29 November 2022
The Irish-born writer who
never moved to Athens to
become Queen of Greece
In last week’s rain storms and cold dark nights, I posted a photograph last week of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford. It caught the atmosphere of how winter has closed in on this town.
But a subsequent exchange on Facebook with an American member of the Comerford family served to remind me of the story of a Victorian Irish writer, heiress and feminist who, with another twist in the chain of events, might have become the Queen of Greece over a century and a half ago.
In my caption for that photograph on Wednesday evening, I said ‘It’s dark and it’s wet in Stony Stratford tonight.’
Peter Comerford, a lawyer in Rhode Island, was quick with his response: ‘A dark and stormy night, eh? Based on everything of yours I’ve read, I wouldn’t have put you in contention for a Bulwer Lytton.’
I told him: ‘I tried to avoid quoting him, but perhaps I fell into the trap of paraphrasing him. He declined the Crown of Greece; I’m no monarchist, but I’d find it difficult to decline an invitation to being paid to live out my days in Greece.’
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), 1st Baron Lytton, was an English writer and politician. Bulwer-Lytton’s works sold and paid him well, and as well as fiction, plays and poetry he wrote a three-volume history of Athens. He coined famous phrases such as ‘the great unwashed’, the ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, ‘dweller on the threshold’, and the opening phrase ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’
Bulwer-Lytton’s plays and great sprawling novels are now largely forgotten, but in his day he was more widely read than Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. He is long gone out of fashion, and his writing style has resulted in the creation of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, held each year since 1982 to seek the ‘opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels.’
But, in his day, Bulwer-Lytton was also a prominent politician. He was a Whig MP in 1831-1841 and returned as to Parliament as a Conservative MP in 1851-1866, and he was the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858-1859.
It is said he was offered the Crown of Greece in 1862 after King Otto abdicated. But he declined, and in 1863 the Greek National Assembly elected 17-year-old Prince William of Denmark as King of the Hellenes with the name of King George I. Instead, Bulwer-Lytton became a peer in 1866 with the title of Baron Lytton of Knebworth.
Had Bulwer-Lytton become King of Greece in 1862, would his Irish-born wife have become Queen?
Rosina Bulwer Lytton (1802-1882) was an Irish writer and the author of 14 novels, a volume of essays and a volume of letters. She was born Rosina Doyle Wheeler on 4 November 1802 at Ballywire House, on the borders of Co Limerick Co Tipperary, close to Galbally and Limerick Junction. She was youngest of two surviving daughters of Francis Massy Wheeler (1776-1820), a landowner in Co Limerick and Co Tipperary, and the feminist philosopher Anna Doyle.
Her father was 19 and her mother was only 15 or 16 when they married. Francis Massy Wheeler was descended from two prominent land-owning families in Co Limerick, and a grandson of Hugh Massy, 1st Baron Massy; Anna Doyle, who was a women’s rights advocate, was the daughter of Canon Nicholas Milley Doyle, the Church of Ireland Rector of Newcastle, Co Tipperary, and the niece of Sir John Milley Doyle (1781-1856), who led British and Portuguese forces in the Peninsular War and the ‘War of the Two Brothers.’
Rosina was a beautiful but troubled writer, and today she would probably be diagnosed as bi-polar. ‘The first mistake I made was being born at all,’ Rosina once wrote. Her father had hoped for a son to inherit his family estates, but the surviving children from Anna’s six pregnancies were both girls: Rosina and her elder sister Henrietta.
Rosina’s early years in Ireland appear to have been unhappy, largely owing to her parents’ incompatibility, her father’s alcoholism, and her own indifference to her mother’s intellectual pursuits. Her parents separated in 1812, and Rosina, Henrietta and their mother moved to Guernsey to live with her great-uncle General Sir John Doyle, then Governor of Guernsey.
Rosina was educated in Guernsey by a governess and a series of masters and was brought to London after Sir John Doyle resigned. She then attended a fashionable boarding school in Kensington, and was educated in part by Frances Arabella Rowden, whose other pupils included the writers Lady Caroline Ponsonby, later Lady Caroline Lamb, and Anna Maria Fielding (Mrs SC Hall).
She later spent some time with her mother in Caen, Normandy, and with family members in Ireland, before returning to London to live with her uncle at Somerset Street.
Lively, impetuous, and attractive, Rosina became a familiar figure at London’s bohemian literary gatherings, along with her friends Lady Caroline Lamb and Laetitia Landon, and her future husband, then known simply as Edward Bulwer, who once had an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s former mistress.
Rosina and Edward first met in December 1825. They were engaged after a brief courtship, but any marriage was opposed sternly his mother, who withdrew his allowance, forcing him to work for a living. They finally married in Saint James’s, London, on 29 August 1827, and they became the parents of two children, Emily (born 1828) and Edward Robert (born 1831).
Rosina enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle and her role as a society hostess. But she was quickly disillusioned and their marriage was marred by his political campaigns, his violent temper and his infidelities.
He was first elected to Parliament in 1831. Their relationship deteriorated rapidly during a visit to Italy in 1833. By their return in early 1834 the marriage was over, and they were legally separated in April 1836.
She went back to Ireland with her Emily and Robert, but when she returned to England she lost control of the children in 1838. She did not see Emily again until shortly before she died tragically in 1848, and saw Robert again only at the time of her own death in 1882.
Edward was given the title of baronet in 1838 and, although they were separated, Rosina used the title Lady Lytton and spelled her married surname without the hyphen used by her husband.
In her novel, Cheveley, or the Man of Honour (1839), Rosina bitterly caricatured her estranged husband. This is her first novel, and the protagonist, an aggressive, bullying philanderer, is a thinly disguised portrait of her husband. Facing the first in a series of legal disputes, Rosina went to live Paris.
She was unable to live within her allowance of £400 a year, and supplemented her income through further writing. Despite Edward’s efforts to block her publication, she produced a string of novels, including The budget of the Bubble family (1840), Bianca Capello (1842), Miriam Sedley (1851), Behind the scenes (1854), and Very successful (1856).
After returning to Britain in 1847, she lived at first in London and later in Llangollen in Wales (1853) and then in Taunton, Somerset (1855).
Increasingly frustrated by her financial difficulties, she travelled to Hereford in June 1858, and on the day of her husband’s election as an MP and indignantly denounced him at a public meeting. The scene was later recalled in sarcastic verse by her son Robert:
Who came to Hertford in a chaise
And uttered anything but praise
About the author of my days?
Edward’s immediate response was to have Rosina declared insane and detained under restraint in an asylum in Brentford. She was released three weeks later, due to a public outcry.
Three years later, an unabashed and unashamed Edward was offered the throne of Greece after King Otho had been ousted in a coup in 1862. The Cork-born general, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), had played a key role in an earlier attempted coup in 1843, presenting the king with an ultimatum demanding reforms or his abdication. But Otho continued to reign as a despot, and a popular revolt finally forced him to abdicate in 1862, when the throne was offered to Edward.
Had Edward ever accepted the invitation to become King of Greece, and had his marriage never broken up, would his estranged wife instead have become the Irish-born Queen of Greece?
Instead, Edward was made a peer in 1866 with the title Lord Lytton of Knebworth, and Rosina continued to denounce and attack him until he died in January 1873.
She wrote of her harsh experiences at Edward’s hands in A Blighted Life (1880). Although the book appeared after his death, it caused a rift with her son and she tried to disassociate herself from it. She spent her later years were spent as a recluse in Upper Sydenham, and she died there on 12 March 1882. Her husband had been buried in Westminster Abbey, in 1873, but she was buried in an unmarked grave.
Rosina and Edward were the parents of two children: Emily Elizabeth (1828-1848), who died in tragic circumstances, and (Edward) Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891), 1st Earl of Lytton, who was the first Viceroy of India (1876-1880). Robert too was a politician and poet, and wrote under the pseudonym Owen Meredith. While he was Viceroy of India, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. He was also the father-in-law of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
As a young British diplomat, Robert Bulwer-Lytton spent a brief time in Athens in 1864, two years after it is said his father had been offered the Crown of Greece in 1862. Lytton was transferred to the Greek court to advise the teenage Danish Prince William who had recently become King George I. I wonder while he was there did he ever think that he might once have become the Crown Prince of Greece.
As for his literary legacy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton is still remembered for the opening words of his novel Paul Clifford (1830): ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ Elmore Leonard once advised writers, ‘Never open a book with weather.’ Lytton ‘s opening words help to explain why he is not widely read any more.
His legacy is found, instead, in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University in California to find a deliberately bad opening line for a new novel. Past winners have included Sue Fondrie in 2011: ‘Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.’
And yes, now that you ask, it’s dark and windy but it’s not wet in Stony Stratford tonight.