Robert Bulwer Lytton

Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831–91)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 19, 349–363.

This friend and admirer of the Brownings achieved fame both as a poet and as a diplomat. Born in London on 8 November 1831, Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton was the second child and only son of the novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803–73) and his wife Rosina (née Wheeler, 1802–82). His parents separated in 1836 but continued to antagonize each other for many years afterwards. According to the terms of the separation, Rosina was barred from seeing her children: “Except for four months in 1858, she never saw her son … from 1838 to the time of her death in 1882. She was also denied access to her daughter Emily, and had to be granted a special dispensation by her husband in order to visit Emily, who was then dying of typhoid fever, in 1848” (ODNB). Publicly, Lytton sided with his father, even to the point of defending the latter’s decision to have Rosina declared insane and committed to a private asylum in 1858.

Lytton received the better part of his education from private tutors and at Harrow; he also studied modern languages for a time at Bonn in preparation for a diplomatic career. That career was launched in 1850. A month short of his nineteenth birthday, he sailed for Boston in the company of William Wetmore Story and his wife, to whom he had been introduced by his and his father’s friend, John Forster. Lytton proceeded to Washington, D.C. where he took up his post as unpaid attaché to his uncle Sir Henry Bulwer, British minister to the United States. Lytton served in the same capacity at Florence beginning in 1852 when his uncle was made minister to the court of Tuscany. It was during his tenure there that Lytton formed a friendship with the Brownings. He subsequently made rapid advances as a diplomat. From 1854 to 1856, he was an attaché at Paris under Lord Cowley. He sufficiently impressed his superiors to secure a position as attaché at the Hague in 1856, which became a paid position after he passed a foreign service examination in June 1858. There followed an attachéship at Vienna (1859–62), where he eventually became second secretary; other secretary postings, which included Athens and Madrid; then the first secretaryship at Paris (1872–74). In November 1874 he was appointed minister to Portugal. A little over a year later the new British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, gave Lytton the post for which he is best known, that of Viceroy of India. It turned out to be the one failure of Lytton’s diplomatic career, brought on through his blind adherence to Disraeli’s India policy which led to the Second Afghan War, a costly, unpopular war that contributed to the fall of the government and Lytton’s resignation in 1880. For his loyalty, he was made the Earl of Lytton in April of that year; and in 1887 with the Conservatives again in power he was appointed ambassador to France. Over the next four years, Lytton recaptured the success of his earlier postings and received universal praise. His health never strong, he died suddenly of a coronary aneurysm on 24 November 1891 at the British embassy in Paris. Politically, Lytton entertained liberal notions when a young man, but, just as his father had, he gravitated to the conservative side. Enid Lady Layard reported in a journal entry for 23 May 1885 that Lytton was opposed to any reform of the House of Lords and that he said “our unwritten constitution had been always directed against the power of the nobles & the crown & no one had ever thought of putting a limit to the power of the people who consequently wd become supreme” (“Lady Layard’s Journal,” ms at BL).

On 4 October 1864, Lytton married Edith Villiers (1841–1936), niece of the 4th Earl of Clarendon, with whom he had seven children, four sons and three daughters. The two eldest sons died in childhood. Of the surviving children, Victor Alexander (1876–1947), godson of Queen Victoria for whom he was named, succeeded his father as the 2nd Earl of Lytton. In the 1920’s he served as Governor of Bengal and for a time was acting Viceroy of India. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth Edith (afterwards Balfour, 1867–1942), edited Personal & Literary Letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton (1906). Constance Georgina (1869–1923) was, for a brief period, a notable suffragette. Her younger sister, Emily (afterwards Lutyens, 1874–1964), became well known in Theosophist circles.

Lytton had begun writing poetry in his youth but did not publish until 1855 when, under the pseudonym of Owen Meredith, his Clytemnestra, The Earl’s Return, The Artist, and Other Poems was issued by Chapman and Hall (the first poem in the title was privately printed at Florence in 1853). It was generally well received; his friend John Forster gave it a glowing review in The Examiner of 17 March 1855. Also praised were The Wanderer (1859), dedicated to Forster, and Lucille (1860), a long verse narrative. Later works included Serbski Pesme (1861), translations of Serbian poems that one reviewer demonstrated were plagiarized from a French work, and a collected edition in 1867, also dedicated to Forster. Beginning with Chronicles and Characters (1868), Lytton published under his own name. There followed Fables in Song (1874), King Poppy, privately printed in 1875, afterwards published posthumously, Glenaveril (1885), and After Paradise (1887). In addition to poetry, Lytton produced The Ring of Amasis (1863), a novel that he was advised not to publish and that was, accordingly, severely criticized, as well as a two-volume biography of his father in 1883, The Life, Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, although it only covered the first 28 years of his life.

While serving as attaché at the British Legation in Florence, Lytton, by way of an introduction from Forster, first met the Brownings at Casa Guidi, probably in the third week of November 1852. The poets warmed to him right away. EBB wrote to John Kenyon on 24 November, describing a visit “from the attachés at the English embassy here, Mr. Wolf[f], and Mr. Lytton … and I think we shall like the latter … . A very young man, as you may suppose … refined & gentle in manners” (letter 3148). After a brief acquaintance, EBB wrote that she and her husband had “both taken a fancy to” Lytton (letter 3154). He soon became a frequent guest at the Brownings’ apartment, and they visited him at Villa Brichieri on Bellosguardo, a prospect overlooking Florence. EBB described one evening there on Lytton’s terrace shortly before the Brownings left for Bagni di Lucca in mid-July 1853: “I dont know when I have enjoyed anything more. … The double view from that terrace .. on one side, Florence seething away in the purple of the hills .. on the opposite, wood & mountain pressing … is past describing. It was nearly nine when we had tea … and as we were all bachelors I made tea like a bachelor .. that is, as awkwardly as possible” (letter 3227). In September 1853, Lytton stayed nearly two weeks with the Brownings at their lodgings in Bagni di Lucca. After the first week, EBB remarked to her sister Arabella: “He always was a great favorite with us & has lost nothing by the closer contact—a young man without the vices & defects of young men .. full of pure & noble aspiration of all kinds” (letter 3266). Elizabeth Kinney, wife of the American minister at Turin, considered Lytton’s character from a different perspective: “She [EBB], amiable creature that she was, fancying she discovered in Lytton the eternal possibilities of genius, endured his persistent presence, & assiduous attentions, & both the Brownings his intrusive man-worship, with wonderful Christian … resignation: for at that time he was the most arrant coxcomb of a litterateur! A tall, slender, aristocratic, handsome youth, though, was he, & with his studied dress, deportment, & small-talk in society, the very ‘Pelham’ of his father’s first novel. With the Brownings, or when with us, or other literary people, his conversation became that of the aspirant for intellectual association; sometimes transcendental, & even bordered on ‘spiritualism’ especially if Mrs Browning was present, for all that she believed … Lytton accepted. In short, he was always, in one way or other, affected, never effective, never natural” (“Personal Reminiscences,” ms at Columbia).

Lytton joined the Brownings’ attempts at turning-tables and other forms of spiritual communications at Casa Guidi. In letter 3286 EBB describes one such séance at which “Lytton received a communication .. the name spelled was Emily L .. when he stopped the operation by asking if the word was Lytton—‘Yes’. His sister’s name. … Mr. Lytton tells me that ever since that evening he has yearned after the communication.” Lytton’s letters to the Brownings prior to EBB’s death often contain some reference to spiritualism. In a letter to RB dated 19 July 1854, Lytton discussed his father’s recent experiments with Maria Hayden (née Trenholm), an American medium in England at that time: “Now I have collected all possible ‘Spirit news’ for Mrs. Browning—but have heard so much I dont know what to tell her– My father’s own experiences are certainly very remarkable” (ms at ABL). Lytton went on to describe a séance with Mrs. Hayden during which Edward Bulwer-Lytton took advice from a spirit claiming to be that of Shakespeare. A more interesting letter to EBB, written 22 July 1855, described a séance with Daniel Dunglas Home, the most widely-known medium of his time, at the John Snaith Rymer residence in Ealing, the day before the Brownings’ own séance there. Lytton wrote “I was at Mr Hume’s, or rather Mr Rhymer’s last night & as I know your interest in these supposed ‘manifestations’ I write you … a line to say what I saw—& heard—& felt” (ms at ABL). After mentioning raps, “as loud at times as that of a brass knocker” and an accordion played “with great apparent skill … without any apparent Agency,” Lytton reported: “Rings were several times taken out of my hand, by … spectral fingers, and placed on the fingers of other persons present. I frequently tried to clutch the supposed spiritual hand, it did not melt in one’s clasp, but alluded [sic] it by a sudden & brisk withdrawal as that of a skilful human being might do– The touch was always soft warm, & human in its nature, & I cd feel at times, the nails.” Lytton illustrated his letter with three sketches from the séance that depicted what may have been Home’s hand and arm.

After the Brownings left Florence for Rome in November 1853, Lytton was a frequent correspondent. Unfortunately, few of the Brownings letters to him have survived. The friends were briefly reunited when the Brownings returned to Florence around the 1st of June 1854, but Lytton departed for England not long afterwards in anticipation of his new post at Paris. Sometime during the next two months, he sent the Brownings a twelve-stanza panegyric entitled “R.B.” EBB enclosed a copy of it in a letter to her sister Arabella and wrote: “I send you Mr. Lytton’s poem … that you may know how others besides Ba, may fall in love with him [RB]. I admit that the comparison to the apostle Paul is un peu fort” (22 August [1854], ms at Berg). The comparison that EBB felt was “a bit much” occurs in the fourth stanza:

When you speak .. as you speak .. I think Paul

At Athens, posterity teaching,

Said such words, thought such thoughts, just let fall

Such grand language as yours in his teaching.

EBB was more enthusiastic over Lytton’s Clytemnestraand Other Poems, much of which she and RB had seen in manuscript, and recommended it to her friend Eliza Ann Ogilvy: “Read a new book of poems by Owen Meredith … & tell me how you like them. … There’s a good deal of unconscious sympathy rather than imitation in this young man, but, he will work his way clear & I expect excellent things from him as a true poet” (6 March [1855], ms at Eton). About this same time, EBB heard that Lytton had made an agreement with his father, whereby in exchange for being allowed to publish Clytemnestra, he would refrain from writing poetry for two years in order to focus more intently on his diplomatic career. EBB asked Isa Blagden, “What do you think of a father who sends his son to Paris with such an exhortation? For my part, it sets my soul on edge” ([22 February 1855], ms at Fitzwilliam).

The Brownings next saw their young friend in London during their visit there in the summer of 1855. Probably in early September, RB showed Lytton a proof of the first volume of Men and Women, which placed the latter in a select circle of friends that included John Kenyon, W.J. Fox, Forster, and Joseph Milsand. Back in Paris, Lytton apologized for taking so long to express the “genuine delight & admiration with which I read the proofs you so kindly suffered me to look at, and the various impressions they have left upon me– … You have of course—here as elsewhere,—thought fit to place about the Hesperian fruit such spiked fences & quick-set hedges that I cannot but foresee that many will go away with scratcht hands. And those that enter the enchanted garden will still be a society select & reverend—but the question is—how will these fare? And with these, I prophecy that you have herein establisht the loftiest letter to immortality. I am haunted by all that I have read—new sensations of beauty—new thoughts of power from immeasurable depths well up thro’ my recollections of poem after poem” (4 October 1855, ms at ABL).

Lytton was similarly, if not more, effusive over EBB’s Aurora Leigh, which the author had sent to him via her publisher. Although he had received it only two days before and had just reached the end of the Fourth Book, he wrote: “I have read nevertheless enough … to feel that there is in this Poem, the perfectly successful expression of a whole civilization .. that it is not only the solitary Epic of this age, but also a noble Epic, .. I almost think not inferior to those of Milton & Dante … . In some respects you are here to my thinking, superior even to those greatest Singers, by just so much as this age is superior to theirs, for like them you have taken the whole Age on your shoulders, this age of complicated sorrows, & scattered knowledge” (8 December 1856, ms at ABL). About two weeks later, Lytton declared to John Forster: “Aurora Leigh is a masterpiece. I cannot speak up to the full height of my admiration of the marvelous & masculine genius with which it glows from the first page to the last. It is the Epic of this age. Ah what a Woman” (ms with Cobbold).

Meanwhile, Lytton had completed his two-year exile from writing verse and was at work on a long narrative poem called “The Abbess,” the first two books of which he sent to the Brownings. He told his father that neither recommended that he “go on with it. They both declare that it is under the influence of Byron” (19 December 1856, ms with Cobbold). In EBB’s portion of the Brownings’ letter to Lytton, written in early December, she referred again to his lack of originality: “What we want in you is a more absorbing life of your own, my dear friend, more individuality, so that you should not remind us of this poet and that poet, when you are so certainly and thoroughly a poet yourself” (Personal & Literary Letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, ed. Betty Balfour, 1906, I, 80). In his response, dated 26 December, Lytton wrote that he had “almost decided on abandoning the work” and that he had recently discovered two stanzas that were “little less than a theft from Browning” (ms at ABL).

The friends saw each other in Paris over the winter of 1855–56 but not during the following summer when the Brownings were again in England, as Lytton had to attend to his new duties as attaché at the Hague. They did not meet again until the summer of 1857 when Lytton was back in Florence, reacquainting himself with Italian in order to pass the foreign service examination. He stayed with Isa Blagden and her younger cousin Annette Bracken in his former lodgings, Villa Brichieri at Bellosguardo. The heat being terrible in Florence that year, the Brownings escaped to the relative coolness of Bagni di Lucca at the end of July. The Brichieri contingent joined them a week later, taking rooms at the hotel across the street from the Brownings’ apartment in Casa Betti. What promised to be a merry holiday among friends was not to be. Soon after his arrival, Lytton, already debilitated from the high temperatures at Florence, came down with gastric fever and remained bed-ridden for the next three weeks. He was cared for by Isa and RB, as EBB indicated in a letter to Fanny Haworth: “Robert sate up eight nights,—and Isa, who has been utterly devoted, sate up eight nights by herself, & all the other nights & days in effect … . At last a hired nurse was called” (24 August [1857], ms at Fitzwilliam). Lytton finally began to recover, and after a week of convalescence he returned to Bellosguardo with Isa and Annette. At first his health continued to improve, but, as he reported to Forster on 12 November 1857, he had begun to suffer from a “glandular affection” (ms with Cobbold). By the end of the year, his condition was no better. On New Year’s Day he wrote to his father that because of the “increasing cold of Winter & continual relapses to bad symptoms in the throat” he was forced to take rooms in town in the house of “Signr Finzi,” a former banker (ms with Cobbold).

But Lytton’s health problems at this time were more complicated than that. In a letter dated 29 February 1858, he presented a brief account of his medical history to his father:


“As to health—I am still very poorly. The fact of the matter is this– About 5 years ago—when I first went to Rome—I was obliged to take Mercury. The Doctor I then consulted was of opinion that my constitution cd. not bear much & gave me only very small doses. In short time however I was—to all appearances—evidently restored—nor have I ever had any return of the malady—until on recovering from that terrible fever at Lucca—I found myself with a sore throat. Dr. Trotman, was at first of opinion that there was nothing peculiar in the character of this—& that it was only the effect of cold. He treated it accordingly & in about a fortnight or 3 weeks the whole throat was covered with ulcers & the body with sores. I was now obliged to undergo a very sharp treatment keeping the house for about two months & taking mercurial baths. When I was apparently perfectly recovered, I caught cold & the pain in the throat returned with great virulence. The Dr. however asserted that there was no longer anything whatever of a mercurial or syphi[li]tic character in these symptoms. I was not satisfied with his opinion & called in the first medical advice to be obtained in Florence—both Drs. were however unanimous, that time, care, & a change of weather was all that was requisite to restore me completely. After further confinement to the house & great care, I got well—but was attacked again the moment I set foot out of doors. In this state I have been ever since … . I shd. have left this place—so associated with sickness—many months ago—but Trotman declared that it shd. be madness in me to attempt to travel—& even yesterday I was in bed all day & in much suffering. I intend to consult Ricord at Paris, who has a European reputation for these things—& place myself entirely in his hands” (ms with Cobbold).


The French physician Philippe Ricord was then considered one of the world’s foremost experts on venereal diseases. During Lytton’s stay with his mother in the summer of 1858 at Luchon, a spa at the foot of the Pyrenees, he underwent further medical treatment for his condition. Writing to his father in the autumn, Lytton reported: “Dr. Pegon the Luchon Doctor,—a high authority for all diseases of this kind—considered that the baths had had a most favorable effect on the malady, and that had I been able to remain there longer, there was every reason to hope that I shd. have left Luchon perfectly restored … . Altho’ in his opinion nothing but a 2d course of those waters next spring could possibly guarantee me against the probability of sickly children in case I should marry. … Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that I have made a great stride toward health. When I reached Luchon, the whole roof of the mouth, was attacked with very bad sores—the lip eaten with a sore … and the cartilage of the nose also attacked. The face and chest were so covered with itching spots, that I had to shave my beard. And the throat having broken out again, the physical torment I endured produced a mental instability almost intolerable” (ms with Cobbold). These conditions were greatly “diminished” by the time he left Luchon, Lytton went on to tell his father. In Paris he was referred to Alfred Louis Philippe Hardy, a physician specializing in skin and venereal diseases, who pronounced “the malady” to be “in a most favourable condition.”

Considering that Lytton was staying under the same roof with Isa Blagden during the period his body was covered “with sores” and that she probably attended him at times, as she had at Bagni di Lucca, one wonders how much she knew or suspected of his true condition and what she conveyed, if anything, to the Brownings. Be that as it may, by the end of 1857 EBB’s estimation of her young friend was beginning to waver. Back on 3 October, she had written to Isa: “I delay speaking of Lytton because it grieves me to think even, much less speak on that subject. That one so noble, so good,—with such high spiritual impulses, should allow his light to be blown upon, agitated … by certain breaths” (ms at Fitzwilliam). Then, in the third week of December, EBB wrote to Isa concerning the latter’s plans to leave for England, as a result of the death of her half-sister: “It is … my strong opinion that on every account it is better for you that you should not leave … & yield to the feeling, natural enough, of putting half a world between you & certain vexations” (ms at Fitzwilliam). To emphasize her point she quoted RB: “‘If Isa goes, dreadful things will be said in Florence.’ Dear, for every reason, do not go … your going will be ill-interpreted on all sides: you will leave a feeling of triumph in the opposite camp.” We conjecture that the “opposite camp” was inhabited by Captain Fleetwood Wilson and his wife Harriet Horatia (née Walker), an English couple who became friends with Lytton soon after his arrival in Florence. The Wilsons lived for a time at Bellosguardo, and it was Capt. Wilson who recommended Villa Brichieri to the young diplomat. Lytton introduced the Wilsons to the Brownings and hoped they would become friends as well. They did not. Rumors concerning an adulterous relationship between Lytton and Mrs. Wilson had surfaced years before, as revealed in a letter dated 22 March 1853 from him to his father (ms with Cobbold). The source of the rumors, Lytton believed, was Isabella Falconer (née Robinson, formerly Douglas), whose daughter, Adeline Douglas, married Henry Drummond Wolff, Lytton’s fellow-attaché at the legation, on 22 January 1853. Lytton described Mrs. Falconer as “a very vulgar woman who had … been in the keeping of several people … a very intriguing bad sort of woman.” Her motivation for spreading gossip about Lytton and Mrs. Wilson, may have been the result of her thwarted efforts to involve him with a young Italian woman named Leontina Gordigiani, sister of the artist Michele Gordigiani who later painted the Brownings’ portraits. Lytton had met her at the house of Mrs. Falconer, who, he explained to his father, had persistently tried to lead him into a romance with Miss Gordigiani: “It wd weary you to detail the absurd but infamous scheme that this woman laid out, thinking I did not see thro’ it.” According to Lytton, Miss Gordigiani was willing to live with him whether he married her or not. When he finally extricated himself from the situation, Mrs. Falconer began circulating stories that he had “behaved very ill to this poor girl.” To his father, Lytton vehemently denied any romantic involvement with either Miss Gordigiani or Mrs. Wilson. Although these rumors had occurred five years in the past, they may have resurfaced when Lytton returned to Florence in the summer of 1857.

In the end, Isa remained at Bellosguardo and Lytton left, though he stayed in Florence for over two more months. Unknown to him, EBB and Isa considered the manner of his departure from Villa Brichieri abrupt and ungrateful. Evidently, he had left behind some sort of note in lieu of a face-to-face explanation. On the first day of the new year when Lytton wrote his father, an offended EBB sent a message up to Isa: “I cannot express to you my astonishment at the infinite degree of bad taste of the letter you enclosed to me– … Such a letter!—such a want of feeling– I agree with you that nothing could have induced me to accept that gift– … How wonderful that a poet should not know what ought to be felt on some occasions. I am deeply disappointed in Lytton” (ms at Fitzwilliam). But there was more to EBB’s disappointment. In her next letter to Isa, written mid-January, she further condemned Lytton’s behavior, including his association with Capt. Wilson: “Do not vex yourself any more … it is natural that you should be indignant, .. nay, it is even righteous. To him you have been only too tolerant, tender, & self-forgetting– He follows your example in forgetting you too, .. acting even below the par of the ordinary male creature. A wretched, ungrateful .. what shall I say? Better leave it and say nothing. As for the rest, I had hoped that with somewhat less fluctuation you had opposed a connection or intercourse, which (however considered) was dishonorable & disastrous to him. Considering the strong terms of disgust in which you have spoken to me of Capt. W—from time to time, & of the ‘ignobleness’ of Lytton’s position towards him, I had imagined that you had done so openly always … . If the position was real, or if only a sham, in either case it was hideous & corrupt” (ms at Fitzwilliam). One can only speculate as to what EBB considered “hideous & corrupt.” In any event, the warm and intimate relationship that had existed between the poets and the young diplomat was now a thing of the past. Lytton himself was not unaware of this change. In a letter of 16 August 1859 to Forster, he wrote of the Brownings and remarked: “I was very much distressed by a sort of coolness which had come between us, when I left Florence, for wh I really do not think I was to blame,—one of those vexatious results of misunderstanding difficult to put right because so intangible” (ms with Cobbold).

A coolness did indeed prevail: for the year 1858, there is only one recorded communication, that from Lytton to RB of 29 April. Apparently, RB did not reply. Nevertheless, Lytton remained a subject for discussion in EBB’s letters to Isa. In June 1858, his parents were much in the news as the result of a public confrontation between them and its strange aftermath. While Edward Bulwer-Lytton was addressing constituents at Hertford on the day of his re-election to Parliament, Lady Lytton pushed her way to the front of the crowd and denounced him as a monster for mistreating his wife and murdering his daughter. Humiliated and outraged, Bulwer-Lytton reacted by having his wife committed to a private asylum, though she was released within a month. In an attempt to defuse the controversy surrounding his parents (though more particularly to justify his father), Lytton wrote a letter to the press on 17 July 1858, enclosing certificates from two consulting physicians that placed the weight of medical authority behind the actions taken against Lady Lytton. The letter and certificates appeared in The Observer the following day and were widely reprinted. EBB wrote to Isa at the beginning of August: “Did you like that letter of Lytton’s about his father & mother? I did not, I own to you– One must be just & admit that it was a difficult letter to write—but when all’s admitted, still I do not like it” (ms at Fitzwilliam). Commenting on Lytton’s travelling through France with his mother, EBB wrote: “What a charming tête à tête Lytton must be having at Bordeaux. Which will strangle the other, do you suppose? Or shall we have a volume of filial lyrics—Poems chiefly domestic” (12 September [1858], ms at Fitzwilliam).

With the publication of The Wanderer in January 1859, Lytton was again being talked about. In a joint letter to Isa Blagden (15 February [1859], ms at ABL and Berg) the Brownings referred to the work on the basis of the extracts they had read in The Athenæum’s review of 5 February 1859. RB approved of the poetry, but not the poet: “His book is out, & highly commended by the ‘Athenæum’– … Some extracts about ‘Cordelia’ made my gorge rise, you know why: there was merit otherwise in what I read, music, picturesqueness & facility, and I wish the whole of it into the cess pool,—as Carlyle would say with less reason.” EBB was somewhat kinder: “You observe how the Athenæum praises it .. dont you, Cordelia?– Rightly too—he is a real poet—only too sensual—with too straight a root of thought for such a broad outgrowth of flowers. Melody, imagery, sentiment,—he is a poet in all.” Cordelia figures as the subject of four of the poems that appeared in The Wanderer. Of these, only “Warnings” was extracted in The Athenæum. The poem’s narrator lingers in “the chambers of the Sorceress, the South” (that is, Italy), while dreaming of the ideal Cordelia who lives in the north. In spite of EBB’s teasing here, it was Carolina Groeninx van Zoelen, daughter of a Dutch baron, who provided Lytton’s inspiration; three of the Cordelia poems are set in Holland. Lytton met her in his first year at the Hague and fell in love with her. He plied his suit at that time but was rejected. Recently, however, he had been accepted (though the engagement was eventually broken). In the same letter, EBB wrote of the engagement: “Is it good for him indeed, Isa?—and is it not bad for her, indeed?” When the Brownings received a copy of Lytton’s book, EBB told Isa: “I have written & had it out with him. I told him that I had resolved not to speak, but feeling myself face to face with his nobler nature in the book, I felt constrained to utter out myself against him– Will he answer I wonder—I did not speak bitterly but as one wounded in friendship because disappointed in a friend” (4 March [1859], ms at Fitzwilliam). The letter EBB wrote is not extant nor is Lytton’s reply, though he mentions both in his 16 August 1859 letter to Forster: “I re[ceive]d from her months ago a very kind & touching letter about the Wanderer, and answered it with a full heart. She is one of the best & noblest creatures I know—and I love & appreciate her far too honestly & deeply, not to make a vigorous struggle against anything which may tend to divide us in friendship.” About the same date, EBB wrote to Isa of Lytton’s reply: “He was sincere when he wrote, I do not doubt, but I shall not on that account accept the part of spiritual advisor, not I– Was ever a sinner who coquetted so with his sins? Poor Lytton– Strong enough for neither vice nor virtue” (ms at Berg). RB wrote to Lytton when EBB had, and his letter has survived. One wonders, however, what the recipient made of the following remarks: “I also know—(let me say in right of the true interest I have always taken in you) that so much of yourself as is manifested in the book not only justifies the feeling of—what seems now almost old days—but relieves it of much solicitude on some points. You will do justice to your great gifts of head and heart, and turn them into a pure beneficence to every body: to me, personally, they have been singularly so—and I look back with diminished regret to the old days I speak of, in the confidence that you will endear yourself for the future to no one less than to … Robert Browning” (28 February 1859, ms with Cobbold). In a letter to Isa, RB described his message to Lytton this way: “I added to my real commendation of his book, the hope that he would only give people cause, for the future, to enjoy his talents without subsequent regret at having done so” (4 March [1859], ms at Fitzwilliam).

Whatever else Lytton did to upset the Brownings, it was not done to them personally. Many years later, RB declared to Isa Blagden: “To me, & mine, he never had any sort of fault” (25 April 1871, ms at ABL). Lytton referred again to his alienation from his friends in a letter to Forster: “I enclose also the 2 letters from the Brownings abt Lucille … . Since these 2 letters tho’ I have written more than once, I have not recd a line from them. And I suppose she is angry abt politics, or some thing else. If so, this is a great grief to me; I love them both most truly, & am convinced of having done nothing to forfeit the old affection they seemed to feel for me once” (5 January 1861, ms with Cobbold). As Lytton mentions, the Brownings wrote to him regarding Lucille, a copy of which he had presented to them (see Reconstruction, A1502). Although EBB felt there was much that was beautiful in the work, she disliked its metre and its lack of seriousness: “You can be very witty, very tender, very pathetic—but readers like myself miss … the sight of an earnest intention– I dont want a moral in a frame– But I am uncomfortable in feeling a doubt whether the poet’s levity or his gravity be the more genuine. … I do not see where the writer’s convictions are– He means well somehow, but what is the well he means?! The colour of his convictions is doubtful—which, let us all be sure, is a weakness in a work of art just as it is an infirmity in a man” (19 August [1860], ms at ABL). This “weakness” of Lytton’s was echoed by another Browning friend the following year. Writing to her aunt, Cordelia Sanford, Kate Field drew an unflattering portrait of Lytton: “Although under thirty, he has the broken-down appearance of a blasé man of fifty. You can read dissipation in his face and in his stooping figure and shuffling gait. He is weak in character, and this one sees most readily in his poetry. There is nothing vigorous about him, nor is there anything lofty in his aspirations. … I pity Mr. Lytton, for he has misused his life; but there is an inherent want of truth and candor about him that prevents him from ever obtaining the respect of honest, earnest natures” (Lilian Whiting, Kate Field: A Record, Boston, 1899, pp. 142–143).

The “politics” Lytton mentioned concerns his opposition to EBB’s support for Louis Napoleon and her dislike of the British government. In his 16 August 1859 letter to Forster, Lytton hoped that recent events in Italy had “served to moderate a little her ardour for Louis Napoleon.” Commenting on EBB’s poem “A Tale of Villafranca,” which was published in The Athenæum on 24 September 1859, Lytton wrote to Forster: “I find that the lines in the Athenæum about L.N. are not by Browning but his wife. … I thought them bad as poetry, & mistaken as politics” (26 October 1859, ms with Cobbold). He stated his case more plainly regarding EBB’s politics when he wrote to her about Poems Before Congress (1860). He began by admitting that his first “impressions were confused in everything but a vague sense of some disappointment at the form, & more antagonism to the substance,” though on further reading he was won over because her poetry has “the merit inherent to all that is intrinsically good in art” (3 September 1860, ms at ABL). Nevertheless, he maintained “a strong doubt as to how far politics are fair or fitting subject for poetry. … I cannot yet give up the consideration of politics as a science—a science wh for the misfortune of mankind; is still in a very empirical state—but yet a science—to be approached by the reason, & that somewhat humbly since we know so little– If so it is clearly not the best subject for poetry which deals with passion & sentiment.” Regarding Louis Napoleon, Lytton wrote: “I cannot realize, or adopt with satisfaction, yr. picture of L.N. any more than I can that drawn by V. Hugo [who thought Louis Napoleon a cruel despot]. Both views of the man .. (pray, pray forgive me) .. appear to me pushed into those extremes which lie beyond the exact truth. … I dont think the man insincere but I think his policy insincere from obvious causes, and I shd. therefore be glad to see it watch’d with vigilance, & provided against with courteous but cautious tenacity.” Lytton also took issue with EBB’s condemnation of the British government’s lack of involvement in the second war of Italian independence: “I think a wide distinction shd be drawn between the moral support volunteered by the public opinion of a free people, & the material support afforded by a responsible govt to conflicting parties abroad. No govt has a right to devote one fraction of the resources of a people of whose power it is the delegate & of whose welfare the guardian to any but the well-ascertained interests of that people to whom it is responsible– It has been called a selfish maxim, but the more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced of its truth & justice.”

Despite EBB’s low opinion of Lytton as a person, she remained interested in him as a poet. Following Lucille, he published Serbski Pesme in early March 1861. Writing of it in a letter to Isa, EBB referred to the pointed notice that accused the author of plagiarism: “Why should he have attempted a reputation as Servian linguist? … Wandering on the shores of the Danube to catch up floating lyrics, (when all the time one was dog’s earing M. Dozon, with the help of a French dictionary!) is a picturesque idea to suggest, but really an unnecessary pretension– … What he wants is a noble morale. A great want in the making of a man— .. & of a poet therefore” (4 April [1861], ms at Fitzwilliam). In her last recorded reference to Lytton, EBB remarked favorably on some sonnets she had seen in manuscript: “Lytton’s sonnets touch me a good deal– … Not that I think him at his highest in the Sonnet form– The sonnet should be written more with one’s fist, .. with a strong concentration of hand, .. than suits the habits of his graceful fingering-art” ([24 April 1861], ms at Fitzwilliam).

Lytton happened to be in Florence during EBB’s last illness, though it is doubtful that he saw her. RB first mentions his being there in a letter to the Storys on 26 June 1861, by which time EBB was seeing no one but her family and Isa Blagden. Shortly after EBB’s death on 29 June 1861, RB must have described her final hours to Lytton, as reflected in his letter to Forster, written the next day: “She seems at the last to have been in full possession of her most lovely intellect, and, dying on her husband’s shoulder, her last words were words of love and blessing to him, and some allusion to the extreme beauty and glory of the state to which she was passing so gently! … I fear his pain will be harder to bear day by day. My heart bleeds for him, so will yours, I know. I have lost for myself a most dear, true friend. A lovelier life never went back to God” (Personal & Literary Letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, ed. Betty Balfour, 1906, I, 131). Lytton served as a pallbearer at EBB’s funeral (see Helen Zimmern, “Robert Browning,” Colorado Springs Gazette, 20 July 1890, p. 5). He remained in Florence until the second week of August and saw RB frequently at Villa Brichieri in the evenings until the latter’s departure on the 1st of that month.

Lytton’s sympathy over his friend’s bereavement seemed to soften RB’s hard feelings that had been in evidence since 1858. In the first two years after EBB’s death, they maintained a fairly steady correspondence, though it was mainly Lytton who did the writing. He was one of the people RB turned to for advice concerning the education of his son Pen. In a letter of 1 September 1861, Lytton seemed to anticipate his friend’s view of the best way to proceed: “I would strongly counsel the usual process both of Public School & University life. Eventually that is. For I would certainly not begin the Public School before he is better acquainted with England & the ways of it” (ms at ABL). Lytton further suggested that if Pen did not attend public school, he should be taught by private tutors. In all events, Lytton recommended the university: “I think so much of the University because I see on all sides that those three years of college life are among the most pleasant in the life of an Englishman, because I myself miss so immensely that strong framework for future reading & thought … . So that if I should ever have the blessing of a son I think I wd. give him this additional chance with the world.” In reply, RB declared: “Your experience & feelings about the advantages of a public school are valuable to me just now, & coincide with my own conjectures. … None of your goodness is lost on me, do believe” (20 September 1861, ms with Cobbold).

Meanwhile, Lytton had been working on a general review essay of RB’s works. He wrote to Forster to say it was ready but asked for editorial help: “You will greatly serve & oblige me if you will at your leisure, not only look it over, but add or omit ad libitum, altering, as you may see fit. It has been finished in some hurry. … My sole object is to obtain him a fair hearing & be of use to him. Therefore if you think any alteration necessary to secure this object pray make it” (21 September 1861, ms with Cobbold). Forster responded by saying that the review would be better held back until the appearance of the selected edition of RB’s poetry, scheduled for publication in 1862 but delayed until 1863. Although it continued to be a topic of discussion in letters between Lytton and Forster, there is no indication that the review ever made it into print.

After reading EBB’s Last Poems, published posthumously by Chapman and Hall in March 1862, Lytton wrote an emotional letter to RB: “Indeed I cannot attempt to say more about this Cabinet of gems which I open and close & open again with a sad & reverent hand than that I have laid up from the study of it all the pain and all the pride of conviction … that the life which was so long like a light upon the future of my own life, was to the last growing & greatening, & passing upward and onward in beauty & power” (4 May [1862], ms at ABL). Leaving this and many other letters from Lytton unanswered, RB finally responded on 27 September 1862. He told Isa the following month: “I wrote to Lytton as I told you I would—the return is a huge letter exceeding all its predecessors in warmth & overflowing” (18 October 1862, ms at ABL). Lytton sent RB proofs of his novel The Ring of Amasis and asked for criticism. RB replied on 17 June 1863: “I will tell you the exact truth, knowing you deserve it … . The story is not a new one, the machinery not good, in my opinion: and throughout I object to the insincerity of the supernaturalism,—there is neither belief nor disbelief in it. … Therefore, if it can be, I would even yet suppress the book” (ms with Cobbold). Lytton thanked RB for his advice, which was similar to that he had received from his father and Forster, but it was too late to stop publication. Following its release, RB wrote to Isa that Lytton’s “novel seems an absolute failure … . I only observed two reviews of it—two contemptuous notices. He should act differently if he wants to get any permanent hold of people worth securing” (19 July 1863, ms at Yale).

In light of the estrangement of five years before, and the profound differences in character of RB and Lytton, the seemingly mended friendship was bound to unravel. In a 19 November 1863 letter, RB discussed Lytton in connection with Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, a well-known violinist, and his wife Amélie (née Lévy), whom he had met one evening at Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s London house: “On entering the room where Mrs E: was, up she rose—a very pretty young woman of a piquant style—‘Mr B—allow me to introduce myself to you—as the best friend of Robert L!’ She went on to tell me in a breath that [‘]she wrote to him daily, that he sent her his journal daily, that he had read her such a beautiful poem of his own &c &c that he loved me so much &c &c’– Now, by this time, ‘je connais mon L.’ [‘I know my L.’] and, given the piquant brunette, with a husband,—the rest follows as the cat & the fiddle follows hi-diddle-diddle” (ms at ABL). RB may have had in mind Lytton’s relationship with Capt. and Mrs. Fleetwood Wilson. Nearly a year later, RB’s opinion of Lytton had not improved. Prompted by a question or comment from Isa about Lytton’s recent marriage, RB responded: “I can’t tell you how little I care about Lytton—he is utterly uninteresting to me,—I seem to know all about him. His cleverness surprised me a little, when I saw him,—he can extend that to almost any extent[.] As to his being ‘kind’ to any woman wholly in his power, I wonder what makes you hope that” (19 October 1864, ms at BL). Two-and-a-half years afterwards, RB spoke with less acerbity of Lytton after meeting his wife Edith for the first time: “She is very nice & distinguished,—not, to my mind, with a trace of prettiness—but that may be owing to her health (she is to be confined in June)– He is just the same as ever,—was very affectionate and demonstrative,—seems very fond of his wife, too,—and she, I hear, gives him a wonderful character,—let it all be as it looks” (21 March 1867, ms with Murray).

With the publication of the first two volumes of The Ring and the Book at the end of 1868, Lytton began expressing disappointment in RB’s poetry and in the poet himself: “I have not seen Browning’s first Vol.,” he wrote to Forster from Paris on 20 December 1868, “& of course he dont send it to me—did not send me his last, tho’ I hear he is offended with me for not sending him mine” (ms with Cobbold). After reading it, he declared to his father: “Did I tell you that I have read Browning’s 1st vol of his new Poem—& think it positively bad? I dont like it at all—but as he has now got the reviews on his side of course they will praise it without any sort of discrimination” (14 January 1869, ms with Cobbold). A week later, he wrote to Forster, this time sympathizing with the recipient’s own difficulties with RB: “I confess the sad belief that there are some kinds of wounds which can never be wholly healed—some kinds of fractures which must always leave a stiffness in the mended joint. … I myself have no quarrel with Browning: but he can never be again to me what he was—I can never again look up to him, as I once looked, love him as I once loved—trust him as I once trusted” (ms with Cobbold). In a letter to F.W. Farrar, the well-known clergyman who was at this time Master at Harrow, Lytton explained his dwindling respect for RB. Again criticizing the first volume of The Ring and the Book, he wrote: “I may be prejudiced but I fancy I detect in this book evidence of what has long been to me a very painful change in Browning’s Character. His head is quite turned & his heart quite spoiled by the world. He passes his time in running after the most vapid and worthless creatures (who patronize him to his face and laugh at him behind his back—as if he were a learned poodle) simply because they have title or fashion, & he is not even shrewd enough to perceive that he does not & cannot ever mix with these people so immensely his moral & intellectual inferiors, on terms of perfect social equality. Imagine the Author of Paracelsus proud of running about after such a creature as Lady Egerton of Tatton and thinking it a priviledge [sic] to carry her shawls & be shewn off at her vulgar balls! & for such things Browning has forsaken his old friends who stood loyally by him, in the brunt of life, when none of these silly fine people yet dreamed of his existence! I greatly doubt if such a life can produce the best fruit” ([late January 1869], ms with Cobbold). When he had read all of The Ring and the Book, Lytton did not alter his first opinion of it. He wrote to his father in late March 1869: “I have just finished with great difficulty and weariness the fourth volume of Browning’s enormous poem. I see it is immensely praised, but retain my opinion that it is a mammoth failure and marvellously unreadable” (ms with Cobbold).

The friendship seemed to be again on the verge of reconciliation following the publication of RB’s “Hervé Riel” in the March 1871 issue of The Cornhill Magazine, which gave Lytton an opportunity to write admiringly to his former idol once more: “It is only on such ground as may yet be covered by the memory of old friendship and bygone days that I think I can perhaps dispense with apology for letting you know my impressions about any work of yours. … I cannot give higher expression to my own high opinion of the excellence of ‘Hervé Riel’ than by saying that I think it one of the most perfect of your best lyrics” (29 March 1871, ms at ABL). RB wrote back with a full heart: “I can’t bear those expressions of yours about ‘memory of old friendship & bygone days,’ because I deserve,—I well know,—the pain they cause me. I well know that my old unwise way of quietism in friendship has done me wrong, and deserved wrong, in your eyes. … The memory of you, and a belief in your genius as well as in your kindliness to me & mine, have been among my best possessions this long while” (8 April 1871, ms with Cobbold). RB went on to mention that it was ten years since EBB’s death: “Remember what you were to me then,—and do forgive me, for I need it, if, by whatever the process, I have seemed forgetful.” Lytton answered RB’s letter with equal warmth, and the latter told Isa about the exchange: “He wrote to me about my little poem ‘Hervé Riel’ in a way which pained me,—as if he were nobody to me,—hardly ventured to criticise what I wrote, & so on: I replied the truth,—that he misunderstood me,—that I had plenty of the old feeling about him: to all of which he makes the prettiest of answers. To me, & mine, he never had any sort of fault; and ten years and more ought to do such ability and, in some respects, kindliness, a world of good” (25 April 1871, ms at ABL).

At the beginning of August 1871, RB wrote a note of condolence on the death of Lytton’s first-born son, Edward, and again referred to EBB’s death: “No words can say how profoundly I feel what you are feeling in the calamity just announced by the papers. I well remember what you were to me in my own trouble: would I could do anything like that for you in return” (ms with Cobbold). RB wrote again on the death of Lytton’s father in January 1873. But the good feeling engendered by “Hervé Riel” dissipated after a while. Subsequent to that work, RB published Balaustion’s Adventure (1871), Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), and Fifine at the Fair (1872), none of which appealed to Lytton: “What miserable trash Browning has condescended to pour forth in his three last books. he must surely laugh in his sleeve when he sees it taken as serieux by that idiot the British Press” (letter to F.W. Farrar, ca. April 1873, ms with Cobbold). John Forster, who would also be soured on RB from time to time, contributed to Lytton’s sinking opinion of his old friend with a gossipy letter concerning a possible marriage between the poet and the widow of his wealthy friend Ernst Benzon: “So there you have the plot of the new Decline and Fall. The explanation given is (for this rich woman taking a man of 62–3) that she wanted, in exchange for her money, admission to the houses and confidence of Great Folks” (4 June 1874, ms with Cobbold). Two years on, RB criticized a review Lytton had published in The Fortnightly Review: “Did you ever see such a sly piece of Bulwerian humbugishness? … Lytton is my very good friend, but I must say if there is a thing to be done & an underhand way of doing it, his hereditary instinct will always force him to choose the latter” (Diary of Edmund Gosse, [27] July 1876, ms at Rutgers).

By then, Lytton had been installed as Viceroy of India. A year and a half after he returned to England, RB confided to Daniel Sargent Curtis that the former viceroy “was [a] good fellow; but ‘had no backbone at all’ & did whatever he was told—‘this was why Disraeli sent him to India[’”] (Diary of Daniel Sargent Curtis, 16 October 1881, ms at Marciana). Throughout the 1880’s, until Lytton’s appointment as ambassador to France, RB would see his old friend occasionally at various dinners. Their last recorded correspondence occurred during the summer of 1887 and concerned the case of an impoverished Shakespearean scholar named Henry Brown. He had appealed to RB to act as an intermediary with Lytton in the hope of being granted funds from the executors of the now moribund Guild of Literature and Art, founded many years before by Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. As it turned out, there were no funds available for Brown. In his last extant letter to Lytton, RB thanked him for the trouble he had taken on Brown’s behalf: “You really have been very good, though I expected a touch of your old qualities” (2 August 1887, ms with Cobbold). The previous month, in a letter to Jane Maria Strachey, Lytton summed up his critical thoughts on RB’s poetry: “He has written, at least, three or four poems any one of which I, for my part, would rather have written than all Tennyson’s poems put together and one of them—Paracelsus—is … the noblest & greatest poem produced in any literature within the last hundred years. Yet he has written besides such volumes of trash, and even his best poems are marred by such defects of taste, that the probability is … Browning’s best will be, a hundred years hence, little more than a literary curiosity” (ms at India Office).

Lytton was in Paris, serving as ambassador to France, at the time of RB’s funeral on 31 December 1889 and did not attend the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. There is no record of his having sent a bouquet, wreath or any other remembrance to the funeral. In fairness to Lytton, an outbreak of influenza in the French capital was reported in the British press during this period, and, according to The Standard of 3 January 1890, he, his eldest son, and eldest daughter were all suffering from the ailment. Additionally, some three weeks before, the ambassador had fallen and severely sprained his ankle. On 25 January 1890, Lytton sent a melancholy note to Lady Pollock: “Browning’s death affected me deeply in many ways. It has stirred up all sorts of dormant ghosts in my life. My friendship with him long ago was at one time exceedingly intimate and tender, but circumstances I do not now care to recall came between us and chilled it, and it was never cordially renewed” (Personal & Literary Letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, ed. Betty Balfour, 1906, II, 394).


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