Leslie Mitchell has set himself a daunting task in his new biography of Edward Bulwer Lytton. First, as Mitchell points out early on in the text, while at one point in the Victorian era he vied with his fellow novelist Charles Dickens in popularity, since the end of the First World War he has been almost entirely forgotten - except to be ridiculed as the author of the worst sentence ever to open a novel: "It was a dark and stormy night" (which inspired the Bulwer Lytton Contest for bad writing, which Mitchell, tactfully, does not mention). Secondly, Lytton was, to put it mildly, a very off-putting fellow, who might have been the most personally obnoxious author who ever lived (and try mulling over the implications of *that* statement for a second!).
It doesn't sound promising, does it? A forgotten author who was a real jerk -- who's interested in reading about him? But the fact is that Mitchell has done an admirable job of resurrecting this unsung writer and made him seem worth considering, even if you wouldn't want to sit next to him at a dinner party.
Of course, it helps that Lytton had one of the most famously catastrophic marriages in all of literary history - one that makes the Tolstoys and Fitzgeralds seem like Ozzie and Harriet by comparison. The marriage of Edward Bulwer Lytton and his wife Rosina was a total nightmare. At one point he had her committed to an insane asylum, and she retaliated by writing a series of abusive fictitious accounts of their marriage and humiliating him publicly whenever she got the opportunity. It's pretty grim stuff but it makes for engrossing reading.
The only flaw with this biography is that it is not a straightforward narrative, as most biographies are, but a little more impressionistic. Each chapter takes one aspect of Lytton's life and discusses it at length. And while I might have preferred a more conventional approach, the method utilized by Mitchell does prove effective. And putting all the information about Lytton's marriage, for example, in one chapter makes it even more harrowing (and entertaining - there's definitely a Merchant-Ivory film in that disastrous mesalliance).
Mitchell makes a token effort at making a case for Lytton as a novelist who can be appreciated today, but the fact is that it's hopeless: Lytton's prose style was so pretentious and convoluted that I very much doubt that he'll ever reach any type of popularity again (unlike his contemporary Anthony Trollope, who has seen an extraordinary renaissance of interest in his work in the past few decades). So what you're left with is the very gaudy life of a man who destroyed nearly everything he touched, but whose very faults make him interesting. So I can recommend this book, and if you go on from this to sample some of Lytton's fictional wares, well, you're a lot more adventurous than me.