Author Profile

Edward Bulwer Lytton

Selected Works

  • Godolphin (1833)
  • Kenelm Chillingly (1873)
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)
  • Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871)

Born in London, England, in 1803, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, was the third child of General William Earle Bulwer and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton. His father died when Edward was four, and his education fell to his mother, who had already taught Edward to read. He began writing poetry by age seven, at which time the family inherited his grandfather Lytton's large library. Edward spent a year voraciously reading everything from chivalric romances to scholarly works. When one day he said to his mother, "Pray, Mama, are you not sometimes overcome by the sense of your own identity?", she decided it was time her intelligent son was sent to formal schooling.

While at school Lytton continued his love of reading and writing. He was especially influenced by the works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. In 1820 his mother paid for the publication of his first work, a volume of poetry called Ismael: An Oriental Tale. It was written in Byronic style and published a month shy of Lytton's seventeenth birthday. Sales were low, but Lytton received an acknowledgement from Scott.

He entered Cambridge University the next year and continued to write and publish as he studied. In 1836 Lytton spent several months in France living the dissipated life of a rich gentleman - who also wrote verse and read French literature. When he returned to London, he met and married a poor but spirited Irish woman named Rosina Anne Doyle Wheeler. Lytton's disapproving mother immediately stopped his allowance, and he was forced to turn to writing for his living.

For the next ten years, Lytton's literary output was phenomenal. He wrote 13 novels, poetry, essays, short stories, plays, a history of Athens, a sociological survey of English life, and reviews of the publications of others. He also edited the New Monthly Magazine. His fiction, which was adventurous and romantic as well as intelligent and philosophical, became incredibly popular. When one of his characters insisted on wearing black to formal dinners, it set a fashion in the real world that lasts to this day. Several phrases from Lytton's books became part of the cultural vocabulary, including his most famous, "The pen is mightier than the sword." His single most popular work, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), was an instant classic. Another work, Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes (1835), directly inspired Richard Wagner's opera of the same name.

Unfortunately this decade of hard work, which included serving as a Member of Parliament, was hard on Lytton's marriage. Despite a trip to Italy to solve their differences, he and his wife legally separated in 1836.

Still Lytton wrote on. He shared a personal friendship with author Charles Dickens, who admired Lytton's work. Lytton's novel A Strange Story (1862) is known today for influencing Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations. Despite becoming the most popular historical novelist of the Victorian era, and second only to Dickens in overall popularity, Lytton 's critics (one of whom was William Makepeace Thackeray) were harsh. They argued that Lytton's writing was overly florid, extravagant, and sensational, full of murders, madmen, and magic. Many critics today tend to agree, calling it purple prose. Lytton's beginning to Paul Clifford (1830), "It was a dark and stormy night," has become the butt of modern literary jokes.

Still, the literary lion, who was by nature quiet and reserved, had honors showered on him, and was even offered the throne of Greece when the previous king abdicated. Declining health and the complications of age led Lytton to a quieter life, especially as his hearing began to fail. He died in 1873 from an ear infection that had plagued him for years and that had eventually reached his brain.


Literary Worlds