Rosina Bulwer Lytton

For my PhD research, I read Rosina Bulwer Lytton’s first novel, called Cheveley; or, The Man of Honour (1839). Rosina was the estranged wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton, famous Victorian author, politician and grade-A dirtbag husband. Her book was the ultimate “FUCK YOU, EX-HUBBY” present a person could give, since it was a semi-autobiographical tale of their abusive marriage, which I am going to recap.

All quotations and info comes from Marie Mulvey-Roberts’s “Introduction” to Cheveley, Volume 5 of 6 of the Silver Fork Novels, 1826-1841 series, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005.

WARNING: possible triggers for domestic abuse.

Edward married Rosina in 1827, against his mother’s wishes. They had met at a party and he was charmed by Rosina, who was a famous beauty. Edward had been having an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb before he met Rosina. I don’t know how this situation came up, but both Rosina and Edward were at Lady Caroline’s house when he decided to propose to her. Lady Caroline warned Rosina not to accept the proposal, since she knew Edward quite well by this point and knew that he was giant pile of excrement. Rosina ignored the warning.

Look, if your boyfriend proposes to you at the house of his (ex?) (current?) mistress, you gotta know that he’s probably not a keeper. Shut it down. Dealbreaker.

Rosina became his kept mistress for a short time before they got married, which enraged Edward’s mother who, upon their marriage, stopped Edward’s allowance, forcing him to earn his own living through writing, which I’m sure pissed him off greatly and got his marriage off to a tremendous start. *Sigh* It’s all fun and games until mommy stops paying your bills. He and Rosina had two children right away before things quickly started to turn sour. “His over-work and neglect of his wife and children, particularly in the pursuit of other women, eventually led to the disintegration of the marriage” (xviii)

Rosina 0, Edward 1.

They’d fight and make up and fight and make up, but it was pretty clear to everyone that their relationship was headed to the bone-yard sooner or later. The problem was, Edward was from an aristocratic family, was a famous novelist in his own right, and fancied a career in politics. A divorce could only result in huge public scandal and hurt them both.

“In an attempt at reconciliation, Bulwer suggested a second honeymoon to Italy in 1833. The gesture was considerably undermined by the presence of his mistress, the society beauty Mrs Robert Stanhope.”

*hands up, walking away*

“The humiliation soured the trip for Rosina [uhhh, no kidding], until she found a diversion of her own in the form of the Russian Prince Lieven” (xviii). Hey, if you’re going to commit adultery, doin’ it with a Russian Prince is a pretty stylish way to go. Please, god, tell me that Prince Lieven hit on her by saying, “Do you know how ve keep varm in Russia?

Rosina 1, Edward 1

Unfortunately guilt got in the way of a good long stealth shag, as it always does. Rosina came clean to Edward about the affair. (In the background, I’m screaming, “Noooo! Don’t do it! ‘E ain’t worth it! ‘E ain’t worth it!”)

Rosina 0, Edward 1 (Sorry, Rosina. I’m detracting a point from you because you really shot yourself in the foot.)

“Her confession to her husband that she was in love with another man accelerated the end of the marriage . . . After their marital separation, her involvement with Mr Hume . . .a married man with children, infuriated Edward into denying her access to her children” (xviii-xix) and banishing her from their family home. Ah, the good ole Patriarchal Hypocrite Child-Swipe. Classic. You would not believe how frequently this tactic was used. “My wife is doing the bad thing that I am doing! She is an unfit mother, so the children must remain uncorrupted with me. Brb, kids, it’s time for a grueling session of carnal gymnastics with my mistress. No, no, it’s okay if I do it! That’s perfectly moral!” It was pretty detestable.

Rosina 0, Edward 2

Rosina decided to apologize to Edward. Weeeell, it wasn’t so much of an *apology* as a tell-all pseudo-autobiography about their abusive marriage, which would devastate his reputation and possibly ruin all of his political dreams. Don’t nobody separate the lioness from the cubs, ya’ll. Hey, given her shitty circumstances, she might as well go for broke and write a novel about all his pernicious fuckery. Edward was very powerful and Rosina wasn’t. She wrote, “Exposure is the only thing that complex monster dreads, and consequently the only check I have upon him” (xii). This was really the only thing she could do to fight back.

They were a famous couple and she knew the break-up and divorce were going to be messy. It would help if she could tell people the “truth” and get as many readers on her side as possible. Remember this: because she would come to be very, very thankful for this foresight one day.

The book, and the whole situation, was pretty radical. At first, no publisher wanted to touch the book because it was unseemly. The stance of the day was: a woman going through a divorce should sit back and quietly accept all the blame, and be a social pariah, and be denied access to her children forever, whether she was at fault or not. She should not attempt to fight the system, or comment on society, or run her husband’s reputation through the wringer because that would threaten the hierarchy. But Rosina was smart. She told her potential publisher that the opposition to the book was a great thing: “if it was opposed or prosecuted for libel, huge sales would be guaranteed” (xiii). He jumped on it, and it put Edward in a bind. The more fuss Edward made about the book, the more public attention it got.

Rosina 1, Edward 2

Edward did everything in his power to keep the book from getting published in the first place. “Edward threatened to bring out an injunction from the Court of Chancery against the book. Just before its appearance, he visited the shop of the publisher Edward Bull, declaring that Rosina’s cousin, Sir Francis Doyle, insisted that Cheveley should not be published. In fact, Doyle had made no such demand.

“Another tactic Edward employed was to threaten to ruin Rosina if the book came out, by revealing that she had been his mistress before marriage, was a drinker and a forger along with ‘other dark Tales!!!‘ [could he be more Gothic?] Rosina demonstrated her imperviousness to blackmail by circulating the letter among her friends. Edward retaliated by claiming that the letter had been forged by Rosina herself, but as she was quick to point out: ‘few women would sit down to forge such infamous accusations against themselves'” (x).

Rosina 2, Edward 2.

So Edward got all panicky because he couldn’t stop the book’s publication. He turned to all his bigwig buddies, screamed, “THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” and formed a literary lynch-mob to persecute and destroy her by lambasting the book and denouncing her to everyone they knew. Rosina ended up writing some of those friends into the novel and satirizing them.

Rosina 3, Edward 2.

“What had caused Bulwer to convulse with indignation was not merely the impropriety of his separated wife writing a silver fork novel, the very genre which he helped to establish, and upon which his literary reputation had been launched with Pelham (1828), but also the fact that the reviewer [from the Athenaeum] had not entirely condemned a novel containing blistering attacks on him, his family and their ancestral seat” (ix).

Adding insult to injury, the reviewer at the Athenaeum who didn’t totally condemn Rosina’s book had completely torn apart one of Edward’s recent books. Upon reading the review they gave Rosina, Edward said, “They who have denied ME talent! . . . praise the talent of this wretched trash [Rosina]” (ix).

Rosina 4, Edward 2.

Now, we’ve got to talk about the abusive section of her novel, not only because it was based on real (and horrific) events, but because it is written as pure 19th century literary POPPYCOCK. Seriously, the medical knowledge in this book is goofy as fuck.

In the novel, the Mary-Sue stand-in for Rosina is Julia, the beautiful woman from humble beginnings who was coveted by and then married to the despicable Edward Bulwer Lytton Lord De Clifford, who emotionally and physically abuses her. One of the most ludicrous scenes is where Lord De Clifford slaps his wife’s hand, apparently so hard that she sprains it. She spends the next hour or so on the cusp of a swoon (of course), causing her handsome, virtuous young friend, Cheveley, who’s got the major hots for her, to call the doctor.

Again, I would like to reiterate that she has sprained her wrist, as the doctor confirms. Traumatic? Yes. Painful? Yes. Serious, life-threatening injury? No. This sprained wrist apparently pushes her to the brink of death! O! dire wrist sprainage! Why dost thou pepper her brain with fever? Why dost thou require so many leechings? Lady Julia, dost thou have bird-bones? Dost thy wrist contain one of thy major internal organs?

Seriously. She is bed-ridden for several months (during which she is always swooning and pale and needing her arm to be leeched and getting fevers and being a giant pain in everyone’s ass). She gets so close to death that her husband actually sizes up a new fiancee and just sits back and waits for Julia to kick the bucket. Of course, at the end of the story, the evil husband dies instead, and she instantly perks up and marries Cheveley and was hoisted up on Scrooge’s shoulders, crying “God bless us, every one!”

Psychosomatic wrist death: it’s a thing.

ANYWAY

The sprained wrist in the novel “is based on an actual incident of 19 April 1834, when Edward upbraided Rosina for sending out his servant on business. He kicked her back with his knee so violently that she thought he was going to kill her, and ended by badly wrenching her wrist” (xix-xx), and Rosina made sure everyone knew it. Not that everyone believed her:

One of Bulwer Lytton’s mistresses, Lady Stepney, (whom Rosina referenced in Cheveley) said of Rosina’s novel, “‘Oh! That horrid bad book, written by that horrid woman! I would not allow it to be on my table. Not that I have ever seen the book‘” (xx). Yeah. Nice save.

Edward’s poltiical ambitions kept him from writing a rebuttal novel, which would have made his private life even more public. The best thing he could do was stay quiet about the book, get his friends to denounce his wife, and hire spies to prove her adultery, which was grounds for divorce. Rosina had way more work to do if she wanted to divorce him. She had to prove adultery combined with cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality. I’m not positive, but I think sodomy might have also been a “get out of marriage free” card.

Except that, for women, it was never free. The courts typically awarded your kids and all the money you earned/inherited/had during your marriage to your husband. Plus your reputation was ruined, more often than not, even if you were utterly blameless. Divorce was particularly ugly business in those days, made slightly less ugly today because women are at least on equal legal footing with men. You can also get a divorce purely because you want to; you don’t have to prove any extreme circumstances to “merit” a divorce.

So Rosina had the completely unenviable task of trying to remain as spotless as possible while getting her hands dirty trying to prove her husband was a cad, whilst her husband’s lackeys did everything in their power to sabotage her and dig up any secrets she had.

They had a number of social and legal tussles and Edward eventually did prosecute Rosina for libel over the book, but Rosina won the court case (Rosina 5, Edward 2). However, she was never able to prove his adultery and/or cruelty, and was therefore unable to obtain a divorce.

The problem was that both of them worked very hard to maintain a respectable appearance in order to salvage their reputations, which meant that they stayed married. There was no question of one providing the other with proof so they could just rip the Band-Aid off and move on; there was too much at stake. There was no “irreconcilable differences” box to tick on the divorce form. The legal system pretty much demanded that in order to divorce your husband or wife, you must first DESTROY THEM beyond all doubt. Divorces were not amicable. That wasn’t a thing.

Then, after about TWENTY YEARS of this nonsense, Edward figured out the perfect (and terrifying) plan. He had “started plotting to use Cheveley as betraying ‘some kind of mental aberration‘” (xvii). He was still her husband, despite the estrangement, and had every legal right to toss her in a madhouse and throw away the key. Which is precisely what he did.

Rosina 5, Edward 3.

Frankly, if he couldn’t find proof of her adultery, he probably would have resorted to this anyway. A lot of husbands did. It was an easy way to dispose of inconvenient wives and, if you’ve ever read The Woman in White, Victorian asylums left a LOT to be desired in terms of accurate diagnoses, treatment, and the unwilling and unnecessary imprisonment of people in general (but especially women).

Several paragraphs ago, I told you to remember why Rosina decided to write the book: to get a large crowd of people on her side. This is how it paid off: she had convinced enough people that she was being victimized by Edward that a huge public outcry was raised. Her fans demanded her release from the asylum, which was granted a few weeks later.

Rosina 6, Edward 3, but this scoreboard is TOTALLY MOOT, because at the end of the day, neither one was able to get enough of a leg-up on the other. They were forced to remain married until Edward’s death in 1873–almost 50 years of marriage. She outlived him by nine years and never stopped writing books denouncing her husband through thinly-veiled allusions to him.

Despite this, that fucker Edward did very well for himself. He was created a baron in 1866, becoming Lord Lytton. Bizarrely enough, when King Otto of Greece abdicated the throne, the Greek government offered Edward the crown. Why him, I’m sure I don’t know. He declined. That would have made for an even better story, though. Can you imagine the power that estranged wife Queen Rosina would have had?

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One Response to Rosina Bulwer Lytton

  1. Oh, the joys of Victorian marriage. Have you read Diane Johnson’s Lesser Lives? It’s about George Meredith’s first wife.

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