First, a little quiz. See if you can put a name to each of the following photographs.
All this is apropos of the fact that I have just finished listening to Chesterton’s Dickens. The final chapter (a very badly read Librivox recording of Chapter Twelve — I guess we get what we pay for in quality!) includes this paragraph:
At a certain period of [Dickens’] contemporary fame, an average Englishman would have said that there were at that moment in England about five or six able and equal novelists. He could have made a list, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, perhaps more. Forty years or more have passed and some of them have slipped to a lower place. Some would now say that the highest platform is left to Thackeray and Dickens; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë. I venture to offer the proposition that when more years have passed and more weeding has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.
Who on earth is Bulwer Lytton? Well, for starters, he is the person in the third picture above (after Dickens and Chesterton, of course). According to Wikipedia:
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (May 25, 1803–January 18, 1873) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician. Lord Lytton was a florid, popular writer of his day, who coined such phrases as “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and the infamous incipit “It was a dark and stormy night.” Despite his popularity in his heyday, today his name is known as a byword for bad writing. San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing is named after him.
There must be something to be said of a man whose phrases are better remembered than any of his works as a whole…
But what got me wondering about who Bulwer Lytton was, was the writers that Chesterton left off his list. According to my calculations, Anthony Trollope (one of my favourite 19th Century authors) was a near enough contemporary with Dickens. But not even an honourary mention from Chesterton. Is he telling me he didn’t enjoy reading the Barchestor Chronicles? I can barely credit it. Even Wikipedia’s short entry on the 19th Century English novel mentions Trollope (but NOT, I note, Bulwer Lytton!).
He leaves off Jane Austen (at her height when Dickens was born) and Thomas Hardy (just getting going when Dickens died). He doesn’t mention Lewis Carroll (wrong genre?).
Of course, the remarkable thing is that many of these authors have been given new life through very high quality TV and Cinema adaptions in recent years. Scores of Austen’s (current run on the ABC TV on Sunday nights is terrific), great Dickens (the recent BBC production of Bleak House was very good), superb Trollope’s, Thackery’s etc. etc. I have yet, however, to spot a production of Bulwer Lytton…
Anyway. Who’s your favourite nineteenth century English author? Anyone Chesterton and I have not covered?