Fortitude and Terrible Irish Beauty

‘There is but one philosophy- though there are a thousand schools- and its name is Fortitude. To bear is to conquer our fate!” (Notes to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘Last Days of Pompeii’)

And well might a man of the 19th century who strolled effortlessly through the roles of politician, poet, playwright and author of hugely popular novels settle upon fortitude as his favoured philosophy.

This was a man who could turn down an appointment as Lord of the Admiralty, preferring it seems to give his thoughts over to penning such phrases as ‘the great unwashed’, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the bane of many a stumped author with a first blank sheet staring up at him from the desk ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. Still, he did manage to fit in a role as Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1858 and 1859, an attention for which the colonies are presumed with the courtesy of elapsed time to have been duly grateful.

There was one colony, however, which flummoxed this elegant masthead of the English establishment. In 1827 he married Rosina Doyle Wheeler, daughter of a self-educated advocate of women’s rights and contraception Anna Doyle Wheeler of Tipperary (who finding herself penniless after a divorce from an abusive husband kept her family alive by translating the works of French novelists for an English audience). Moving the family including the future Mrs Bulwer Lytton to London determined to provide them with an education Rosina’s mother came into social contact with Jeremy Bentham among others of the philosophical set.

Horrified at the marriage Edward had made to the noted Irish beauty Rosina who was far from the society mother’s idea of a suitable marriage Edward found himself without an allowance and turned to writing in order to keep the wolf from the door. Adapting easily to the novel idea for a gentleman of his family he threw himself enthusiastically into repairing the financial damage with a stream of popular novels.

Rosina herself no shrinking violet and with a talent for public speaking possibly inherited from her mother (who later turned down an invitation to take part in the French revolution of 1848) consoled herself on the eventual breakup of her marriage by embarking on a literary career of her own with a thinly veiled attack on Bulwer-Lytton via her debut novel ‘Cheveley, or the Man of Honour’.

Rosina went on to publish a further 17 works but not before taking the time to turn up rather scandalously for the times in Hertfordshire to publicly berate her former husband for his character on the hustings in 1858.

Confined to an institution Rosina was released by public demand just three weeks later and continued her attacks upon her former husband’s character at her leisure and had the satisfaction of outliving him by nine years, dying in 1882.

There were two children of this most literary and Anglo-Irish of marriages composed of an English gentleman who would elect for fortitude as a favoured philosophy and the fiery daughter of a Tipperary revolutionary tyro. Son Robert, later Earl Lytton, was Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880. Rather poignantly his initial implementation of British Government orders favouring the Empire over India resulted in a famine there which is estimated to have killed up to ten million people. Horrified he was later credited with applying himself assiduously in his remaining tenure to arrangements ensuring no such famine could happen again.

There are deep echoes somehow in this ill-fated marriage of national character and clash of attitudes, class, and national traits so obvious in the personal lives and half-forgotten stories of two writers of the 19th century. We began this historical note and musing with fortitude and end with terrible beauty. Perhaps a report from the Somerset County Gazette and West of England Advertiser, July 13th, 1858 would be appropriate to allow the famous Irish beauty the last word so as not to unduly disturb her spirit.

‘”Towards the close of the proceedings of the Hertfordshire election, just after Sir EDWARD had concluded his address with a fervent tribute of admiration to the womany beauty exhibited in the long line of open carriages, chaises and vans, drawn up in front of the hustings, there was an unwonted stir in the crowd, which parted to admit of the passage of a hired brougham from one of the town inns. Two ladies alighted–one an exceedingly handsome woman of about 45 years of age, with fresh complexion and eyes of dazzling beauty. Evidently labouring under sxcitement, she advanced through the crowd towards the hustings, and announced herself as the wife of Sir E. BULWER LYTTON. She had come according to promise to confront her husband and expose the wrongs described in her works and in a pamphlet. The appearance of the lady was not unexpected, as her coming had been announced in placards and bills; but some person had detained her while the election was proceeding in the vicinity. Recognised, as soon as observed, her voice was nearly drowned by the shouts of Sir EDWARD’S supporters: but Sir EDWARD’S eye caught hers, and his face paled. He looked like a man suddenly attacked by paralysis. Those near him say he trembled exceedingly. For a few moments he retained his position in front of the hustings, and turned his back on the unwelcome visitor. Then he suddenly disappeared below the hustings platform, while his wife cried out ‘COWARD,’ and he having hastily signed the usual declaration, escaped into the residence of the gentleman on whose grounds the election took place. Lady LYTTON continued to address the audience assembled for more than a quarter of an hour. Her ladyship subsequently made an application to the Mayor for the use of the Town Hall, for the purpose of making a public statement; but this being refused her, she left the town early in the afternoon. Lady LYTTON arrived in Hertford at three o’clock on the morning of the election, having posted from Taunton, where she resides. It is needless to say that the event has caused the greatest possible excitement in Hertfordshire.”

Captain Con O’Sullivan 18.07.2011

3 Responses

  1. Great stuff

  2. Most informative.

  3. What a beautiful style of writing … sublime in some parts.

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