One generation's master is the next generation's hack. One generation's classic is the next's punch-line. Witness the case of Edward George Earle Bulwer, Baron Lytton of Knebworth–or, as he became known to later generations, Bulwer-Lytton.
Though Guardian columnist Edward Docx recently inveighed against readers wasting their time on bad novels and authors when they could and should be reading good ones, the fact is that aesthetic standards are conditional and subjective, and change over time.
In his lifetime Bulwer-Lytton was a popular, prolific, and influential writer. In the mid-1850s he was regarded by his peers as "the foremost of all"-this, at a time when Charles Dickens had already published Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and David Copperfield. Bulwer-Lytton's plays were performed on the London stage for four decades. He permanently changed men's fashion. John Sutherland, author of the Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, describes Bulwer-Lytton as "the first nineteenth-century novelist to project himself as an intellectual, interested in ideas, and how fiction can be their vehicle." He also popularized the fantasy and science fiction genres in English.
But today Bulwer-Lytton is primarily known for the "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest," held by the English Department of San Jose State University to determine the "opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels." In some ways the decline in Bulwer-Lytton's reputation is understandable. Many aspects of his style have not aged well. His novels can be stiff, wooden, and melodramatic. He often unsuccessfully strains for affect. He had a fatal weakness for prolixity, fustian, and bombast. Most modern readers give up on his novels after a few pages, and are willing to believe that he is best forgotten and risible enough to deserve having a bad fiction contest named after him.
Bulwer-Lytton deserves better than this. Few writers, of any time or of any country, were as influential during their lifetimes. Few writers had his insight into the tastes of the reading audience. And few writers combined acute commercial instincts with a continual willingness to be experimental over a decades-long career.
While only 25 years old he wrote Pelham (1828), about the adventures in society of upper class dandy Henry Pelham. Pelham was an immense success — possibly the best-selling English novel of the 19th century — to the point where it transformed the Silver Fork genre of novels from a minority interest to one of the dominant genres of the era, and ultimately was seen to have both established the genre and defined it. (Unnoticed at the time was the fact that Pelham was both a part of the Silver Fork genre and a parody of it). The Silver Fork genre, popular in the mid-to-late-1820s and 1830s, claimed to accurately describe the lives of members of High Society, usually by providing copious details about fashionable dress and meals, while also condemning the frivolous and scandalous lives those members led.
Pelham was so popular that Henry Pelham's decision to wear only black evening clothes permanently changed men's fashion. Before Pelham, only the "smart set" (the most fashionable and hip) wore black evening wear–for the middle and even upper classes, evening wear could be nearly any color–but Pelham established black as the only appropriate color for a stylish man to wear at night. Pelham was immediately adopted as the "manual of dandyism," and Henry Pelham as the fictional counterpart to Beau Brummel, the beau ideal of the English dandy. Lastly, those whose impression of Bulwer-Lytton is of a difficult or dreary writer will be surprised at the pith and wit of Pelham, which reads like something written by an 1820s Oscar Wilde.
Not long after Pelham, Bulwer-Lytton wrote Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832) and once again was responsible for taking an obscure genre — the Newgate novel — and making it one of the most popular genres of its time. Popular in the 1830s and 1840s, the Newgate novels, named for the criminals whose crimes were detailed in the true crime chronicle Newgate Calendar, were fictional biographies of criminals. The Newgate novelists were the first not only to romanticize the criminals but to portray them as the victims of a cruel and repressive legal system. In the Newgate novels the criminal became the hero, a rebel against an unjust and uncaring society. The Newgate novels privileged the skills of the criminal rather than those pursuing him or her. And the attitude of the Newgate novels toward their criminal protagonists is usually sympathetic rather than condemnatory, which is the largest reason that the Newgate novels became so controversial.
The Newgate novels, and before them a criminal plot in Pelham, were largely the impetus for the development of the Mystery novel. There had been proto-mysteries before the Newgate novels, and the 1828-9 Memoirs of French policemen Eugène François Vidocq popularized the idea of the police detective as a brilliant, Sherlock Holmesian master crime-solver, but it was the Newgate novels which created the concept of a novel in which crime and criminals are the central themes. Bulwer-Lytton's Night and Morning (1841) is about the pursuit of an inheritance, but the novel is also a proto-mystery featuring the character of Monsieur Favart, a Vidocq-like Parisian police chief.
Night and Morning 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," the author's first Auguste Dupin story and the story generally credited with creating modern mystery fiction. 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 later composition of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter," the second and third Auguste Dupin stories. Moreover, 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 (1853) and on Collins' creation of Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868), and both those characters were signally important in the development of the fictional detective.
In two novels, Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1862), Bulwer-Lytton invented the Occult/Dark Fantasy subgenre (as opposed to other subgenres of fantasy like Tolkienian High Fantasy). Academic critics usually describe Zanoni as a künstlerroman (novel of the maturation of an artist) and as an allegory of Science versus Art, but Zanoni is also the first modern British work of occult fantasy.
Occult fantasy didn't begin with Bulwer-Lytton, of course — it started with a number of Gothic novels, most prominently William Beckford's Vathek (1786) — but it was Bulwer-Lytton who moved British occult fantasy from something set in far countries in the distant past to something involving British men and women in the near-past or present. It was Bulwer-Lytton, in these two novels, who created or established tropes, including magical trances, rites, magic wands, and the "dweller on the threshold," which later became a standard part of occult fantasy. Charles Dickens took the ending of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) from Zanoni. A strong argument can be made that the school of cosmic horror which H.P. Lovecraft made famous begins with Zanoni and A Strange Story, or at the least is heavily influenced by it.
Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" effectively created the Haunted House genre. Based on the famous haunted house at 50 Berkeley Square (now 25 Berkeley Square) in London's West End, "The Haunted and the Haunters" is one of the most famous and most often anthologized Victorian haunted house stories. It is also the first modern haunted house story. British authors before Bulwer-Lytton set their haunted house stories in remote locations and, following the Gothic, in some distant and undefined past. "The Haunted and the Haunters" was the first to set a haunted house story in the present and in a big city.
Moreover, the story has none of the rationalized supernatural which appeared in the Gothics, nor is the actual supernatural content of the story attributed to divine or infernal displeasure. Instead, Bulwer-Lytton writes of contemporary themes and ascribes the frightening effects to psychic phenomena, something many later writers of haunted house stories would use as the cause of the haunting. Finally, Bulwer-Lytton eschews the by-then trite and clichéd Gothic elements of the looming house, the portrait whose eyes follow the viewer around the room, and the moving suits of armor, for more original, and to the modern reader more frightening, occurrences and effects.
Finally, Bulwer-Lytton's last major novel, The Coming Race (1871) deserves consideration as one of the major taproot texts of science fiction. The critic John Clute, writing of fantasy fiction, defined "taproot texts" as "those works which are both central to fantasy literature as a whole and have contributed to the cauldron of story from which modern fantasy authors ladle many of their basic ideas." Jules Verne is justly described as one of two fathers of modern science fiction, but when The Coming Race was published only two of Verne's novels, From the Earth to the Moon and Five Weeks in a Balloon, had been translated into English. (Journey to the Center of the Earth was published in English in 1871 but after The Coming Race appeared). In the long run Verne's work was more influential, but in the 1870s The Coming Race was as well-known as Verne's work and as influential on English writers as Verne was, not least because of Bulwer-Lytton's prestige.
The Coming Race was not the first Hollow Earth novel, but it was as influential on succeeding Hollow Earth novels as Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Coming Race is a utopian satire which was influential on the utopias which followed it, including Samuel Butler's famous utopian novel Erewhon (1872). George Bernard Shaw later acknowledged that his ideas of the "Superman" were influenced by The Coming Race. And The Coming Race is full of ideas and concepts which would become standards in 20th century science fiction, including a version of atomic energy, android servants, anti-gravity flight, nuclear war, and the future evolution of the human body.
The preceding does not include Bulwer-Lytton's work as an editor on The New Monthly Review, one of the most popular of the monthly fictional magazines in the 1830s; Bulwer-Lytton's political career as a Member of Parliament and as Secretary of State for the Colonies; Bulwer-Lytton's satires, which are forgotten now, but influential in their time; his influence on the genre of historical novels - with The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) Bulwer-Lytton created the catastrophe novel and the genre of historical novels set in Rome; his influence on and encouragement of 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; and his enormous influence on modern occultism.
Lois McMaster Bujold defined a genre as "any group of works in close conversation with one another." There were a number of novels and stories published before 1871 which we would describe as science fiction, or at the least proto-science fiction, but none of them were in conversation with each other. This changed with Verne, and with The Coming Race. The same can be said of Bulwer-Lytton and detective fiction, and occult fantasy, and haunted house stories, novels of domestic realism, and a number of other genres. Others spoke more loudly, more glibly, more stylishly, and more interestingly, but the conversation starts with Bulwer-Lytton.
Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.