Thursday 14 December 2017

Victorian poet's tragic secret uncovered by heir 150 years later

Engraving of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) English statesman, poet and Viceroy of India. Dated 1878 (Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Engraving of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) English statesman, poet and Viceroy of India. Dated 1878 (Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Patrick Sawer

He lies among the greats in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey in London - a novelist and playwright who coined such memorable phrases as "the great unwashed", "the pen is mightier than the sword" and that immortal opening line: "It was a dark and stormy night."

However, Edward Bulwer-Lytton - the Victorian writer and statesman whose popularity once rivalled that of Charles Dickens - hid a terrible secret. His teenage daughter Emily is thought to have been driven to suicide by her troubled relationship with her womanising father and embarrassment over her own affairs, one with a 15-year-old boy.

This startling conclusion was made by one of Bulwer-Lytton's modern day aristocratic descendants after he visited her tomb at the family seat of Knebworth House, Hertfordshire.

Henry Lytton Cobbold, Bulwer-Lytton's great-great-great-grandson, stumbled across the tale - worthy of a Gothic romance - as he explored the mausoleum deep below the grand house at Knebworth Park.

One of the coffins had been wrenched open (probably by thieves looking for lead) and was found to contain the skeleton of a young girl.

Henry Lytton Cobbold established that it was the body of Emily Bulwer-Lytton, who died alone at the age of 19.

The find took him on a 17-year quest to establish the truth about Emily, which has now culminated with a two-volume biography of her.

But the cause of her death was officially given as typhus, and Lytton Cobbold initially feared the virus might still have been contagious when he found her damaged casket.

However, he believes she took her own life by ingesting large amounts of the laudanum she had been prescribed for toothache. Her family would have covered it up, as taking one's own life was illegal until 1961.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's plays and sprawling novels are now largely forgotten - but in his day he was more widely read than Dickens or Walter Scott, and had a reputation as a dandy and a philanderer.

Emily's mother was Rosina Doyle Wheeler, who came from Tipperary and was herself a writer. Rosina would today probably have been diagnosed as bipolar. In 1858, Bulwer-Lytton had her committed to a lunatic asylum, but she was released a few weeks later following a public outcry.

Speaking of his book, Henry Lytton Cobbold says: "Emily's worsening relationship with her father and fears that she might be turning into her mother led to what I suspect was suicide.

"Encountering my great-great-great-aunt's skeleton was an extraordinary moment." He unearthed Emily's letters in archives, unread since the 1840s.

Henry Lytton Cobbold runs Knebworth with his wife, Martha. He is well known for his interest in erotica, and in 2001 wrote a novella called Wearing a Smile: A Romantic Comedy About Nudity.

His daughter, Morwenna, is a DJ and fashion commercials producer, while his son, Ed, is a rock guitarist and music promoter, and will one day inherit Knebworth, famed for its rock festivals.

Henry Lytton Cobbold's book In the Bosom of her Father: the Life and Death of Emily Bulwer-Lytton is published by The 39 Production Company Ltd.


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