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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography



Bulwer Lytton

by
Leslie Mitchell


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bulwer Lytton



Title: Bulwer Lytton
Author: Leslie Mitchell
Genre: Biography
Written: 2003
Length: 243 pages
Availability: Bulwer Lytton - US
Bulwer Lytton - UK
Bulwer Lytton - Canada
  • The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Man of Letters
  • Includes numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid survey of the man, but doesn't give an adequate impression of his literary achievements

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 2/6/2003 John Gross
The Guardian . 6/9/2003 Kathryn Hughes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/8/2003 Alexandra Mullen
The New Yorker . 12/1/2004 .
The Spectator . 21/6/2003 Sibylla Jane Flower
Sunday Telegraph . 29/6/2003 Lucasta Miller
TLS . 8/8/2003 John Sutherland
The Washington Times D 7/9/2003 Martin Rubin


  Review Consensus:

  Interesting but not far-reaching enough

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mitchell has produced an enjoyable book. His writing is crisp and urbane; he gives you a good sense of Lytton the man, and of the immediate context in which he lived and worked. But he is stronger on politics than on literature, and there are some odd omissions." - John Gross, Daily Telegraph

  • "Leslie Mitchell has organised his book along thematic lines. This allows him to sidestep the deadening effects of a linear narrative and to bury in the background the kind of relentless detail that can make reading biography such a slog. It also means that Lytton springs to life from the very first chapters (.....) The downside is, inevitably, a certain loss of coherence. This, though, is a small price to pay." - Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

  • "Leslie Mitchell (...) seems eager to rehabilitate Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73); his book is less a straight-forward biography than a series of discursive footnotes on his subject's varied career (.....) Fully one-quarter of the intermittently engaging Bulwer Lytton is taken up with his famously appalling wife." - Alexandra Mullen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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 (...) is ill considered, and its defenses of Lyttonís gawdy prose seem strained. Still, itís hard to make the man dull." - The New Yorker

  • "Mitchell has divided his material into 12 thematic sections which provide a neat framework in which to consider the many facets of Lyttonís 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." - Sibylla Jane Flower, The Spectator

  • "Leslie Mitchell's biography, researched from manuscript sources, is at its best when disentangling the convoluted threads of Bulwer Lytton's political allegiances, though it also gives a spirited portrait of his nightmare marriage. What it doesn't do, however, is to offer an in-depth critical assessment of his novels." - Lucasta Miller, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Leslie Mitchell's tone is ironic, drily amused by the foppery, yet impressed by Lytton's genuine, if often misapplied, force of mind. The absurdity is relished, yet treated tenderly. This book, entertaining and instructive in itself, opens the way for more life studies of this fascinating, but obstinately unread, Great Victorian." - John Sutherland, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This biography seems long while one is reading it, yet seems scrappy when one has reached its conclusion still uninformed about so much of Lytton's life, unenlightened about so much of his personality, and certainly unconvinced of the need to restore his work to the canon." - Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873) was among the most popular and prolific Victorian authors. He wrote an astonishing variety of bestselling novels, was a significant dramatist (something Mitchell oddly largely ignores in his biography), and was politically very active (even serving as a Cabinet Minister). For all his 19th-century success, however, Bulwer Lytton's popularity did not wane, it simply disappeared: as Mitchell puts it: "Up to 1914, the sales of his books rivalled those of Dickens. Since 1918, few people have shown any interest." He is now largely remembered only as the author of The Last Days of Pompeii -- and as the inspiration for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest
       Leslie Mitchell suggests "a re-evaluation is long overdue". His biography, however, focusses more on the man than the work -- which, in a way is understandable: there's a great deal of appeal in that as well. Bulwer Lytton was an odd and interesting character: he was a great success and played a significant role in many aspects of English public life. He does not appear to have been a very likeable figure, however, and won few true friends or sympathisers -- as Mitchell puts it: "he was to be noted but kept at a distance". He was also involved in one of the most spectacularly disastrous marriages imaginable.
       Bulwer Lytton was born into comfortable but difficult family circumstances. The third son, he was not a favourite of his father's: "'an object of indifference' that matured into one 'of positive dislike'" -- remarkable, given that dad died when Edward was only four. But, by then and certainly later, he was a momma's boy, and his mother continued to play a significant role in his life.
       Bulwer Lytton doesn't appear to have been much of a realist, expecting the world to live up to his ideals and expectations, which it rarely did. He did not take to school, for example, not lasting long at most of the institutions he was sent to, though he finally wound up at Trinity College, Cambridge. His misguided world-view proved especially unfortunate with regard to his romantic entanglements, culminating early on in the particularly ill-advised union with Rosina Wheeler.
       Mitchell doesn't describe in sufficient detail Bulwer Lytton's surprisingly quick success -- though he makes it clear that by "1827 Edward Lytton had crafted a name and reputation for himself." Falkland was published in 1827, and then the lastingly influential Pelham in 1828, and his career as a novelist was in full swing. But in 1827 he also married, and though that union did not last, the repercussions did -- for decades. As Mitchell puts it:

From 1834 until Lytton's death in 1873 both he and Rosina devoted a major part of their lives to inflicting as much damage as possible on the other.
       Neither comes off looking good: Bulwer Lytton was certainly no admirable family man (his treatment of his children proves that well enough) and he went as far as institutionalizing Rosina -- though in reading what she did one occasionally even admires his restraint. Rosina also embarked on a literary career of sorts, publishing romans-à-clef that showed her husband and his family in the worst possible light (though he admittedly did make for good material). She also:
took to attending productions of her husband's plays and orchestrating booing and hissing. She wrote volleys of letters, sometimes twenty a day, addressed to 'Sir Liar Coward Bulwer' which were distributed to clubs and hotels frequented by her husband.
       And when he won a parliamentary election she appeared during his acceptance speech, "mounted the hustings and regaled the voters with a speech of her own" -- and it wasn't a very nice one. Rosina would hardly be believable as a character in a work of fiction, but such was Bulwer Lytton's reality.
       Mitchell's biography basically looks at the different strands of Bulwer Lytton's life, with separate chapters focussing on each, rather than progressing strictly chronologically. Different chapters focus on Bulwer Lytton as writer, as father, as politician (of various shadings over the course of his life), in society, and more.
       He was clearly an odd, off-putting sort. He generally preferred Europe to England -- in part also because of the more respectful reception he and his work received -- which probably did not further endear him to the English. He was no great speaker, making him appear unimpressive as a public figure. He took slights very hard, and seems to have been extraordinarily petty. His judgements -- literary and otherwise -- were often astonishingly wrongheaded (so, for example, his utter dismissal of George Eliot's talents). Bulwer Lytton did have wide-ranging interests -- though some of these (such as his interest in spiritualism) did not help his reputation any.
       Mitchell provides useful information specifically about Bulwer Lytton's extra-literary achievements and preoccupations, in the political arena and elsewhere, and he does offer a decent overview of Bulwer Lytton's personal relationships and general lifestyle. Still, Mitchell only manages to penetrate so far, and barely has a stab at guessing, for example, how many illegitimate children Bulwer Lytton may have left behind.
       Mitchell does mention and utilize Bulwer Lytton's writing in his biography. In his introduction he usefully divides Bulwer Lytton's "literary production into four or five major sections, each picking up a Victorian theme of importance". But for most of the biography the texts are not a major focus. Mitchell does draw on Bulwer Lytton's writing at certain points, noting, for example, his (unrealistic) woman-ideal (as it appears in many of his novels), or his interest in spiritualism or criminality. For the most part, however, one gets little sense of Bulwer Lytton's staggering output and the strengths of his fiction. Mitchell also almost entirely ignores Bulwer Lytton's stage-successes -- while showing something of a predilection for his verse, a fair amount of which is quoted.
       Leslie Mitchell's biography is admirably compact, and does offer a fine survey of a full and fascinating (and quite bizarre) life. However, given how little of Bulwer Lytton's work is readily accessible (meaning that few readers will have much familiarity with it), a bit more emphasis on that would also have been welcome.

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Links:

Bulwer Lytton: Reviews: Edward Bulwer Lytton: Other books about Bulwer Lytton under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leslie Mitchell has written several biographies.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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