Magazine article The Spectator

Where Variety Was the Spice

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Variety Was the Spice

Article excerpt

Where variety was the spice

BULWER LYTTON: THE RISE AND FALL OF A VICTORIAN MAN OF LETTERS by Leslie Mitchell Hambledon & London, L19.95, pp. 292, ISBN 1852854235

When Edward Bulwer Lytton was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1873, Benjamin Jowett's eulogy described him as 'one of England's greatest writers and one of the most distinguished men of our time'. A Tory grandee who became a cabinet minister but never entirely renounced the radical instincts of his youth, he was also a playwright, critic, occultist and much else. His books sold in prodigious quantities up to, but not beyond, 1914.

In his introduction Leslie Mitchell accepts that Lytton's range of interests makes him a difficult subject for a biography. Lytton himself made the task harder by covering his tracks from time to time. Gut he left behind a copious archive of which Mitchell makes good enough use without entirely dispelling Lytton's own caveat, 'The adequate biography of a life so full and various must, however, be the task of years.'

Mitchell has divided his material into 12 thematic sections which provide a neat framework in which to consider the many facets of Lytton's career. No fewer than four of these are devoted to his private life, the remaining eight to his literary, political and philosophical interests. Fittingly, Mitchell is best on the political sections - his two previous biographies are of politicians - but he is less sure on the others.

He accepts without comment that Lytton was the third and youngest son of General William Earle Bulwer (contemporary gossip suggested otherwise), though he describes the general's aversion to the child and quotes a will written by Lytton's mother in her early widowhood exhorting her two older sons to treat her youngest 'as a brother'. Lytton's own view of himself as an outsider was nurtured by his mother from his earliest childhood.

Lytton's private life was wrecked by an ill-considered marriage to Rosina Wheeler, an Irish beauty of wit and talent. After a tempestuous few years they separated, although neither party was prepared to let the other go; Rosina began a public campaign vilifying her husband in the press, in works of barely disguised fiction, in letters to Queen Victoria and his political patrons, and on one occasion in public when she harangued his constituents from the hustings. Lytton retaliated even to the extent of having Rosina locked away for a time in an asylum. …

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