Today, Edward Bulwer Lytton is most famous for the much ridiculed line "It was a dark and stormy night"—the opening of his 1830 novel "Paul Clifford." Though almost all of his work is out of print, he was in his time a best-selling rival of Dickens and a pioneer in several genres; his oeuvre includes historical romances, crime stories, and even science fiction. He was also a strutting dandy who dabbled in the occult and was a successful (if politically eccentric) member of Parliament. Mitchell maintains that "his rehabilitation as an undoubtedly eminent Victorian is long overdue," but this attempt is only intermittently successful. The decision to organize the biography thematically ("A Writer and the Public," "Ghosts and Artists") is ill considered, and its defenses of Lytton's gawdy prose seem strained. Still, it's hard to make the man dull.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
*Starred Review* Usually remembered only as the author of The Last Days of Pompeii
, Edward Bulwer Lytton lives again in this vivid biography--published to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth--as a writer whose novels once rivaled Dickens' in popularity. Mitchell challenges the neglect of Lytton with a compelling narrative of a life that once helped define both the center and the margins of Victorian culture. Though not attempting the critical exegeses typical of a literary biography, Mitchell does limn a remarkable writing career, notable both for its prolific output and for its astonishing influence. Most contemporary readers will marvel at how many Lytton novels they have never heard of--including Pelham
, Eugene Aram
, The Caxtons,
and Night and Morning--
once captured huge international audiences. Given that Lytton launched his career with novels notorious for their depiction of degeneracy, Mitchell finds it deeply ironic that post-World War I Britain rejected his works as expressions of Victorian respectability. Readers will see little of staid respectability in Lytton's bitter marital disputes and scandalous affairs, even less in his forays into spiritualism and the occult. Even in Lytton's political metamorphosis from Radical to Tory, Mitchell discerns no drift into complacency, but rather an unresolved quarrel with all forms of orthodoxy. Mitchell may not revive interest in Lytton's novels, but he has succeeded in capturing a complex personality. Bryce ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved