Wanderings with the Victorians

scan0008Just to update you on the Great Dictator! I have finished the book: Stalin is in power and about to begin his comprehensive collectivization and dekulakization of Russia, resulting in the loss of livestock, grain production and causing a famine that killed millions of people – all in the next volume. Meanwhile Trotsky is in internal exile. There is an interesting Coda: what if Stalin had died? Which goes into the lack of alternative leadership and compares Stalin’s unrelenting communist and anti-capitalist approach with that of Mussolini, who while a fascist dictator of the same breed, tolerated a level of capitalist investment and industry to the advantage of Italy.

Meanwhile I have been given, via my brother-in-law, a collection of the writings of Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Twenty volumes in the New York Athenaeum Club Library Edition, originally written from around 1836. Whether they were a gift or whether she bought them herself, remains a mystery. I feel honour bound to read them and so started with Volume One (or I, since they are numbered in the Roman style up to XX). In many volumes the pages are uncut, it seems rather dismal to have used so much paper and simply to have them as ornament. I am determined to rectify the insult.

The first of the Romances is called The Caxtons, it tells the story of two brothers, Roland and Austin. Austin appears at the beginning of the story, an august bibliophile, and in the first chapter he has a son, in an odd twist of misunderstandings between husband and wife, this child is named Pisistratus, affectionately known as The Anachronism, by his admiring father and Sisty by others.

He grows up, has adventures and meets a young stranger whom he befriends. Gains employment from a minister of state, falls inappropriately in love, has more adventures and ends up making his fortune in Australia. Meanwhile his Uncle Roland mourns the loss of his son, who through disreputable behaviour has saddened his father. A maternal uncle, Jack contrives to lose the family a fortune in speculation but is forgiven and vanishes from the story until he too, turns up in Australia.

All is well that ends well, Psistratus himself marries, and by the end of the book has had two daughters and a son. Oddly, he marries his first cousin, Blanche, only daughter of his Uncle Roland. This is the second time in a novel that I have come across this unusual coupling. I do know that cousins marry – you only have to look at an extensive genealogy of a Quaker family to see that, indeed my own grandparents were cousins, but not of the first degree. But Bulwer-Lytton seems impervious to the apparent inadvisability of such a union.

Reading a Victorian novel is a different experience, firstly Bulwer-Lytton (and indeed Dickens and Thackeray et al) were writing about their own times: the cabriolet, the brougham, horses and carriages were the ordinary means of transport; letters were exchanged sometimes several times a day, between neighbours; civilities were observed and many other details that we would find curious or absurd fill the pages, but suspending one’s taste for modern literature for a short while, I can only admire and wonder at the circumlocutions, the melodrama and the subtle differences. Take for example, the description of a new character, Sir Sedley Beaudesert:

Oh, rare specimen of a race fast decaying, – specimen of the true fine gentleman, ere the word “dandy” was known, and before “exquisite” became a noun substantive, – let me pause to describe thee! Sir Sedley Beaudesert was the contemporary of Trevanion and my father: but without affecting to be young, he still seemed so. Dress, tone, look, manner, – all were young; yet all had a certain dignity which does not belong to youth. At the age of five and twenty he had won what would have been fame to a French marquis of the old régime; namely, the reputation of being “the most charming man of his day”, – the most popular of our sex, the most favored, my dear lady-reader, by yours. It is a mistake, I believe, to suppose that it does not require talent to become the fashion, – at all events, Sir Sedley was the fashion, and he had talent. He had travelled much, he had read much, especially in memoirs, history, and belles-lettres; he made verses with grace and a certain originality of easy wit and courtly sentiment; he conversed delightfully; he was polished and urbane in manner, he was brave and honourable in conduct; in words he could flatter, in deeds he was sincere.

We are in a different territory here, Leslie Howard as The Scarlet Pimpernel, or for a real-life version, the late Patrick Leigh Fermor. You may think I am mad, but I love it!

scan0001Edward Bulwer-Lytton was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician. He was immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of best-selling novels which earned him a considerable fortune. We regularly use phrases that he coined: “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “dweller on the threshold”, as well as the well worn opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”…

Looking at this image, I rather suspect that he fancied himself as Sir Sedley…He was educated from home, boarding school had not suited his delicate physique, but went on to Trinity College and then transferred to Trinity Hall, he left with a undistinguished degree. He married on the recommendation of his mother, an Irish lady and they had two children, his son eventually became Governor General and Viceroy of India. Bulwer-Lytton was not a chaste husband and the marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce, his wife later wrote a biting near-libellous satire on his hypocritical political and moral stance. Many of his own romances do indeed show lives of wedded bliss and others often have a political sub-plot, in The Caxtons we see power and repute as the ambition of Trevanion and his wife, causing not happiness but the merit of success, but once elevated to the peerage and created Lord Ulverstone, Trevanion leaves politics and retires to estates in the North of England, to be beyond the reach of London’s petitioners and society.

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