Your RDA of Irony

The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Anti-Defamation League

May 25, 1803: The Author Begins His Story

Today is the  birthday of the unfortunate Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). It is fashionable to ridicule him as the worst writer in the history of English. In fact, the novelist and playwright was quite popular in his day.  The young aristocrat may have started as a literary dilettante, dabbling in poetry at Cambridge; but after being disinherited by his family for marrying someone Irish, he had to earn a living.  If his writings were half so romantic as his life, no wonder he was a success.  His acclaim was international.  The young and impoverished Richard Wagner, looking for a story with box opera appeal, adapted Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Rienzi” into an opera.  (And no doubt he never paid the British novelist a pfenning.) 

With his bloodline, wealth and popularity, Bulwer-Lytton won a seat in Parliament and rose up to the middle ranks of Tory leadership.  He would serve in the cabinet and eventually become a baronet.  (There was another novelist among the young Conservatives, less wealthy and with a far more exotic bloodline, but Mr. Disraeli would also achieve some fame.) 

And there is no reason to think that Bulwer-Lytton wouldn’t have been a best-selling author today.  Consider how many times his novel “The Last Days of Pompeii” has been made into a movie.  His great-great grandson, the Fifth Earl of Lytton, thanks us all for the residuals.  Yet, Edward Bulwer-Lytton now is a figure of ridicule.  One of his passages is cited as an exemplar of horrible writing.  Here it is:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I don’t think that it is terrible at all. Yes, it is florid and overwrought: in other words, typically Victorian.

The greatest of the Victorian writers Charles Dickens would have been just as lavish with adjectives. And his opening scene would have included a colorful lamplighter who would reappear throughout the story, at the most incredible times, with remarkable revelations for the hero. “Many the year ago, before I become a magistrate, I was a lamplighter. One day, while making me rounds, I discovered a foundling. How wert I to know it was me long-lost sister’s child? Which makes you my nephew and ‘eir.”

I really don’t understand why Bulwer-Lytton has become the object of such derision. Perhaps he should have given Mt. Vesuvius an endearing cockney accent.

  1. Michael Gury says:

    Dear Mr. Finerman,

    I am entirely in agreement with your thesis that Mr. Bulwer-Lytton should not be considered a lower life form in the canon of literature. There were (and still are) greater stinkers than he. And in fact, should we calculate the trajectory of the publishing industry since his time, we might find that his work stimulated a number of interesting literary and media veins and gestated numerous authors who wrote stuff that was ten times as shitty and made ten times as much money. Bodice-rippers, various romance enterprises, sensational publications, soap operas, comic books, movies, and so forth: All making tons of money. That he won a seat in Parliament is no different than Al Franken’s ascendancy to the U.S. Senate.

    So thank you for helping us remember and celebrate Mr. Bulwer-Lytton’s birthday. I can only say that at the moment it is a bright and sunny day where I live, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a dark and stormy night.

  2. Hal Gordon says:

    Bulwer-Lytton’s ego apparently swelled with his success, which in turn invited ridicule. As Disraeli once said of Charles Greville, another Victorian writer, “He was the vainest being who ever lived — and I do not forget Cicero, and I know Lord Lytton.”

  3. Bob Kincaid says:


    You have Charles Schulz to thank. It was all those panels of Snoopy, perched with a typewriter atop his doghouse, ever the struggling canine novelist, typing those very words.

  4. Michele says:

    I must disagree, gentlemen. I do think that passage is outstandingly horrible. It’s not the the first ten words in the sentence that cause all the giggling. It’s the way he wanders off into a verbal cul de sac with “except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies).” If you review the best of the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest, you’ll find that similar sidetracks are the essence of their parodies’ hilarity.

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