In his lifetime Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, prolific, and influential writer. But thanks to the vagaries of time and changing literary tastes Bulwer-Lytton’s name has become synonymous with bad writing, to the point that the English department of San Jose State University has, since 1982, held the "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" for the "opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels." The decline in Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation is at least somewhat understandable, as many aspects of his style have not aged well. Bulwer-Lytton’s work can be stiff, wooden, and melodramatic. He often unsuccessfully strains for affect. He had a fatal weakness for prolixity, fustian, and bombast. He is little-read today.
But Bulwer-Lytton deserves better. Never mind that he wrote in the style of his era, and that to single him out for writing like his contemporaries is unjust. Never mind that other writers who are his stylistic inferiors are not targeted so; no sober critic would read Walter Scott or Fenimore Cooper, and then read Bulwer-Lytton, and declare that Bulwer-Lytton is more deserving of derision. Never mind that, as Jaime Weinman says, "It was a dark and stormy night" isn’t really that bad. (I can find several opening lines in Dickens that are worse).
Bulwer-Lytton deserves praise and admiration. Few writers, of any time or of any country, were as influential during their lifetimes. Few writers possessed his commercial instincts or had as great an insight into the tastes of the reading audience. And few writers were as consistently experimental over as long a period of time. The following is a summary of his accomplishments:
• Pelham (1828) was the most popular and influential of the Silver Fork genre of novels. The Silver Fork (or "fashionable novel") genre described the improper behavior of the aristocratic set, as told to the public by (supposedly) one of the aristocrats themselves. The Silver Fork novel was popular from the 1820s until the 1840s and was the transitional genre between the novel of the upper classes and the domestic realism of the Victorian novel proper. Pelham made the fortune of the publishing firm of Colburn and Co. and may have been the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Pelham also set the style, still the standard today, for men wearing black evening dress rather than blue.
• Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832) were the first two major Newgate novels and essentially established the genre. Neither novel was quite as popular as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood, but both novels were successful (and scandalous), and Rookwood and the succeeding Newgate novels would not have been written without Bulwer-Lytton’s precedent.
• The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) was not Bulwer-Lytton’s first historical novel (the undistinguished Devereux (1829) was), but it was his first success in the genre. It is the best historical novel of the 1830s and was seen by critics as having topped the work of Sir Walter Scott. Bulwer-Lytton followed Pompeii with Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835), The Last of the Barons (1843), and Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848). Scott deserves credit for the creation of the modern historical novel, but Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels were among the most popular in the genre in the 1830s and 1840s, and The Last Days of Pompeii created the subgenre of historical novels set in Rome, a group which would later include Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurian (1885) and Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880). Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels set the standard for applying scholarship and research to the writing of historical romances, and The Last of the Barons and Harold were among the first historical novels to apply contemporary social political issues to the past: in Barons, the negative effect of the Industrial Revolution on England; in Harold, the question of what it is to be "English" and a celebration of the romantic Toryism of the Young England movement of the early 1840s.
• England and the English (1834) was an important criticism of English culture which was politically radical in its call for education and child labor reform.
• Athens: Its Rise and Fall (1837) is one of the best and most readable Victorian histories of ancient Greece.
• Ernest Maltravers (1837) is the novel in which the influence of the Germans on Bulwer-Lytton is the most pronounced. Bulwer-Lytton was greatly influenced by the German thinkers and writers, Goethe and Schiller especially, and he translated Schiller’s lyrical poetry and wrote essays on Wieland, Lessing, Herder, and Klopstock. Bulwer-Lytton admired and liked the Germans and helped spread an appreciation for German thought among the English, and in Ernest Maltravers Bulwer-Lytton did a passable attempt at emulating Goethe.
• Night and Morning (1841), another of Bulwer-Lytton’s Proto-Mysteries, was reviewed by Edgar Allan Poe in the same issue of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in which appeared Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe’s first C. Auguste Dupin story. Though not wholly complimentary of Bulwer-Lytton, Poe nonetheless praises Night and Morning’s plot construction. Poe probably did not read Night and Morning before he composed "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but it is likely that the complicated plot of Night and Morning had some effect on Poe’s composition of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." Moreover, Night and Morning’s detective Monsieur Favart, though an imitation of Eugène François Vidocq, is an early example in crime fiction of the police detective character. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins knew of Night and Morning, and it is arguable that Favart was an influence on Dickens’ creation of Inspector Bucket (in Bleak House) and on Collins’ creation of Sergeant Cuff (in The Moonstone). The mystery genre would be different without the example of the Newgate novels to draw upon. The mystery genre would not exist without the work of Poe, Dickens, and Collins, all three of whom were influenced by Bulwer-Lytton.
• Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1861-1862) created the occult fantasy genre. Bulwer-Lytton had predecessors, including William Beckford (in Vathek), but it was Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni and A Strange Story which were influential on and imitated by later writers of occult fantasy.
• The Caxtons (1849) was not the first major domestic novel–-Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) has that honor–-but Bulwer-Lytton’s prestige (by the mid-point of the century Bulwer-Lytton was seen as England’s leading novelist) gave significant impetus to domestic fiction and helped make it fashionable.
• The Haunted and the Haunters (1859) was the first modern haunted house story. It is set in the London of the day and uses psychic phenomena rather than the rationalized supernatural of the Gothics. The Haunted and the Haunters has been imitated dozens of times and is one of the two or three most influential haunted house stories ever written.
• The Coming Race (1871) was multiply influential. It is a significant early work of science fiction and uses concepts which would become standards in science fiction, including a version of atomic energy in the vril force. The Coming Race is the best-written of the 19th century Hollow Earth novels and was influential on later utopian novels, including Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). And the mystical vocabulary and ideology of The Coming Race were adopted by Helena Blavatsky and incorporated into the philosophy of Theosophy.
The preceding list does not include Bulwer-Lytton’s work (1831-1833) as an editor on the New Monthly Review, one of the most popular of the monthly fictional magazines; his political career as a Member of Parliament (1831-1841, 1852-1866) and as Secretary of State for the Colonies (1858-1859); his satires, including The New Timon (1846), with its then-shocking attack on Tennyson, and Money (1840), which like England and the English retains its bite today; his great influence on modern occultism, including the Order of the Golden Dawn; his influence on other writers, particularly Dickens; his efforts on behalf of other writers, both toward creating effective copyright laws and, through the Guild of Literature and Art, to support struggling writers and artists; his extensive critical work on the theory of fiction; and his attempts to experiment with narrative structure and to expand the possibilities of contemporary fiction, especially in My Life (1853), in which the narrative is interrupted by criticisms from the characters.
The callow call Bulwer-Lytton "Barely Literate," and the annual "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" invites similarly shallow jibes, but Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton is as deserving of respect and appreciation as any other writer of his age.