- Categories: 19th Century
“It was a dark and stormy night …” is one of the most famous parodies of opening lines in literature and was originally coined by author Edward Bulwer Lytton. He is also the author of other famous phrases such as “the almighty dollar”, “the great unwashed” and that famous one much used in recent weeks as a result of tragic events in France, “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
Some of his phrases can be adapted when it comes to describing the sufferings endured by his wife. Their dark and stormy marriage was often at the mercy of the almighty dollar and even mightier pens – in the courts as well as generating many columns in the press.
The lively and witty Rosina Anne Doyle was born in Limerick in 1802, the younger child of an Irish Baron and his wife, Anna Wheeler , a early advocate for feminism. Anna’s marriage was a disaster and she abandoned her husband to live in Guernsey where her uncle was Governor. Rosina grew up in an extraordinary society, full of free-thinkers, Bohemians and exiles from the French Revolution. She had a few years of extra education in London before falling under the spell of a dandy with golden tangled curls and the tangled full name of Edward George Earl Lytton Bulwer Lytton (no wonder he became famous for purple prose).
But the match was not approved of by Edward’s mother, as she considered Rosina to be flighty and nothing but an “Irish adventuress”. According to some references, it was a wild, unbridled on-off affair and their marriage in 1827 was of the necessary shotgun variety. Edward’s mother made good her threat, cancelled his allowance thus forcing him to earn a living by his writing. As they were both passionate and extravagant individuals, it was inevitable the marriage would buckle under financial stress and Edward’s infidelities, although Rosina also instigated tit-for-tat flirtations. She is reputed to have said on one occasion:
“I went to my husband’s rooms which he kept in order to have undisturbed communication with the Muse. I found the Muse in white satin seated on his knee.”
Worse, was the domestic violence that took place in their last home together, Berrymead Priory, Acton . Rosina apparently received a vicious kick in the side from Edward shortly before her daughter was born and was even bitten in the cheek by him. Divorce was not easily obtained during this era, but a separation agreement was drawn up.
One of the cruel, tragic consequences of this arrangement was that Rosina was forced to part from her children. Between 1838 and her death in 1882 she saw her son Edward briefly once or twice and she had to request special dispensation even to visit her dying daughter Emily in 1848.
For a woman used to a certain status in society, the money Rosina received from Edward was a pittance and she spent her life one step ahead of creditors and living in modest circumstances around the country. A study of the Census Returns bears this out, where she is often classified as a lodger in spite of being the wife of a baronet. The only way she could supplement her income was to become a writer herself, and many of her works were a form of revenge on her husband and his family. She wrote of the plight of separated wives and the ill treatment of women generally by their husbands.
Over the years the acrimony between the pair only worsened. When her husband was canvassing for re-election to parliament, she took to the hustings to vilify him. Humiliated and furious, Edward forced Rosina to be confined in Inverness Lodge, a “hospital for mentally defectives” (lunatic asylum). Only through the efforts of her friends and members of the public concerned by her treatment, was she eventually released.
In 1880, a book that was extremely scandalous for the times appeared, entitled A Blighted Life, Rosina’s autobiography of everything cruel that was done to her. Edward had passed away some years before, but Rosina’s son and the Lytton family were outraged. Rosina seems to have backtracked on its publication and issued a retraction with the long-winded title of Refutation of an audacious forgery of the Dowager Lady Lytton’s name to a book of the publication of which she was totally ignorant. It probably made little difference.
Meanwhile, Rosina continued to write – essays and historical novels (under a male pseudonym) – until she died in 1882, isolated, in debt and unmourned by her family and the society which she had embarrassed by her actions. She left a paltry £405.10s. – compare that to her husband’s estate of between £70,000-£80,000.
Rosina’s grave remained unmarked until 1995 when her great-great-grandson, 2nd Baron Cobbold of Knebworth, arranged for a tombstone to be erected. It bears the inscription she wanted. “The Lord will give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve.”
There is no better summary of Rosina’s legacy than that written by Marie Mulvey-Roberts in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography:
“Rosina had brought about her ‘hard bondage’ through her refusal to conform to the duties of a Victorian wife, which required women to ‘suffer and be silent’. By drawing attention to the plight of married women and separated wives through her novels, pamphlets, and journalism, Rosina contributed towards the mounting pressure that eventually brought about legislation designed to protect the interests of women. Rosina Bulwer Lytton represents far more than a case history of a hysteric or an unorthodox minor Victorian novelist. For her undoubted talent and extraordinary courage in speaking out against injustice she deserves a permanent place in women’s history, as she has provided an often unrecognized source of inspiration to those who have followed. Her most immediate legacy was passed to her granddaughter Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton (1869-1923), who became one of the heroines of the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement.”
A large number of works by and about Rosina Bulwer Lytton can be found at Internet Archive.
Text of A Blighted Life here, although there is also a recent reprinting of it available via Amazon.
Note: Most curiously, Berrymead Priory, this house of “sad memories” for Rosina and Edward, was also the brief marital home in the ensuing decade of another “Irish adventuress”, Lola Montez, and George Trafford Heald – another couple doomed by violent passions and blighted by the unjust divorce laws of the age in which they lived. I explore this relationship in some detail in my novel Her Fatal Touch: the Life and Loves of Lola Montez, currently being revised for a new e-edition out soon.