The subject of Bulwer's successful comedy, Not So Bad as We Seem, inevitably leads one to consideration of his relationship with Charles Dickens. If ever a writer embodied what Bulwer believed was the dominant Spirit of the Age, that writer was Charles Dickens. Although not so versatile as Bulwer, a Walter Scott reincarnated, Dickens, who once styled himself "The Fielding of the 19th c.," was able to reach through cheap serialisation of his novels a massive audience far beyond that which avidly read Bulwer's metaphysical thrillers. Given their mutual friendship with historical novelist Harrison Ainsworth, actor-manager William Macready and journalist John Forster (then literary and dramatic editor of The Examiner), one would expect that Dickens and Bulwer met through one or the other in the early 1840s. J. W. T. Ley in The Dickens Circle (1918) accepts Renton's surmise that the pair first met through London publisher Henry Colburn, who had brought out Bulwer's six earliest novels, from Falkland (1827) through Eugene Aram (1832) as well as four early volumes of verse, from O'Neill; or, The Rebel (1827) through the failed epic King Arthur (1848). Biography Fred Kaplan indicates that the introduction was made in 1838 by artist and illustrator Daniel Maclise. However, in his biography Dickens(1990), Peter Ackroyd asserts that Bulwer and Dickens met often in the 1830s, the introduction effected through Ainsworth. He concurs with Ley's assertion that what really brought the two closely together was the Knebworth amateur theatricals of July, 1850.

With David Copperfield out of the way, Dickens threw himself into the London rehearsals of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour and a concluding farce, Used Up, slated for three performances at Bulwer's great-house in the third week of November, 1850. Clarkson Stanfield supplied the scenery, Daniel Maclise the costumes.

A kind of "heraldic monstrosity," the enchanted castle at Knebworth [north of London] became, appropriately, the headquarters of a project that combined the medieval guild mentality with modern social welfare. Heavily bearded and [already at this time] partly deaf, Bulwer-Lytton was, in Dickens's opinion, "the greatest conversationalist of the age." [Kaplan 279]

Inspired at the success of this production, Bulwer agreed to supply Dickens and his amateur company with a farce to be performed both in London and throughout the provinces in aid of "The Guild of Literature and Art." Their intention was to fund a system of annuities and pensions to support writers and artists of distinction who had fallen upon hard times. Dickens, anticipating a flood of money and acclaim if Bulwer's five-act historical comedy Not So Bad as We Seem; or, Many Sides to a Character were initially presented to the Queen and her Consort, wrote the Duke of Devonshire asking if his players might use the house for a select audience in May, 1851. Although Victoria recorded in her diary that she very much enjoyed the whole affair, the Duke of Wellington left after the second act. Again, Bulwer has set the action in the eighteenth century, and combines political intrigue with a love plot. Dickens played the dandy and bon vivant, Lord Wilmot, while John Forster took the role of the unbending self-made man, Mr. Hardman. Dickens subsequently took the production to Bath and Bristol, substituting professional actresses for his amateurs but transporting Paxton's ingenious collapsible stage.

The two writers, despite their differences in temperament and even politics as life went on, remained on intimate terms. In March, 1852, Dickens named his tenth and last child after Bulwer, who stood godfather to the boy, the seventh son, whom Dickens nicknamed "Plorn." Previously, in August, 1848, Dickens had sent a letter of condolence from Broadstairs regarding the death of Bulwer's daughter:

Lytton's daughter Emily had died on 29 April, aged 20, of typhus fever, alone in London lodgings. Bitter recriminations between Lytton and his separated wife, Rosina, who had taken a room in the house two days before, followed. "She is dead, dead," Lytton wrote to Forster, "Emily, my child. Pity me. I am crushed down. I cannot see you yet. So sudden it seems a dream" (Earl of Lytton, Life of Edward Bulwer, First Lord Lytton, 1913, II, 102). See The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol 5 (1847-1849), p. 383

During a visit by Dickens to Herfordshire in mid-June, 1861, Bulwer read the proofs of the culminating chapters of Great Expectations, then nearing the end of its serial run in All the Year Round. Like Ellen Ternan dissatisfied with the original (unhappy) ending of the novel, Bulwer prevailed upon Dickens to bring a romantic closure to Pip's relationship with Estella. Immediately recognizing the merit of Bulwer's proposal, Dickens returned home to Gad's Hill Place, and within four days had hammered out a conclusion less painful to his readers. Just previously, Bulwer had composed the novel A Strange Story from a dream, and made arrangements with Dickens for the anonymous publication of the piece in All the Year Round. They agreed upon 1500 for the initial British serial rights, 300 for American serial rights, and 1200 for book publication; the story ran from 10 August, 1861, to 8 March, 1862, in All the Year Round.

Perhaps under the influence of Dickens, Bulwer himself became very much involved in serial publication during the second half of his writing career. Of his eight novels and one story produced between 1848 and 1874, six were published serially, the favoured journal being Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which ran Bulwer's three Caxton novels (April, 1848, through January, 1859), "The Haunted and the Haunters" (August, 1857), and The Parisians(October, 1872, through January, 1874). Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'), one of Dickens's favourite serial illustrators, also illustrated Bulwer's Godolphin, Last of the Barons, and The Last Days of Pompeii with one plate each.

The crowning moment of the relationship between the great novelists came on 2 November, 1867, at the farewell banquet prior to Dickens's departing on his second American reading tour. To tumultuous applause Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton entered the Freemasons' Hall arm in arm as the band of the Grenadier Guard played a march. "The 450 distinguished literary and social gentlemen who glowed through the crowded dinner and the 100 women sequestered in evening-gown splendor in the gallery had no doubt that the young newspaper reporter from somewhere had long ago arrived to help them make themselves" (Kaplan 503). Ironically, it was not the author of Pickwick but that of Pelham who had best reflected and commented upon the class of person present.

While Dickens renewed his faith in radical reform, Bulwer-Lytton became increasingly conservative as a member of the rural, land-owning gentry. The aristocrat was unsure about the effects of the Second Reform Bill's becoming law in 1867. In February 1870, the old friends agreed (although for quite different reasons) that, as Dickens said, "Our system fails." Something else Dickens remarked in connection with himself and Bulwer-Lytton is also worth repeating:

Probably next to Forster in his regard came Dickens, with whom he really had more in common than is apparent. . . . there was the very high regard in which they both held their art. It was always a strong point with Dickens, this jealousy for the dignity and reputation of his art. Literature was to Dickens a noble calling, not at any time to be held lightly, and in this he and Lytton were in complete sympathy. Of him he was able to say: "In the path we both tread I have uniformly found him from the first the most generous of men; quick to encourage, slow to disparage, ever anxious to assert the order of which he is so great an ornament; never condescending to shuffle it off, and leave it outside state rooms, as a Mussulman might leave his slippers outside a mosque." [Ley 181]


Victorian Overview

Last updated 20 December 2000