Hm, sounds pretty bad. And when did this unfortunate event take place?
“At ten o’clock of a dreary drizzling November morning…”
At least it was not a dark and stormy night, which is really quite the pity as our subject was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton, author of the great cliche.
He’s well enough known, of course, if mostly as a butt of cheap shots based on his failure to please current tastes in prose.
But if he’s considered dull on the page, good heavens, what an unpleasantly interesting personal life, and largely thanks to Rosina!
To be fair, she did have a bad time of it as well, those opening lines notwithstanding. She was the daughter of early feminist Anna Doyle Wheeler, and a town beauty (shades of the Pankhursts). Bulwer Lytton himself was of good stock and family and with a reasonable income, if no obvious future just yet.
His widowed mother frowned on their mutual attachment and would have put a stop to it had the pair not been quite so headstrong as they were. Well, this is on the age of the Romantic Movement and all sort of unusual license was taken by the arty crowd. So in 1827, they too, wed in haste in something of a defiant gesture at the world. Wrote one contemporary: “As for Lady Lytton herself, one cares to know little more than that she could have married a man who habitually addressed her as his “sugar-plum,” his “tootsy-wootsy,” and his “sweety-weety.”” *
She was seventeen. What more need be said?
Defiant gestures have a tendency to backfire in the cold light of day. Bulwer-Lytton’s mother cut off his allowance and he was forced to find work.
No doubt to mother’s consternation, it turned out Edward was rather good at turning a crowd pleasing phrase and pretty soon was doing quite nicely indeed. His satiric roman a clef Pelham; or the Adventures of a Gentleman (1828) became the first of many bestsellers in many genres.
Money was rolling in, they had two children, he started dabbling in politics and really, life could not be sweeter until the defined couple realized that truly, really, deep down, they kind of hated each other.
It didn’t help that he was cheating on her, a fault which, however common among Victorian writers, cannot have been very nice for Rosina. (On the other hand, the rumors are that, in the best woman as equal tradition, so was she on him, so as a gripe, it may be a wash.)
They separated in 1833, divorced in 1836. Rosina got a settlement of £400 per year for his lifetime, plus £50 per year for each child. Not bad for the time, but a woman needs a hobby and hers was to make his life as miserable as possible. Rumors of her planned revenge surfaced in the tabloids:
“The Lady of Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer has announced a new novel entitled: Cheverly or the Man of Honor. We are informed that it contains some very pointed allusions to her domestic differences. We regret this exceedingly, as nothing can be in worse taste than husband and wife to be pecking at each other, pro bono Publico, like a couple of game-chickens.”
Love the pro bono Publico.
The tabloids weren’t wrong. Chevely , or the Man of Honour came out in 1839. It was the Heartburn of its day, and had pretty much the effect she was looking for. (The book was not universally loved, but was notorious enough that some wag did a rush job called Lady Chevely or the Woman of Honor)**
Bulwer Lytton did not take it lying down. The publishing house of E. Churton of London may have published the first book, but Bulwer Lytton had enough clout that no London publishers would touch the next.
What to do? Cross the channel, of course, standard practice when one wishes to publish hot stuff. The next novel (The Budget of the Bubble Family, 1840) was published in Paris, and you have to figure that the Paris stamp would guarantee good sales. The book starts off with a dedication to Mr. Frances Trolloppe, followed by a fascinatingly scathing preface: “This book was to have appeared last March. As usual, every thing possible, and almost impossible, has been done to prevent it appearing at all: but as I merely write for bread, I shall continue to write, and to publish what I do write.”
Love the “as usual”.
That book and others and the money they earned might have gotten the bile out of her system, leaving a calmer woman to write harmless Rom-Coms, and indeed, she did publish some eighteen books over time. Nevertheless, she had the Miss Havisham thing bad and she made it her business to keep the cudgels at the ready. When he went on the campaign trail, she followed and heckled him with embarrassing observations.
This, mind, as late as 1858, nearly twenty two years after the divorce. In the finest Victorian fashion, Edward struck back by having her committed to a lunatic asylum. Pretty low, of course, and with the help of her husband’s political enemies, she got out of it in about three weeks on the sheer shamelessness of it all. (Just imagine if he had been apolitical – what then?)
After that, two novels and then a decade long from novel writing. Not that she had given up writing per se. Unfortunately for her, the old avenues were closing down. The travails of the Wronged Mrs. Bulwer Lytton were too ancient and familiar to interest normal people anymore. She didn’t care. She began a targeted campaign of individual letters to friends, family and men of influence, each note calculated blacken Bulwer-Lytton’s name, going so far as to insinuate a homosexual relationship between her husband and Benjamin Disraeli, aka “Jericho Jabber.”
Useless. Edward still went from strength to strength; From the House of Commons to the House of Lords, more successful books and plays, honors and awards of every sort (an offer to fill the throne of Greece!), all of it capped off with a funeral service (1873) in Westminster Abbey . Everyone who was anyone attended.
Rosina died in 1882. Not even her entire family attended the burial.
In the end, she appears to have been one of those people for whom nursing a grievance is the road to some kind of personal happiness. It’s one way to live your life, I suppose.
Her collected correspondence is now available for the prurient. “Her grandson compared reading her letters to ‘opening a drawer full of dead wasps. Their venom is now powerless to hurt, but they still produce a shudder’.”
*Hattie Tyng Griswold, Home Life of Great Authors, 1897, p. 194.
**“Cheverell was dedicated “to No One Nobody esq. of No Hall , Nowhereone, the only man whose integrity I have found unimpeachable, and whose friendship I have proved unvarying. “ Harumph indeed.)
***She was back to the London publishers for her third book and those that followed, they being more clearly works of imagination.