenerative apocalypse. It is nemesis to the evil Egyptian priest; it represents the reconnection to Christ for the believers who see in the event an angry intervention of God against the new Sodom, but also His compassionate face; ultimately, it is the supernatural spur towards redemption and conversion for Glaucus, the Greek dandy, about to be devoured by a lion. Finally, it offers Nydia, the blind slave girl, the chance for an immature though immaculate sacrifice on behalf of her secret lover and saviour. As in all historical novels set in the Roman age, Bulwer weaves a net of counterpoints to highlight the continuity of history and the invariability of human nature. In Roman homes, as in their British counterparts, the rites of conversation are observed, at receptions and banquets crowded with a few ‘fops’ and ‘parasites’, and delectable foodstuffs are savoured;25 women are vain and often malicious, although nothing in Bulwer’s present was comparable to the barbarous spectacle of gladiator fights. Glaucus the Greek loves Ione, coveted as bride by her tutor Arbaces, who kills her brother almost on purpose to direct suspicion on Glaucus himself, who is saved from the lion’s jaws and the death sentence, by Nydia, secretly in love with him. It is a plot fated to be repeated in its workings in future novels, almost ready made, as in Collins’s Antonina – where the evil Ulpius is a cold revenge-seeker who, like Arbaces, wants to resuscitate the dispossessed pagan gods – or, divested of ancient attire, in his The Woman in White. The true deus ex machina is the pathetic and sometimes exquisite singer and flower-girl Nydia, who, in her extremely ← 18/I | 19/I → soothsayer-like blindness, as if possessing a sixth sense, and in her ever fresh resources of sagacity and perseverance, anticipates a physical handicap often examined in Wilkie Collins’s own early novels.
3. The decadence of the Roman world, or, rather, of the whole of medieval Italy in total moral ruin, dissolution and corruption, which could be reborn by resuscitating the authentic Roman spirit: this is the historical canvas of Rienzi (1835), studied by Bulwer with close nitpicking and in-depth investigation of sources, and discussed at length in the abundant footnotes and appendixes. But the pure historian does not attain the stature of creative novelist, and there emerges a dull, slavish and monotone chronicle, lacking in imagination. The public aspects almost always engulf the private ones, where imagination could have broken free and achieved better results. The canvas, from 1347 to 1356, is far too wide to be painted, as it is, step by step, from the moment when the tribune witnesses his brother’s murder at the hand of the Colonna militiamen, in an internal brawl, up to the senator’s assassination by the masses no longer supporting him. Incidental interludes are dedicated to the character of his sister Irene, wife of a valiant Roman who searches for her during the Florentine plague, as well as Nina, Cola’s wife, always skilful when dealing with the Roman prelates; and the major plot is granted breathing space by the affairs of the mercenaries engaged in Rome, as well as by a few group street scenes. There is no doubt, though, that the novel is totally centred round its eponymous hero, and aims at being an at least partly revisionist interpretation. Rienzi also falls within Bulwer’s grid of hopefuls, often studied with irenic tolerance; the novelist consistently sees in him the man who acts ‘regulated by circumstances’, which is what the contemporary, foolish, anonymous biographer, according to Bulwer, was incapable of doing. Even Gibbon, the major and most authoritative English source, is contested when not, in several instances, overturned. Apparently, Rienzi attracted Bulwer’s attention because history had conveyed the image of an ante litteram fitful and Byronic character,26 one of ← 19/I | 20/I → the brood of selfish, unbridled heroes. Yet, unlike other Byronic heroes, this man of action was a self-taught plebeian, and at the same time a poet and a scholar. As a politician he wanted to make a people out of the Romans, bring back freedom and order, in short, good governance; politically he was no obscurantist, but a humanist, a friend of Petrarch’s, who recognized the gift of reason against all types of medieval superstition. Bulwer is his apologist as he underlines how Rienzi climbed to the heights of power and earned popular support without grisly methods, and always rigorously applying justice without despotism. There are only partial reserves about certain actions carried out especially during his tenure as tribune,27 when a cult of personality prevailed; however, Rienzi in his tenure as senator is felt to have redeemed himself, and he is reproached with no strategic mistake. Neither did he lack courage, because his fall is decided by popular pusillanimity, not caused by any on his part. This reading of the character is partly English, with respect to two figures that can be seen as watermarking Rienzi, figures he resembles and in a certain sense anticipates. In him there can be traced, namely, the visionary prophet, an early simulacrum of the figure dear to the Victorians: the great reformers and historical revolutionaries. Rienzi possesses the contagious and inflaming attitude of George Eliot’s Savonarola. Similarly to Savonarola for Eliot,28 there stirs in Rienzi’s spirit or directly in his flesh and blood, a northern, or more peculiarly Teutonic afflatus, thus an anticipatory reformist impulse. In a note to the appendix Bulwer defines him as a ‘religious reformer’ who had a following of friars and ecclesiastical movements, was infused with ‘mystical fanaticism’ and read and studied the Bible constantly. Indeed, he was put on trial for or suspected of heresy, but absolved of accusations that, two centuries later, would have sent him to the stake. The second watermark is that of the Puritanism of the Civil War and Rienzi’s resemblance, oftentimes remarked, to Cromwell.29 The ← 20/I | 21/I → fourteenth century was an era in which plebeians and patricians ‘stood for’ the future workers and aristocrats of early nineteenth-century capitalism; the context was almost the same, one of plebeian, that is, proletarian, claims in a racially composite society where armed militia was padded out by provincial and in any case northern mercenaries, and the nobles themselves were, unbeknownst to them, descended from barbarians. Anti- Catholic bias fustigates the absenteeism of the Avignon papacy and the shrewdness of prelates; the political issue is reduced to arm wrestling between oligarchy and democracy, between the people and the barons’ power, also because fourteenth-century Italy lacked the equivalent of a king. Rienzi was dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni, and perhaps intended, a few years in advance, covertly and quietly to take the side of a Neo-Guelphism, or federalism, that wanted Italy, according to Rienzi’s utopia, to become a wholly autonomous federation of states, having Rome as its capital.30
4. Rienzi is somewhat crude and unnatural; Bulwer is much more at ease in The Last of the Barons (1843), set from start to finish on English soil. The background is that of the War of the Roses, and the plots by the Lancastrians who are trying to depose the usurper Edward IV, who has imprisoned Henry VI in the Tower, and who is using the last baron, the Earl of Warwick, to begin a politically advantageous negotiation with the King of France, entailing the marriage of his daughter to a scion of the royal house. As historian, Bulwer states a hypothesis on the causes that induced the Earl of Warwick to break his troth to the House of York and support and eventually lead the secession of the Lancastrians, previously bitter enemies of his. His pride was piqued by the fact that his embassy was ← 21/I | 22/I → ultimately useless, that the king had surrounded himself with favourites from another noble family, and that he had made attempts on Warwick’s own daughter’s innocence and honour. The novel is superior to Bulwer’s other historical fictions in its more varied and detailed reconstruction of places and in the fact that the copious characters all play leading roles in intertwining plots; as well as in the revue of customs and habits in pre-Elizabethan London, and finally in the tracing of likely jargon and slang. It is filled to the brim with detail and secondary characters; it is a tapestry of thousands of diverging yet connected patches, of impressive vastness. In the late fifteenth century, England had witnessed the change from the feudal system to a centralized monarchy; according to Bulwer, English politics became uniformly Machiavellian, and the knight gave way to the courtier. And yet, Richard Warwick could have changed the course of history and expressly start a ‘New Cycle’ if the Lancastrian revolution had been successful. In particular, Bulwer notes that the Lollards’ revolt would not have later have flowed into Puritanism. Reduced to its bare outlines, the Earl’s policy – which, after all, was to lead to a fall – echoes that of Rienzi, because the people have always been foremost in his mind, and always ‘before king and parliament [he] ever pleaded their cause’. Having said this, the novel does not please so much for its dense and exhaustive historical reconstruction, as for its witty and even humorous scenes. A subsidiary plot depends on the ‘wizard’ Adam Warner, the inventor, centuries in advance, of the steam engine; the most enjoyable scene is that where, exploited as an unsuspected messenger to the imprisoned king of important conspiratorial letters, he gives the court an unsuccessful demonstration of his rudimentary steam engine, which ends in an explosion; in the subsequent interrogation he is almost discovered by the perfidious Richard of Gloucester, and only saved by the fact that the letters have ended up in the engine’s wheels and cannot be recovered. Around this Promethean machine, christened Eureka, there hovers the sense of all the scientific discoveries that would change the world; and there is at the same time expressed, under the guise of the mockery, the persecution and the reputation of necromancer that follows Adam, the diabolical persecutions of his times and even the occurrence of witch-hunts. The discovery the wizard is pursuing is double-edged: the symbol of a future, it is also the omen of the workers’ riots ← 22/I | 23/I → which would occur centuries later, since the steam engine is par excellence the identifying mark of the textile industry. The more lacklustre Harold (1848), which generated Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake and a later play by Tennyson, anticipates the latter’s anti-French bias, resting on an authentic national hero, the champion of a possible rebirth, an exterminator of foreign dominance and a defender of the integrity of the people’s rights: one of those who ‘felt deeply the necessity of reform and regeneration in the decayed edifice of the English monarchy’.31 Harold, in the imminence of defeat recognizes the dawning of ‘a new age’ and also of a ‘new creed’: in particular a Danish civilization, still pagan and superstitious shall have to be supplanted, together with ‘the Genius of the dark and fierceness’. The sparser richness of sources required work from a recreating imagination, and Bulwer introduces an unhistorical witch whose prophecies scan events, and under whose aegis the historical, but counterfeit idyll between Edith and Harold takes place. Thus England, invaded by William, is itself a mixture of religions and superstitions still in synchrony. On the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold is freed from his promise to surrender England to William on the basis of casuistry-based quibbles; Bulwer, however, does not gloss over the open Papal support to the Normans, nor the apathy of the ascendant bourgeoisie, whose only concern was avoiding any disturbance to its commerce.
23 To the quartet of main novels that are here examined one must add Devereux (1829), set during Queen Anne’s reign, Leila (1838), on the Spanish siege to Granada, and the unfinished Pausanias, the Spartan.
24 In relation to the preceding tradition, Bulwer’s novels reverse Scott’s approach, because on the whole they render historical figures the pivot of narration, while in Scott historical heroes are relegated to the background (Sanders 1978, 50–1).
25 Glaucus’ home could have been ‘a model […] for the house of a single man in Mayfair’.
26 A play by Miss Mitford that appeared shortly before Rienzi, mentioned in the latter’s preface, had ushered in the interest in the tribune, who later would manage to intrigue Wagner, who explicitly borrowed from this novel, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt.
27 Rienzi executes one of the Orsinis to avenge the long-gone murder of his brother, but forgives the conspiring barons. He is consequently accused by Bulwer of not having half measures: leniency is a tactical mistake.
28 § 199.1.
29 In a summary, this comparison is laid out: the same ambition for power, the same nature, the same religious enthusiasm, the same sense for justice, strict where circumstances called for it, yet never gratuitously cruel or bloodthirsty; the same capacity to hypnotize the masses. ‘Like Cromwell, beset by secret or open foes, the assassin’s dagger ever gleamed before his eyes’. The two heroes were also often seen crying, but they did not cry due to hypocrisy or hysteria. The symbolism attributed by Rienzi to number 7 was what ‘the third of September was to Cromwell’. The legend of a favourite number is what links Bulwer’s three historical heroes, since even Harold is credited with a favourite date, 14 October, a date in whose virtue ‘[h]e believed […] as Cromwell believed in his 3rd of September’.
30 One of the points of Rienzi’s programme is the election of the Emperor, if not a Roman or Italian himself, by the Romans.
31 Sanders 1978, 54–5, reads Harold as a salute to a new, peaceful order, and not as specifically anti-French; however, he then says that (64) the future of England was to be the resurgence of the Saxon strain, once the Conquest had been integrated.
Zanoni (1842) is a historical novel of a peculiar kind; in fact, it is not a historical novel properly speaking, since although closing in the Paris swept by the Terror, its centre lies in an exemplary didactic, metaphysical and at the same time occultist parable. The eponymous hero is supposedly an immortal who starting from a remote past has assumed, without aging, and thanks to the magician Mejnour, a succession of identities, until the last one – which cuts short the chain of consecutive incarnations ← 23/I | 24/I → – of a mysterious and handsome foreigner endowed with miraculous and all-knowing powers. He falls in love with an innocent Neapolitan opera singer and for her renounces absolute knowledge and sacrifices himself to the superior law of human love. With this unexpected plot, redolent of sensationalism, Zanoni abandons anonymity; it is Bulwer’s beating of wings suddenly acquiring a more personal touch. He thus aimed towards the opposite of traditional and widely known public history to embed an astonishing idea, such as that of Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, within a historical episode; and he dwells at length on the supernatural, on evasion to the separate world of magic and the esoteric. The supporting artifice is that of a retrieved manuscript that the author pretends, in a bewildered prologue, to have bought in the shop of a reticent bookseller. This manuscript is the ultimate cause of the narrative that, always weighed down by too many epigraphs, unfolds, however, in separate pictures and abrupt sketches, free of both preparation and comment, violently firing the imagination, and, then again, interspersed, in a hybrid and mixed structure, with shreds of letters and diary pages. The derivation is no longer from the realist tradition, but rather from that of the Gothic novel, whence Zanoni gets the unconcealed stereotypes of late mannerist landscapes of the Italian south. These include the unbridled passion of the natives, the cult of the Italian opera, the oppressive presence of an ever murky Catholicism, the variations in the scenario. Touching upon Naples and dwelling at length therein – the Naples of Cimarosa’s and Paisiello’s melodramas, traced upon Radcliffe’s The Italian – the action then moves further north to Rome and finally to Venice before concluding in Paris. The immortal Zanoni, who becomes a mortal, rejecting a programme of by far too absolute and even blind goals, may well appear as an umpteenth suggestion of Goethe’s Faust. Paracelsus is named and criticized more than once by Mejnour the wizard as an ineffective dreamer, and he was a recent (only seven year previous) creation by Browning. With its themes of reading the future and of telepathic perception of human plans Zanoni emerges as one of the founding texts of the Victorian mesmeric tale.
2. No one in the nineteenth century – except Maturin in Melmoth the Wanderer – had reused the suggestion of such a mysterious and fabled sect as the Rosicrucians. Zanoni is presented as the Zan, that is to say the ancient sun, also known to the Greeks as Adonis, a name often corrupted ← 24/I | 25/I → in Zanonis. As God, or incarnate demigod, consequently immortal, Zanoni heals the dying, unveils plots, and saves from murder those in peril, as well as magnetically approaching those whose ancestors were amongst the novices of the sect, or simple alchemists involved in arcane mysteries.32 One psychic is the demonic Neapolitan musician and violinist Pisani, the father of Viola,33 the divine child diva of the San Carlo theatre, who on her debut is struck, amongst the crowds acclaiming her, by the exceedingly handsome and mysterious face of a stranger. The Englishman Glyndon too has an alchemist ancestor he resembles; the Neapolitan prince who kidnaps Viola is also the grandchild of a Rosicrucian. Actually, in the novel there are only two true Rosicrucians: apart from Zanoni there is Mejnour the hierophant, defending the adept’s absolute purity from earthly cares and passions. The point of view does not imply unconditioned praise of Rosicrucian mysteriosophy, but on the contrary it always associates the desire for knowledge with a call of human desire that subverts it.34 Mejnour is a dictator of the repression of the senses, and does not forgive transgressors – ‘he who desires orbs and sceptres’ – but his inhuman humanism is eventually beaten. His planetary project is descended from a delirious type ← 25/I | 26/I → of Masonry aimed at preventing the action of time, at practicing a new herbal medicine, thus transmitting knowledge to a limited elite. The magician orders Zanoni to renounce his love for Viola, and to promote Glyndon’s love; but Zanoni disobeys and entrusts the more than willing Glyndon to his Master to become an initiate. In the Magician’s Gothic castle, Glyndon himself must suffer the strength of human temptation; having infringed a symbolic prohibition, he is sent back to the world and to life. Zanoni divests himself of his Rosicrucian regalia, becomes a normal, bourgeois husband who adores his newborn daughter, taken away from him because he is rumoured to have made a deal with the devil. At the climax, he flees the Mephistophelian spectre who appears before him and listens to the underlying angelical presence, finding the strength to sacrifice himself on the guillotine in place of his wife during the Parisian Terror.35 Zanoni is not just a prudent allegory of the dangers of any absolute knowledge and the necessity for the laws of human, conjugal marriage; in its historical aspects it is an indirect condemnation of the French Revolution, ‘that hideous mockery of human aspirations’. Between its beginning and its epilogue there is an evident rejection of a programme that proclaimed the freedom of mankind from all slavery and the advent of reason. Bulwer, who studied transitional phases and believed in the need for constant regeneration, disapproved of this moment par excellence of historical change, a change he considered too new in its violation of values that should have been kept.
3. With the word ‘phenomena’, or ‘strange phenomena’, in the extremely pithy short story ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ (1859) Bulwer started to define any manifestations of the supernatural, which seemed rationally to tame what pragmatic, experimental science, of which he was a curious and well-informed follower, could not wholly explain. And indeed the hero of the story, set in a house made uninhabitable because haunted by awful ghosts,36 ironically describes himself as someone believing that ← 26/I | 27/I → ‘the supernatural is the impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of Nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant’. He believes, in the same way, that any supposed mesmeric or spiritual manifestation can be produced only through the intervention of ‘human agency’. Bulwer would always describe characters as strenuously resisting phantasmal phenomena; incautious challengers would then have to admit being defeated by such phenomena.37 In the very first chapters of A Strange Story (1861) there operates something of Wilkie Collins’s pace and rhythm in its fine, dry prose, free of the wordiness and prolixity that, as we shall see, spoil the comedies of just a few years before; but the extra material overwhelms the actual story, and the taut tale breaks up in pseudo-theoretic disquisition, which emerging far too manifestly allows the didactic nature of the fantastic parable to show. The novel is a roman à thèse, but of a particular kind. From the preface it reveals itself to be instrumental to the presentation of a spiritualist theory inferred from contemporary studies on trance states, a theory of a threefold stratification of human personality which seems, but actually is opposed to, the soon-to-appear Freudian theories: these strata are ‘animal life’, ‘mind’ and ‘soul’. It is the opposite of Freud’s because there is no conflict and separation, nor is there a hierarchical pyramid, among them, but rather an ultimate harmony is envisaged. Bulwer’s objective is the achievement of Christian spiritualism; there is no chasm of an irreconcilable double, which here would be triplicate or triple. The gist of the chain of mysterious, apparently supernatural events is to be found, in A Strange Story, in the statement of the organic, not separate existence of the soul, and, as Ruskin would have approved, in the indivisibility of science, in particular medical and psychological science, ← 27/I | 28/I → and faith. The link to Zanoni, and not just one of genre, is strong, because occultism and theosophy, or ‘theurgy’, identify their limits and the need to overcome them. In this story, the mythical, diabolical lout Margrave – who could be the incarnation of the spirit of evil and the metempsychosis of an ignoble being, if not the devil himself – has painfully obtained the elixir of life from a magician – an action paralleling that in Zanoni – and carries out his diabolical actions on the innocent with gratuitous violence (the flashback describing his sadistic mangling of a harmless squirrel is blood curdling), and inducing innocent people to carry out crimes on his behalf. This ever young and cheerfully homicidal spirit, possessing the sinister extra-terrestrial qualities of the bloodthirsty Dionysian Apollo portrayed by Pater a decade later, is purposely given the definition of Rosicrucian. His wrinkled skin is visible under the soft surface of the eternal youth, but only under the effects of trance; the fiancée, and later wife, of the protagonist, Doctor Fenwick – a somewhat professional investigator of the supernatural – is herself a clairvoyant ‘priestess’. A Strange Story is thus, with Zanoni, an early founding text of Victorian mesmerism. Whilst wholly enfolded in Poe’s atmospheres, it is only a few months later than George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’, which it echoes in all the instances in which mesmerism entails clairvoyance and unexplainable prescience of future events. It unconsciously quotes Eliot between the lines when it identifies in Lillian, the fiancée, a double of Eliot’s Latimer, since in her trances she enjoys beatific visions from ‘behind the veil’, forgotten on awakening, thus visions that are the raw material of poetry.38 These were also the years of Browning’s formidable dramatic monologue ‘Mr Sludge, the “Medium”’, coinciding with Butler’s novel in its open-mindedness about the ‘phenomena’ – a word Bulwer uses at every turn – though starting from a position, in appearance, categorically in opposition.39 In both cases, those who use the supernatural to cause harm end up by being hurt or killed by it. Doctor Fenwick must face a chain of verifications, or perhaps even suggestions, that question his firm and decided distrust in mesmerism and Spiritualism. In a lengthy cross-examination there is the passionate and also unctuous peroration from another voice, ← 28/I | 29/I → that of a second, very conscientious doctor who provides a rational explanation of visionary ‘phenomena’ and ‘trances’: self-suggestion, nervous despondency, excitability, in short, the most wide-ranging of extenuating factors and concomitant causes. Undoubtedly Bulwer struggles and strongly resists before accepting this exorcism. The more the unflappable and serene Doctor Faber – who also possesses a firm and unambiguous interior will, faber suae fortunae, that is, the architect of his own fortune –40 expounds his theory of the natural causes of the ‘phenomena’, the more Doctor Fenwick is enmeshed in blatant contradictions and suffers terrifying repercussions. Bulwer does not want to write an open-ended book, or perhaps he might have wanted to, but he does close it, with a few loose ends, choosing an anodyne and prudential position.
4. The bare archetype of The Coming Race (1871) was, ten years after, the otherworldly journey of classical poems; but the closest link is with Swift’s Gulliver. The emphasis is placed on the future evolution of the human race, but there is also a dystopia of contemporary society. The American mining engineer who stays for a while in the underground city of the Vril-ya must realize the relativity of his acquired values, and seeing himself mirrored in the race of the Vril-ya he appears to his own consciousness as a sort of Yahoo dealing with a better evolved population, and listens, in stunned dismay, to the demonstration of his civilization’s barbarism. As in the later utopian tales by Trollope and Morris, the political model of the Vril-ya is comparable to a moderately communistic system where a philosophical rejection of unbridled lust for acquisition and a disinterested spirit of service to the community have healed the most common social distortions. Bulwer can even make a good impression by hypothesizing an absolute equality between the sexes and showing women courting men without lacking in modesty. A clever pastiche is created in the delightful and inventive chapter, both inspired by Swift and anticipating Orwell, describing the supposed language of the Vril-ya, which exploits and reinvents the then cutting-edge research of historical linguistics. Bulwer’s enquiry into the supernatural proceeds from ← 29/I | 30/I → A Strange Story with the fanciful image of ‘vril’, a circulating energy that possesses ambiguous occult influencing powers, operating both beneficially and destructively. In its most current and scientifically oriented meaning, The Coming Race is a parodic, worried, and thus extremely reluctant, version of evolutionary theory. In the new and hypothetic race there is a rejection and exorcizing of the looming danger of a neo-utilitarian and technological society and cultural model, based on an excessively mechanical ‘moral perfection’ derived from a deistic belief vaguely similar to that of the Broad Church. This is actually an elite race, selected via the survival of the fittest, with whose physical phenotype Bulwer associates not apes, but frogs, since the Vril-ya have a smooth, hairless skin like that of amphibians; the hero, not by chance, feels like a very hairy Yahoo.
32 An obvious memory of The Last Days of Pompeii is an eruption of Vesuvius during which Zanoni carries out one of his numerous rescues of people in danger.
33 There are unmistakeable echoes of Paganini, who died in 1840 (see Christensen 1976, 103).
34 In the late nineteenth century, and even beyond, there had been rumours that Bulwer himself was a Rosicrucian initiate, and even the president of an English Rosicrucian society founded twenty years after Zanoni was published (see Picchi 1982, 46 nn. 10 and 11). In Picchi’s book, the opposite is actually demonstrated, even admitting that Bulwer was ambiguous, and played with the idea, and even assumed the ‘mask of the initiate’ (9). The core of Picchi’s well-documented book is that Bulwer did not refer to the extremely sparse authentically Rosicrucian documents, but to a treatise on magic by F. Barrett, The Magus, London 1801, as is proved by a number of incontrovertible echoes. After all, according to Picchi the immortality of the soul and the lengthening of life were foreign to esoteric doctrine (34). Thus Zanoni is at first a superman who has lived for 5,000 years in a fantastical state of perpetual youth, and then Bulwer humanizes him and has him come to his senses, to the point of making him almost too normal. He undergoes, between the first and second part, a transformation from an esoteric and magical to a religious and expressly Christian vision.
35 This final scene is one of the most vigorous and well-turned ones in the novel, whose case of mistaken identity is usually considered the inspiration for the epilogue of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Picchi 1982, 27, has doubts about a sacrifice for love, claiming that Zanoni dies ‘to find a more complete form of immortality beyond death’.
36 And thus a very different haunting from Wilde’s benign ghost in Canterville.
37 The final explanation of the ‘phenomena’ in the haunted house is rather contorted, and seems to try running with the hare and hunting with the hounds: there is a magical power that can influence people and even inanimate objects, yet does not evoke the soul, but the ‘eidolon’ of the dead form. This magical power is conveyed, ‘as by electric wires’, from brain to brain; this agency can have a disruptive effect if not contrasted by the ‘resistance of the will’. The hidden lair of the magician, whence the effluvia of a magical liquid still emanate, and where his alembics are, is finally found and destroyed, and the house is disinfested.
38 §§ 196–7.
39 Volume 4, § 124.4–5.
40 Compared to Wilkie Collins, it is on purpose that Bulwer’s hero still has an undoubtedly and evidently Poe-resounding name such as Allen, which, simply with a change of letter (Allan), also appears in Armadale (§ 173).
From the chronologically broad and intensively heroic fresco of the dramatic dividing lines treated in the historical fictions, Bulwer had turned with The Caxtons (1849) to the present, to the quiet, feeble, routine present, and the synchrony of current life with its, mainly fake and always temporary, storms. With the addition of My Novel and What Will He Do With It? a trio of novels was created, intended to sketch the ‘varieties’ of English life. These were works conceived against the background of the shift in taste of the bourgeois and realistic narrative of the great novelists of his time, who were a bit younger than he. They constituted Bulwer’s attempt to find his own place and to keep up with the times. They may seem a return to his origins, to the crusading novel where many timely social and economic issues would come to the fore, but now these were treated in a filtered way, almost as parody, thus relieved of any ponderousness. Bulwer rejuvenates his technique by suppressing all pedantic intrusions, not just because there are no longer any, or at least fewer, erudite epigraphs or footnotes, but also because that very erudition becomes an object of parody. These three novels, with an always smooth and unruffled diegetic flow, and built on the routine of one or more family circles – these provincial sagas with a sleepy rhythm – anticipate Thackeray’s later fiction, whose extraordinary calligraphic elegance of style they sometimes achieve. In them, there lives again a stationary society that still exhibited, ← 30/I | 31/I → in the early 1800s, many aspects of the eighteenth-century culture of humours. This is not just Trollope’s and Mrs Gaskell’s framework, but also Meredith’s in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. In The Caxtons the external frame is that of an autobiography drafted in the first person under a fictitious name – Pisistratus Caxton – which is very much the characteristic of some of the key texts of the 1840s. These follow the formula made popular by Disraeli and then by Dickens, that of a Bildungsroman starting from the pivotal experiences of family, school and, later, university education, and reaching the main character’s professional and married life. The Caxton family is made to suffer under a genealogical quandary, whether it descends from warrior ancestors or rather from the Renaissance printer William Caxton. A pivotal point of the plot is Pisistratus’s father’s frustrated ambition, to complete and publish his monumental ‘History of Human Error’. The hero’s father is a double of the author himself, being a man of learning and an encyclopaedist; but so is his son, because as a grown man he has a job as an MP’s secretary, before voluntarily resigning, due to his loving the MP’s daughter, whom he cannot, for economic reasons, hope to marry. The metaliterary aspect of the novel is evident in the often-caricatured description of the absurdities of the publishing world and the advertising and newspaper system. The setting includes madcap economic ventures, the stock market fever, the dearth of employment for young men thus encouraged to emigrate towards Australian prairies, as Pisistratus is cynically advised to do by the politician he works for. The answer to youthful angst is the classic and ubiquitous Australian emigration, or perhaps the new worlds of Dickens’s novels. A colony of young or disappointed men, lost or unsatisfied for a variety of reasons, close ranks and leave, actually making their fortunes and being morally regenerated. The Australian pages in The Caxtons are, to all intents and purposes, a small, early English mythology of the Bush, such as would be found, much later, in the works of Trollope and Kingsley’s brother. In Australia the languid, always too timid hero acquires unsuspected and practical colonizing backbone: and hence his cousin Vivian, fully redeemed and socially reinstated, departs towards military glory. However, despite all the pressing issues of the time it touched upon, The Caxtons all in all is more of an exercise in style. It may be defined a mannerist and affected ← 31/I | 32/I → parody of Sterne’s work. The abrupt quotation at the very beginning refers to the Tristram-like birth of the narrator, with an absent-minded father welcoming him by pedantically and sophistically pondering ‘What is a boy?’ The novel, unlike Sterne’s, actually does proceed, but always in a somewhat voluntarily delayed way, always wallowing in erudite digressions for their own sake, and is interrupted by rapid anecdotes, as exquisitely pathetic as those to be found in the Sentimental Journey,41 and by extraneous chapters such as one dealing with a searched-for and never found earwig. By halting the flow, it becomes the tale of how the chapter itself has not been written, in order to proceed in the search. From eighteenth-century tradition there re-emerge the stock characters of the man of sentiment, the hypochondriac, the eccentric, even the misfit: the father, Austin Caxton, is a living collection of amiable manias,42 but Austin’s brother Roland is no less a character from Sterne, a crippled captain. Chafed not only by his present uselessness, but also by a painful past marriage, he is the jealous custodian of memories and is devoted to an exquisite code of chivalry. This military man with his offhand, brusque manners, seemingly bad-tempered yet deep down benevolent and always ready to weep and forgive, will henceforth be a constant classic, recurring time after time in Victorian humour. This demonstrates the link between the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century authors – such as Peacock with his conversation pieces – and one of the most prevalent organizing devices in Victorian novels, the book of sketches of eccentrics. This tradition joins Bulwer not just to Dickens but also to Thackeray. Parody excludes or limits true realism, and creates a separate jurisdiction wherein characters act without any real dovetailing to the real world; the blend Bulwer uses in The Caxtons is, on the whole, the same mixture of eccentricity, ← 32/I | 33/I → whimsicality, amiable idiosyncrasies, false scowls and obstinacy to be found in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford.43
2. Equalling four medium length novels, My Novel 44 (1853) is one of the most impressive and disregarded Victorian tours de force; but on reaching the second of these three comic novels the reader is already disappointed and worn out. The pace is slow, the plot is carried forward by rather dull sketches and exhausting tête-à-têtes, the crowd of characters is to say the least inflated. The structural principle may be identified in a precocious but still ungoverned Eliot-like ‘web’,45 of far-ranging spectrums diverging from a single centre and remaining nonetheless linked to it. Certainly, the ploy used in the early chapters of each book is sophisticated, suspending as it does identification by relating amiable, frequently erudite and verbose fireside discussions, where the first assessments of Pisistratus’ novel are made, some of which actually reflect those felt to be true by the readers themselves, since his father tells him quite frankly that the first volume is monotonous, and advises his son to quicken the pace. The novel pretends to be created as a challenge to and at the same time an entertainment for the not very busy members of the supposed author’s placid family. Just as Sterne appeared to be the previous novel’s tutelary deity, Fielding seems to be this novel’s, to the point that innumerable parallels have been drawn between Bulwer’s novel and Tom Jones. The internal link is not necessarily cyclic, nor are these two or three novels by Bulwer communicating vessels, but the use of a figurehead as the author recalls Thackeray’s early sketches and his later novels, formally attributed to Arthur Pendennis. In his first, introductory and metacritical chapter, Bulwer has his vicarious novelist reflect on the saturation reached by the book market: all possible types of novels are listed, and amongst all the possible and by now exploited genres the choice falls on a sort of polyphonic rural comedy. The adoption of Fielding’s modules, marked by a witty, light, sparkling narration, full of detached good humour, reveals that not much has really changed, ← 33/I | 34/I → outside London, in the England described by eighteenth-century writers – all the more since the novel moves the action back to the premonitory signs of the First Reform Bill. In this rustic Biedermeier the traditional points of the compass were the honourable squire, the humanitarian vicar, matrons devoted to sewing, the intelligent farmer, all busy in local, trivial issues that are, however, given epic proportions.46 The only ripple on this smooth surface arises from radical ideas spread by hearsay, which induce young farmhands and the sons of impoverished landed gentry to instigate an overturning of the status quo: they read, they do their research, they feed on Enlightenment literature of protest, even on philosophy, but end up being dissuaded and won back by the pseudo principle of the vanity of revolutions, because inequalities are inborn.47 The rift that is dug between the characters is the eighteenth-century one of calculation against feeling: ever ready, albeit absent-minded benefactors pitted against harsh, heartless pragmatists, of whom, in the end, there generally is only one, the designated scapegoat and the target of poetical justice.48 Actually, as the novel progresses, the landscape widens from the countryside to the metropolis, becoming the mirror image of a slowly evolving England; and widening its scope it becomes an ambitious diorama, or multifaceted prism, such as those created by Dickens. From the rural village the metropolis may be reached with a journey on foot that offers the opportunity for the typical routines of picaresque narrative: the farmer Lenny, frustrated, and, like Kingsley’s Alton Locke, a poet – and a poet because he has inherited his ← 34/I | 35/I → talent from his mother, who died giving him birth –49 encounters poor Helen, with whom he engages in a purely brotherly partnership until she is taken on elsewhere as a housekeeper. Lenny represents the crisis suffered by ‘intelligent artisans’ wanting to make the most of their intellect, but realizing that all roads, including journalism and literature, are barred. The suffering and extremely romantic character Nora Avenel, his mother, is the closest Bulwer ever came to the typically feminine trope of unexpressed genius and the ‘fallen woman’, although her seduction was not exactly extra-marital. With a long sequence dedicated to the 1832 election campaign, Bulwer almost touches upon the political and electoral novel. In these new elections, there enter the arena the professional politician, his scheming secretary, and, for the liberals, Lenny himself and his uncle, a minor industrialist returning from America who represents the lifeblood of the rising bourgeoisie.50 There is an intermittent, and all thing considered, useless section, linked to what was, at the time, a topical issue, that is the flow of Italian émigrés to England for political reasons following the 1821 riots. And Italy, to English readers, mainly meant murky, melodramatic intrigue. Bulwer heralds Collins’s The Woman in White, and Meredith’s Italian diptych, Sandra Belloni and Vittoria, with his picturesque but rather manneristic Italian Riccabocca, whose daughter is harassed and even kidnapped by a pro-Austrian Italian count.
3. The almost as outrageous potboiler What Will He Do With It? was devised and written, like the preceding novel, for serial publishing, which took place between 1857 and 1859, although it was written well before that period, and not in a haste during printing. Bulwer narrows down the cast of characters, but must, if possible, slow the action down even more, and the novel’s basic pace is inertia. The plot revolves around the light that must be cast on a few bland mysteries. An old actor is roaming under false name ← 35/I | 36/I → the English provinces, together with his young granddaughter, members of an itinerant troupe of mountebanks subject to the vagaries of a sadistic impresario; this nucleus crosses with that of two young bourgeois from a good family, one of whom falls in love with the granddaughter but immediately loses her tracks. This faded picaresque proceeds following predictable routines until the girl’s father, a ne’er-do-well living from hand to mouth, enters the scene. Following the rules of the genre, the mystery of the girl’s origins – she is the niece of a rich and intimately torn politician – must be made unnaturally convoluted before being just as intricately solved. There is little to be salvaged: the golden age of the picaresque had died, and Bulwer blatantly imitates Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and, by introducing grandfather and granddaughter amongst the circus performers, Nicholas Nickleby.51
4. Kenelm Chillingly (1873), in places pleasant and witty, but mostly rather feeble, indicates a residual Sternian touch in the small circle of eccentrics in its hero’s family. It is at the same time a further, late homage to Dickens’s picaresque use of caricature, interwoven in the dilemma between marriage for love or for money. At the same time, it quotes Goethe and his Meister in its bucolic atmosphere and a few incidental characters, all of whom are mental, surreal or languidly pathetic. Amongst these there is an itinerant minstrel appearing to dispense instructions to his would-be pupil, or the flower-like and candid girl, Lily, a daughter of nature who dies of consumption before her wedding in a spirit of soft domestic tragedy.52 However, Kenelm Chillingly is a different young man from the weak and immature heroes of Victorian literature; his Christian name is chosen in honour of Kenelm Digby, who at the time was a famous writer of etiquette books harking back to medieval knights. Chillingly’s family is that of a ‘muscular Christianity’ without whims, combative and unswerving in succouring the helpless and the fallen. This constitutes a second homage ← 36/I | 37/I → to Kingsley’s narrative and ideology.53 Concretely, this new Don Quixote fights against windmills in a half-serious mood of parody; he almost wants to subvert the prevailing codes and act as moralizing agent in the political world, without, however, impairing an enlightened conservatism; the demarcation is clearly illustrated to a radical who has misunderstood him for a ‘democrat’. The Parisians54 (1873) is a final and exhausting serial against the backdrop of anti-imperial plots, the French defeat in the blitzkrieg against Prussia, and the Commune. It is sustained, or rather, weakened, by the tortuous and always rather too unlikely tergiversations of the various parallel characters, young Parisians and orphaned Londoners, all disoriented and lethargic, caught in a many-threaded web, and by the rather melodramatic and continuously dredged-up mystery of the origins of a beautiful Italian, or Anglo-Italian, an umpteenth and eclectic Corinna.
41 In a completely unrelated, yet touching episode, a young Italian plays his organ in the streets of London, arousing the hero’s pity.
42 Meredith (§ 212) was not to miss this Austin – the same name as Richard Feverel’s father – useless in practical life, and with his own ‘educational method’, who, although not the actual writer of a book of aphorisms, is a sort of Robert Burton, knowing what books are the best to cure adolescent diseases.
43 Where, incidentally, a captain appears (§ 114.2).
44 My Novel is a title whose lack of imagination and unsuitability is ironically commented on by Pisistratus Caxton’s family.
45 § 180.
46 In the words of one of the characters: ‘was there ever a parish so peaceful as this, or a country-gentleman so beloved as you were, before you undertook the task which has dethroned kings and ruined estates – that of wantonly meddling with antiquity, whether for the purpose of uncalled-for repairs or the revival of obsolete uses?’
47 The uprisings by agricultural workers of the 1820s, often resulting in rick burning, were also echoed by Meredith (§ 214.1). In both cases the arsonist is a tinker.
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2019 (July)
- Charles Dickens George Eliot The Novel Victorian Literature
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. XXIV, 1574 pp.