This passage appears in the author's Modern Leaders: Beings a Series of Biographical Sketches, which Sheldon & Company (N.Y.) published in 1872. Scanning, basic HTML conversion, and proofreading were carried out by George P. Landow, who added links to materials in VW, added the subtitles, and changed titles of books from McCarthy's quotation marks to text with emphasis.

In one peculiarity, at least, Bulwer-Lytton the novelist surpassed all his rivals and contemporaries. His range was so wide as to take in all circles and classes of English readers. He wrote fashionable novels, historical novels, political novels, metaphysical novels, psychological novels, moral-purpose novels, immoral-purpose novels. Wilhelm Meister was not too heavy nor, Tristram Shandy too light for him. He tried to rival Scott in the historical romance; he strove hard to be another Goethe in his Ernest Maltravers; he quite surpassed Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard, and the general run of what we in England call "thieves' literature," in his Paul Clifford; he became a sort of pinchbeck Sterne in The Caxtons, and was severely classical in The Last Days of Pompeii.

One might divide his novels into at least half a dozen classes, each class quite distinct and different from all the rest, and yet the one author, the one Bulwer-Lytton, showing and shining through them all. Bulwer is always there. He is masquerading now in the garb of a mediaeval baron, and now in that of an old Roman dandy; anon he is disguised as a thief from St. Giles's, and again as a full-blooded aristocrat from the region of St. James's. But he is the same man always, and you can hardly fail to recognize him even in his cleverest disguise. It may be questioned whether there is one spark of true and original genius in Bulwer. Certain ideas commonly floating about in this or that year he collects and brings to a focus, and by their aid he burns a distinct impression into the public mind. Just as he expressed the thin and spurious classicism of one period in his Pompeian romance, so he made copy out of the pseudo-science and bastard psychology of a later day in his Strange Story. Never was there in literature a more masterly and wonderful mechanic. Many-sided he never was, although probably the fame of many-sidedness (if one may use so ungraceful an expression) is the renown which he specially coveted and most strenuously strove to win. Only genius can be many-sided, and Bulwer-Lytton's marvellous capability never can be confounded with genius. The nearest approach to genius in all his works maybe found in their occasional outbursts and flashes of audacious, preposterous absurdity. The power which could palm off such outrageous nonsense as in some instances he has done on two or three generations of novel-readers, which could compel the public to swallow it and delight in it, despite all that the satire of a Thackeray or a Jerrold could do, must surely, one would almost say, have had something in it savoring of a sort of genius. For there are in some even of the very best and purest of Bulwer's novels whole scenes and characters which it seems almost utterly impossible that any reader whatever could follow without laughter. I protest that I think the author of Ernest Maltravers owed much of his success to the daring which assumed that anything might be imposed on the public, and to the absence of that sense of the ludicrous which might have made a man of a different stamp laugh at his own nonsense. I assume that Bulwer wrote in perfect faith and seriousness, honestly believing them to be fine, the most ridiculous, bombastic, fantastic passages in all his novels. [pp. 162-63]

Related Material


McCarthy, Justin. Modern Leaders: Being a Series of Biographical Sketches. N. Y.: Sheldon & Company, 1872.

Last modified 30 March 2006