The Genealogy of the Literary Bildungsroman: Edward Bulwerlytton and W. M. Thackeray

Article excerpt

In many critical accounts of the Bildungsroman, and especially those that consider its genealogy within late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary history, questions of time are of the essence. From Mikhail Bakhtin's exposition of the "profoundly chronotopic nature" of Goethe's foundation of the "novel of emergence" to its characterization by Franco Moretti as a pre-eminent "'symbolic form' of modernity," the Bildungsroman is commonly credited with the realization of a radically new order of temporal experience (Bakhtin 23; Moretti 5). For some critics (Moretti and Jerome Buckley, for example), this can be seen, most vitally, in its iconic inscription of the meaningfulness of youth, whereas, for others (such as Bakhtin), it represents nothing less than the "assimilation of real historical time" into the form of the novel (Buckley vii-viii; Moretti 3-13; Bakhtin 24). If the temporality of the Bildungsroman is, thus, a rather familiar topic within critical studies of the novel of varying kinds, the scope of the present essay is to examine its bearings upon two decidedly neglected exponents of the genre, William Makepeace Thackeray and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Thackeray and Bulwer, I suggest, are significant figures in the early development of the Bildungsroman within British culture from the 1830s to 1850; their relationship with each other, as well as to other novelists in Britain and continental Europe, sheds light on both a broad process of cultural influence and "translation" (essential, of course, to an understanding of the historical phenomenon of the Bildungsroman) and on more particular areas of debate concerning the conditions of authorship and the status of the literary profession in early-Victorian culture. Though detailed attention has been paid to the wider transmission of German thought into British culture during this period, the generality of critical work on the Bildungsroman remains largely comparitivist, and paradoxically ahistorical, in approach, and, hence, the particular history of the development of the form in English is rarely considered. (1)

"To-Day and Immortality"

Bulwer's contribution to the establishment of the Bildungsroman in Britain should not be underestimated, whatever our response to his novels as such. If Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833-1834) is commonly perceived to be the first, and most influential, adaptation of the Goethean novel of "apprenticeship" into English, it is worth noting that of the several novels written by Bulwer which follow the same model, the first was published as early as 1828 (Ashton 22). Elements of the Bildungsroman as inaugurated by Wilhelm Meister (1791-1796) can be traced back to Bulwer's The Disowned (1828) and Godolphin (1833), as Susanne Howe suggests, but attain their most coherent expression in Ernest Maltravers (1837) and its sequel Alice; or, The Mysteries (1838) (140-59). These latter texts were arguably the first novels written in English to exemplify programmatically the German idea of bildung, if it can be accepted that Carlyle's text is less generically determinate. (2) Moreover, Ernest Maltravers and its sequel were formative texts, which exercised a cultural influence on a par with that of Carlyle during the two decades following their publication. Just as Bulwer acknowledged his debt to Goethe in his 1840 Preface to Ernest Mahravers (7-8), so Bulwer's fellow Germanist G. H. Lewes, for example, acknowledges his debt to Bulwer by mining his text for epigraphic use in his own novel of literary bildung, Ranthorpe (1847) (25, 28). Lewes's visible citation of Bulwer's novel seems to endow it with a status which is almost equivalent to that of Wilhelm Meister: an English version of the ur-Bildungsroman. Similarly, in Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850), an "autobiographical" variation on the novel of literary formation from the same period, we find reference to Ernest Maltravers worked within the diegetic framework of the text where it provides a significant point of debate in relation to the narrator's development as a poet (236). …


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