English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

CHAPTER XL.

THE LATER NOVELISTS AS SOCIAL REFORMERS.

   Bulwer.  Changes in Writing.  Dickens’s Novels.  American Notes.  His
   Varied Powers.  Second Visit to America.  Thackeray.  Vanity Fair.  Henry
   Esmond.  The Newcomes.  The Georges.  Estimate of his Powers.

The great feature in the realm of prose fiction, since the appearance of the works of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, had been the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott; but these apart, the prose romance had not played a brilliant part in literature until the appearance of Bulwer, who began, in his youth, to write novels in the old style; but who underwent several organic changes in modes of thought and expression, and at last stood confessed as the founder of a new school.

BULWER.—­Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer was a younger son of General Bulwer of Heydon Hall, Norfolk, England.  He was born, in 1806, to wealth and ease, but was early and always a student.  Educated at Cambridge, he took the Chancellor’s prize for a poem on Sculpture.  His first public effort was a volume of fugitive poems, called Weeds and Wild Flowers, of more promise than merit.  In 1827 he published Falkland, and very soon after Pelham, or the Adventures of a Gentleman.  The first was not received favorably; but Pelham was at once popular, neither for the skill of the plot nor for its morality, but because it describes the character, dissipations, and good qualities of a fashionable young man, which are always interesting to an English public.  Those novels that immediately followed are so alike in general features that they may be called the Pelham series.  Of these the principal are The Disowned, Devereux, and Paul Clifford—­the last of which throws a sentimental, rosy light upon the person and adventures of a highwayman; but it is too unreal to have done as much injury as the Pirate’s Own Book, or the Adventures of Jack Sheppard.  It may be safely asserted that Paul Clifford never produced a highwayman.  Of the same period is Eugene Aram, founded upon the true story of a scholar who was a murderer—­a painful subject powerfully handled.

In 1831 Bulwer entered Parliament, and seems to have at once commenced a new life.  With his public duties he combined severe historical study; and the novels he now produced gave witness of his riper and better learning.  Chief among these were Rienzi, and The Last Days of Pompeii.  The former is based upon the history of that wonderful and unfortunate man who, in the fourteenth century, attempted to restore the Roman republic, and govern it like an ancient tribune.  The latter is a noble production:  he has caught the very spirit of the day in which Pompeii was submerged by the lava-flood; his characters are masterpieces of historic delineation; he handles like an adept the conflicting theologies, Christian, Roman, and Egyptian; and his natural scenes—­Vesuvius in fury, the Bay of Naples in the lurid light, the crowded amphitheatre, and the terror which fell on man and beast, gladiator and lion—­are chef-d’oeuvres of Romantic art.

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