The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections (review)
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The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections, edited by Allan Conrad Christensen; pp. 258. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004, $49.50.

Two hundred years after his birth in 1803, the reputation of Edward Bulwer Lytton, the Victorian novelist and man of letters, does not, at first glance, offer much scope for commemoration. Whilst there may be signs of a revived academic interest in his work, as Allan Christensen suggests in his introduction to this new collection of critical essays, it is surely saying too much to claim that critics "in recent decades have gone far towards re-establishing him as a significant exponent of Victorian culture" (9). Sustained critical accounts of Bulwer's writings remain few in number, as is suggested by the fact that Christensen's own major study, Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Fiction of New Regions, published as long ago as 1976, remains a key source for many contributors to this volume. Elsewhere, the name Bulwer Lytton continues to be used as a byword for aesthetic embarrassment and incompetence, as in Scott Price's popular fiction-writing contest for the worst opening sentences of novels, inspired by the line "It was a dark and stormy night" from Paul Clifford (1830). Indeed, in this volume, ostensibly celebrating the author's bicentenary, it is telling that the first essay is devoted to the subject of his notorious reputation, tracing the shift from its nineteenth-century zenith to its twentieth-century nadir. It seems fair to say, then, that any Bulwer Lytton revival is still at the stage of documenting his catastrophic fall from critical and popular favour, rather than having already reestablished his cultural centrality.

The more important question is whether or not this collection adequately demonstrates the significance of the act of critical retrieval that it purports to describe. These bicentenary reflections are certainly successful in revealing the extraordinary range and vitality of Bulwer's literary, historical, and political interests, and thus, at the very least, in drawing our attention to a fascinating resource for scholarly research in numerous fields of Victorian culture. Whether they reveal an overarching cohesion in [End Page 566] Bulwer's intellectual life, as is argued in the introduction, and whether this might in any way offer an aesthetic redemption of Bulwer the novelist is less certain. In the opening essay on Bulwer's reputation, Andrew Brown concludes by suggesting that, though restoring him to the status that he enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century seems "improbable," perhaps "his unrivalled ubiquity and remarkable breadth of reference— the fact of his innovative contribution to so many genres and the extraordinary success he enjoyed in each of them (his unique claim to be considered Victorian England's most complete man of letters)—should re-establish him as a pivotal figure in the literary culture of his age" (35). On the score of intellectual range and generic diversity, Bulwer's literary career is, indeed, impressive, even by Victorian standards. As a novelist, he not only contributed to, but did much to create (or reinvent) such popular nineteenth-century subgenres as the fashionable novel (Pelham [1828]), the Newgate novel (Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram [1832]), the bildungsroman (Ernest Maltravers [1837]), the historical novel (Last Days of Pompeii [1834]), the domestic saga (The Caxtons [1849]), tales of the occult (Zanoni [1842] and A Strange Story [1861]), and science fiction (The Coming Race [1871]). He also wrote copious amounts of poetry—including an Arthurian epic in twelve books— and was highly successful as a playwright, though neither of these genres are addressed here. The collection does consider Bulwer in his guise as a social theorist (England and the English [1833]), a historian (Athens: Its Rise and Fall [1837]), and a parliamentary politician who made crucial interventions in the debates on reform in the early 1830s (as a Radical) and on the formulation of imperial policy as a Conservative colonial secretary in the late 1850s.

Amidst an overall impression of heterogeneous activity on a gargantuan scale, the "unifying coherence" that the introduction claims "inform[ed] Bulwer's whole career" is not readily apparent (9). Christensen proposes that we conceive of the coherence of this volume in...


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