Rolfe Humphries & Edith Batho reviews of
Owen Meredith. A Critical Biography of Robert, First Earl of Lytton
The Nation. May 18, 1946, p605-606. "A Faded Violet."
Owen Meredith. A Critical Biography of Robert, First Earl of Lytton. By Aurelia Brooks Harlan. Columbia University Press; London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1946. $3.75; 25s. net.
WHAT are the chances of a man who wants, terribly, to write, yet has only enough talent to succeed in writing terribly? Not too bad, perhaps; Mrs. Harlan's sympathetic and scholarly study suggests that such a person, given energy, luck, connections, and money, can manage to do fairly well in the space of a lifetime. The more the biographer quotes, to be sure, the leas she is able to interest the reader in her hero's literary works. But, for all that, the story is a fascinating one: what a novel Henry James might have made of it! A child of Mayfair, son of a distinguished novelist, a disciple of the Brownings, a writer of many books of poems, some of which sold many editions, a diplomat, in many capitals, eventually a viceroy of India, Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer, also known as Owen Meredith, died a disappointed and frustrated man. He had always wanted to be a poet; he must have known he was never a very good one. Mrs. Harlan's thesis that his father was partly to blame appears to me debatable. It would certainly seem true that Bulwer Lytton did all he could to discourage his son's literary career, even to the extent of refusing him permission to use the family name; and it may be that the reasons he alleged -- that writing was a hazardous, arduous, unremunerative business -- were not entirely ingenuous. He may have been jealous, fearful that his son's name would surpass his own, and his pride was considerable. But that pride, one suspects, had equal grounds for anxiety in the possibility that the son would be, not too good, but not good enough; and as far as I can see, the old man was just about right.
"Out of the leaves of my 'Lucile,'" runs a sentimental verse I remember from somewhere, "falls a faded violet." Reading "Lucile," as the reviewer feels he must when he is considering Mrs. Harlan's critical biography, one wonders about the taste which could have made it popular: "Half the Archduchesses and fine ladies at Vienna are reading 'Lucile' and profess to like it," wrote the author to his father, in 1869; and there were upward of a hundred editions in America during the eighties and nineties. We know all about the taste of the eighties and nineties, of course; that explains a great deal. And yet, and even while agreeing with the judgment of Fame's incorruptible silence on the works of Owen Meredith, we have what be might call a fleeting, sobering fancy: out of the leaves of what equally popular masterpiece of this decade will fall the faded violet in 1980?
The Review of English Studies 24:95 (July 1948), pp. 266-7.
The title and sub-title of this book indicate what is in fact a troublesome disproportion. By the end the reader is convinced that 'Owen Meredith' does not deserve so full a study and is interesting only as one side of that complex personality, the first Earl of Lytton, to whose tenure of the Viceroyalty of India less than forty pages are devoted. Mrs. Aurelia Brooks Harlan brings out sympathetically the factors of inheritance and environment which helped to develop him, but all her sympathy cannot prevent us from recognizing that 'Owen Meredith' mistook facility for poetry. She herself asks in her last sentence, 'What would have been the result had Lytton during the formative years of his youth been permitted, like Tennyson or Browning, for example, to be alternately the poet and idler in London and its environs?' But she has already given the answer: he would still have been himself, a derivative and not an original poet, with a fatal facility of rhyming, a lack of critical sense, and, what she does not note, an uncertain sense of rhythm. 'I don't like your form—the rhythmical— no, not at all', Mrs. Browning wrote candidly to him of Lucile, and one can only echo her comment and wonder at the hundred and more editions which the poem went through in America, where 'for two generations after its publication Lucile was one of the fixtures of the parlor table'. The fashion for long narrative poems and particularly for novels in verse does not give a full explanation. There are witty flashes and poetic flashes in Lucile as in the other poems—it is easy to see, for example, why William Morris enjoyed 'The Earl's Return', especially the passage quoted here on p. 78, and 'The Portrait' (pp. 110 and 111) has a Hardylike irony—but they are swamped by the sheer volume of unpoetic thought and writing.
--EDITH C. BATHO
Last revised: 20 August 2015