The Evolution of Occult Spirituality in Victorian England and the Representative Case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Authored by: J. Jeffrey Franklin

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


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‘It was a dark and stormy night’ – as I choose to imagine it – the setting Knebworth, the Tudor-Gothic mansion and maternal ancestral seat of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who, as he passed the ‘yellow room’, glanced in, thinking he might glimpse the ghost of the ‘fair-haired boy’ whom he insisted haunted that room. 1 1

I open with the now infamous opening clause of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford, at: (accessed 13 July 2011). In this paragraph, I take the liberty of imaginatively condensing into a short period historical facts from Bulwer-Lytton’s biography that occurred over a longer timeframe. On the fair-haired boy’s ghost, see Leslie Mitchell, Bulwer Lytton: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Man of Letters (London, 2003), p. 147.

On the previous day while in London, Bulwer-Lytton had taken his seat in Parliament, where he had exchanged observations, both political and literary, with his friend Benjamin Disraeli, beside whom he would serve in Lord Derby’s government as Secretary of State for the Colonies. 2 2

On Bulwer-Lytton’s twenty-three-year political career, see Mitchell, Bulwer Lytton, pp. 88, 133, 188–90 and 211. In short, Bulwer-Lytton’s politics, aesthetics and views on the occult coincided in that in all three arenas he professed himself a traditionalist or conservative and an elitist, believing always in aristocratic order, refined sensibility and adept knowledge. He opposed the materialism and progressivism of his age.

Both he and Disraeli would be raised to the peerage and move to the House of Lords. He then had met briefly with one of his publishers, William Blackwood, about royalties. As the immensely popular author of The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and The Caxtons (1849), among other bestsellers, and as a man on his way to becoming ‘one of the most successful writers of the nineteenth century’ (at least financially), Bulwer-Lytton knew he could demand top dollar and get it. 3 3

Ibid., p. 109.

On his way to join Charles Dickens for a midday repast, he had stepped into a rare bookshop specializing in occult literature, searching for a first edition of Johannes Andreae’s Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616). 4 4

Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni opens with just such a scene in a rare bookshop in London where the narrator encounters an aged adept of Rosicrucianism.

He was conducting research for another occult romance novel, A Strange Story (1862). His earlier occult romance, Zanoni (1842), had become known as a ‘Rosicrucian novel’, and Bulwer-Lytton would later become, by induction, ‘a member of the Society of Rosicrucians and Grand Patron of the Order’. 5 5

This was reported by Bulwer-Lytton’s grandson, quoted in Robert Lee Wolff, Strange Stories, and Other Explorations in Victorian Fiction (Boston, 1971), p. 233.

Dickens, whom Bulwer-Lytton was meeting near the offices of All the Year Round, had invited Bulwer-Lytton to publish his next novel serially. Dickens would also consult him about the draft ending of his own novel-in-progress, Great Expectations, and dedicate that novel to Bulwer-Lytton. A Strange Story would appear in All the Year Round. He and Dickens had been joined for lunch by Chauncey Hare Townsend, whom Bulwer-Lytton had known since their school days at Ramsgate. Townsend had drawn both Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens toward mesmerism and spiritualism, and works of his, like Facts in Mesmerism (1840), were significant in legitimating mesmerism in the eyes of many Britons, as were the fictional and personal investigations of it by such notables as Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton. In the afternoon, Townsend and Bulwer-Lytton had called on Dr John Elliotson at the London Mesmeric Infirmary, which Elliotson had founded in 1849. There they observed ongoing experiments to test the efficacy of mesmeric medicine. Bulwer-Lytton had already defended Elliotson against the censure of the medical establishment. 6 6

This fact comes from Wolff, Strange Stories, p. 237. Other sources on Elliotson or his connections with Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton include: Fred Kaplan, ‘“The Mesmeric Mania”: The Early Victorians and Animal Magnetism’, Journal for the History of Ideas, 35 (1974): 691–702, pp. 696–701; Martin Willis, Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century (Kent, OH, 2006), p. 96; Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago, 1998), p. 59.

He had previously urged Harriett Martineau to try mesmeric treatment, and Martineau then helped popularize the movement with her Letters on Mesmerism (1845). 7 7

On Martineau’s connection with Bulwer-Lytton, see Winter, Mesmerized, p. 221, and Wolff, Strange Stories, p. 235. Martineau had been so impressed with Zanoni that she wrote a celebratory summary of it that came to be published as an appendix to the novel.

In the evening, Bulwer-Lytton had met with Daniel Dunglas Home, one of the most famous spiritualist mediums of the century, as well as Madame Home, with whom Bulwer-Lytton later would correspond, at their lodgings for drinks. Bulwer-Lytton ‘offer[ed] Knebworth as a venue for his séances’. 8 8

Mitchell, Bulwer Lytton, p. 148. Mitchell also notes that ‘among the spiritualists of Belgravia and Bayswater [Bulwer-Lytton] was hailed as “the High Priest and Great Wizard of our Circle”’.

Now, back at Knebworth, he was walking with a flickering Egyptian oil lamp in hand towards a darkened room in which his guests that evening had been prepared for his arrival. As part of the evening’s entertainment, he told their fortunes, having assumed the persona in which he called himself ‘Le Vieux Sorcier’. 9 9

Ibid, p. 147.

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