Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Would-Be Richelieu

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is less known today for his good plays than he is for his for his bad novels. His novel Paul Clifford (which was itself successfully adapted for the stage) begins with the infamous line: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Born Edward Bulwer, he married against his mother's wishes, and had a turbulent relationship with his bride, Rosina Doyle Wheeler. After their marriage, his mother cut off the allowance he had previously lived on, so to make money, he began to write.

He had previously published a few poems, but beginning in 1828 he wrote a series of popular novels including Pelham, The Disowned, and The Last Days of Pompeii. In 1838, he had a stage hit with The Lady of Lyons, which starred Helen Faucit and William Charles Macready.

After his mother died in 1843, Edward Bulwer changed his surname to Bulwer-Lytton, adding her maiden name to his own in compliance with her will (thus, allowing himself to inherit her fortune).  He seems to have genuinely mourned her, though, and had already come to regret the marriage she had opposed. He legally separated from Rosina in 1836, and after that, she began to publish her own novels, which rivaled his in sensationalism and sometimes included thinly veiled attacks on her ex-husband.

In 1839, the year Rosina published her first novel, Cheveley, he had his second stage success, Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy. The historical drama opens with the enemies of France's King Louis XIII planning to revolt, forcing the king to abdicate power to his brother. They also scheme to murder the king’s top adviser, Cardinal Richelieu. That part was played by Macready, who portrayed him both as a cunning politician and as a loving father figure to his adopted ward, Julie de Mortemar. Julie is in love with one of the conspirators, the Chevalier de Mauprat. The cardinal craftily arranges to pardon de Mauprat and marry him to Julie, thus turning an enemy into an ally.

Unfortunately, the king has taken a liking to Julie and wants her as his mistress. Scarcely have the marriage rites been performed, when de Mauprat is ordered to abandon his bride. Julie runs to the cardinal, accusing him of betrayal, but he convinces her to trust him. As his enemies close in on him, Richelieu feigns death. Even after he reveals himself to be alive, the king continues to oppose him, until in the final act Richelieu is able to secure a document signed by the conspirators confirming their treason. France is saved, and Julie is reunited with her husband.

Unfortunately, Bulwer-Lytton’s life was not so happy. He might have fancied himself a sort of Richelieu, but he lacked the finesse of the great statesman. In 1858, when Bulwer-Lytton was standing for parliament, his estranged wife denounced him publicly. He had her declared insane and placed in an asylum, but after a public outcry she was released. Still, the scandal did not prevent him from being made a baron in 1866.

As strange as Bulwer-Lytton's fiction could be, his life was sometimes stranger.