Bulwer Lytton Gothic Lord of Knebworth

Posted by Marie Mulvey-Roberts on April 19, 2011 in Dr. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Bulwer Lytton's study at Knebworth house

Edward Bulwer Lytton is becoming increasingly known within Gothic circles, even though he is still an unjustifiably neglected writer and little known apart from that notorious writing competition run from San Jose State University, which out of loyalty to Edward, I ought not even be mentioning.  Founded by Professor Scott Rice in 1982, it unfairly used the opening of his novel Paul Clifford (1830), “It was a dark and stormy night”, as the worst opening of any novel to inspire a contest for bad writers. The web-site “where WWW means “Wretched Writers Welcome” has since attracted thousands of entrants.  The “Lyttony” of past prize winners is quite amusing and can be accessed on the URL below.


But back to Bulwer: he was not only a Gothic novelist and ghost writer, but his Gothicism extended to bricks and mortar or rather to stucco.  After the death of his mother in 1843, he gothicised the family home, Knebworth House, by turning the original red brick Tudor building into a fantastical extravaganza of turrets, griffins, gargoles and flying buttresses.

As a boy, Bulwer was brought up with spectres haunting the house, including Spinning Jenny and the Yellow Boy, who would foretell the death of unsuspecting guests. Apparently, he once appeared to Lord Castlereigh, predicting that his throat would be a cause of death, which is how the Foreign Secretary in Pitt’s government would take his own life. The Tower Bedroom, where I have experienced at least one of several ghostly presences in the house, was the location of a midnight picnic shared by Bulwer, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. As one might expect in a tower, the room is lofty, but there is nevertheless a false ceiling above which is a concealed chamber.  Bulwer’s great great grandson swung down into it on a rope from the roof, where he discovered on the floor a newspaper over a hundred years old with the date of that very day. Could it have inspired Bulwer with the idea for the vortex which is the explanation for the hauntings in his frequently anthologised ghost story “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859)? Lytton Enterprises organise ghost tours of the house and Edward obligingly continues to walk the corridors. In contrast to the ghostly presence in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) where the reader is told “whatever walked there walked alone”, the spectral traffic in the rooms and corridors of Knebworth House is somewhat busier e.g. there is the ghost of a young girl with long yellow hair and that of Bulwer’s mother doubtless still recovering from the shock of her Tudor house being transformed into the extravagances of Victorian Gothic, et al.

Like everything he did, Edward’s reach on the Gothic was extensive.  His writing is populated by mad women, murder and the paranormal in novels which include the cult classic Zanoni (1842), A Strange Story (1862) which is a tale of magical mesmeric powers, Lucretia (1853), whose heroine is worthy of the blackest of Gothic villains and numerous Gothic Tales, including his mastery of the ghost story. Bulwer was admired by Edgar Allan Poe and inspired Bram Stoker. My only complaint is that his Gothic legacy simply does not haunt us enough nowadays.

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