Another Forgotten Bestseller: Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830)

To celebrate Book Week Scotland this week, we are presenting another forgotten bestseller.

Title page of the first edition of Paul Clifford (1830)

“It was a dark and stormy night”. Inspired by Linda Cracknell’s Creative Writing workshop in August, I decided to read the book with that famous first line. The book is, of course, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford, first published in 1830, and a great favourite, along with Bulwer Lytton’s other works, with our Chambers Circulating Library borrowers, and this is how the novel begins:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. (Paul Clifford, chapter 1)


Stand and Deliver: A highwayman of the period

Set (loosely – historical accuracy isn’t the novel’s forte) in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, Paul Clifford tells the story of its highwayman hero, following him from his early years as the adopted son of a drunken Cockney inn-keeper, through his adventures as the chief of a band of highwaymen, to final happiness with the beautiful and deserving heroine. The novel is tonally quite odd – it is an interesting combination of different genres – part picaresque along the lines of Gil Blas (to which it alludes directly twice), part bildungsroman, and part sentimental romance, it also and perhaps most strongly resembles the social problem novels that would become popular in the wake of the Reform Act of 1832. The social problem in this case is stated, directly and unsubtly, on several occasions in Paul Clifford, as being the corruptive effects of imprisonment in Britain’s penal system. As Paul Clifford himself says, in his memorable statement at his trial:

My lord, it was the turn of a straw which made me what I am. Seven years ago, I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit. I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law; I came forth, in a few weeks, a man who was prepared to break all laws! Whence was this change? Was it my fault, or that of my condemners? You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve; you wronged me yet more deeply when (even had I been guilty of the first offence) I was sentenced to herd with hardened offenders, and graduates in vice and vice’s methods of support […] your legislation made me what I am; and it now destroys me, as it has destroyed thousands, for being what it made me! (Paul Clifford, chapter 35)

The underlying irony of the novel is that the judge who twice sentences Clifford and thus dooms him to ruin – in the first place for stealing his watch (which he did not do), in the second for committing highway robbery on a peer of the realm (which he did) – and who is throughout working to bring about his downfall, is actually unknowingly the father from whom Clifford was stolen as a young child. The threads of the plot are so woven that the reader has a fairly strong inkling of this fact long before either Brandon or Clifford are aware of it, and the novel’s denouement, where the two face each other in court, neither aware of their relationship, has some elements of both tragedy and farce in it. Some scenes (like this one) are written in a tone of high melodrama; others, particularly those set among the highwaymen, partake strongly of low and bawdy comedy and include topical songs and ballads.

The novel also contains a large quantity of comic scenes and characters, and throughout contains a vein of cynical humour which relates the professions of politics and the law to that of the highwayman, and which inveighs against the corruption of politics. Lord Mauleverer (the peer robbed by Clifford, who is also the boon companion of judge Brandon, and Clifford’s rival for the affections of Lucy Brandon), tells us, for example:

“Why you and I, my dear fellow,” said the earl, “who know men, and who have lived all our lives in the world, must laugh behind the scenes at the cant we wrap in tinsel and send out to stalk across the stage. We know that our Coriolanus of Tory integrity is a corporal kept by a prostitute, and the Brutus of Whig liberty is a lacquey turned out of place for stealing the spoons; but we must not tell this to the world. So, Brandon, you must write me a speech for the next session, and be sure it has plenty of general maxims, and concludes with ‘my bleeding country!’” (Paul Clifford, chapter 14).

Clifford’s innate nobility and firmness of purpose are favourably contrasted with the political manoeuvrings of both Mauleverer and Brandon, and his eventual redemptive marriage to his cousin, the charming Lucy, is clearly designed to help readers recognise that the faults in Clifford are the result of injustices done to him, rather than his own failings of character.

Edward Bulwer Lytton, by H. W. Pickersgill (1831). From Wikimedia Commons.

As Bulwer Lytton himself suggested, in the preface to the edition of 1840:

[T]he present subject was selected, and the Novel written, with a twofold object: First, to draw attention to two errors in our penal institutions; namely, a vicious prison-discipline, and a sanguinary criminal code, – the habit of corrupting the boy by the very punishment that ought to redeem him, and then hanging the man at the first occasion, as the easiest way of getting rid of our own blunders […] So far this book is less a picture of the king’s highway than the law’s royal road to the gallows, – a satire on the short cut established between the House of Correction and the Condemned Cell…

In its concerns with inequity, injustice and the failings of the penal system, as well as its depictions of corrupt and cynical politicians, Bulwer Lytton’s novel continues to speak eloquently to our own time. It’s not hard to see why Edinburgh’s fashionable New Town readers loved the novel – its combination of comedy, high farce, tragedy, melodrama and genuine social outrage made it a page turner in 1830, and it remains so today.

I read Paul Clifford courtesy of the wonderful Project Gutenberg – it is available to read online here: