By the time that Joseph Conrad alluded to it in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' seventy years after its publication, Pelham; or, Adventures of a Gentleman had been all but forgotten by the British reading public, and its author, the parliamentarian and prolific novelist Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton, consigned to an interesting place in literary history as the author of so-called spiritualist works such as A Strange Story (All the Year Round, 1861-2) and the epic Last Days of Pompeii (1834, text). Bulwer-Lytton was definitely nineteenth-century British literature's "Forgotten Man" until resurrected by Joseph Conrad's mentioning him as the author of choice for the children of the sea, the men who crewed the clipper-ships during the last third of the nineteenth century. Conrad may, of course, be pulling the reader's leg when he elaborates on the supposed popularity of Bulwer-Lytton's works among such members of the society of the forecastle as are sufficiently literate to negotiate this writer's ornate prose. Nevertheless, there is a wonderful irony about old salts such as Singleton learning about the dazzling and devious society of the shore through reading a book some seventy years out of date in its vision of high life and low life.

Like The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Pelham; or, Adventures of a Gentleman is an early novel by a writer destined for literary celebrity, but, at the time of writing, desperate for both critical and commercial success. Although this was Lord Lytton's second novel, written shortly after his marriage at a time when his debts of 3,000 per annum were placing him under considerable anxiety (his allowance having been cut off by his mother as a result of his having married against her wishes), Pelham; or, Adventures of a Gentleman (1828) is generally considered among his best novels. In a first-person narrative which reveals how closely young Bulwer-Lytton identified himself with his protagonist, the dandy and man-about-town in both London and Paris, Henry Pelham, recounts his own story from careless days at Eton with Reginald Glanville to his exonerating his old friend of a charge of first-degree murder by unmasking the real killers. Thus, what begins as a bildungsroman and develops into a silver-fork novel (a subgenre that W. M. Thackeray, his life-long rival, closely identified with Bulwer-Lytton in a facetious remark about Bulwer's being "a polisher of forks" in his early fiction), ends as one of the first Newgate Novels of crime and detection, with the dandy and wit-cum-parliamentarian turning sleuth.

Frontispiece by Phiz for the second edition of Pelham

Henry Pelham begins his life's story with an account of his aristocratic parents. At Eton, Pelham, the only child of one of "our eldest earls, [his] mother the dowerless daughter of a Scotch peer," meets fellow-aristocrat Reginald Glanville, the son of a baronet. The pair attend Trinity College, Cambridge, together, but the snobbish and affected Pelham is glad to leave a place he feels "reek[s] with vulgarity," albeit in poor health and without vocation. Subsequently they drift apart as young men until reunited by a charge of murder being levelled against Glanville. Against apparently irrefutable proof, including a threatening note that the accused sent the victim and which authorities discover in the victim's pocket-book. The victim is a pillar of the establishment, the arrogant and wealthy Sir John Tyrrell. Pelham, having agreed to undertake his friend's case, realizes He must prove that the real murderers are the criminal mastermind Tom Thornton and his reluctant accomplice, Dawson. According to Sir Paul Harvey in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932, rpt. 1983), the character of Thornton is based upon "the well-known murderer, Thurtell" (p. 629). J. W. Oakley in his essay on the novel further identifies Glanville with Lord Byron, Lady Frances, the protagonist's mother with Bulwer's own, and the dandy Russelton with Beau Brummell, dictator of fashion during the Regency. Pelham is socially adaptable, able to converse and fit in the very different worlds of the Latin-quoting politician Lord Vincent and country clergyman Christopher Clutterbuck.

Assisted by a more benign underworld figure reminiscent of some of Dickens's colourful Cockneys, Job Jonson (who is motivated by a desire to retire from the life of the turf and agrees to help if awarded an annuity of 300), Pelham disguised as a priest penetrates the underworld of London's East End to liberate Dawson from the notorious Brimstone Bess's safe-house in which Thornton has incarcerated him. Afflicted by a guilty conscience and actuated by a desire for reevenge upon his former confederate, before a magistrate Dawson indicts the villainous Thornton for the murder: "He was that day fully committed for trial, and Sir Reginald Glanville unhesitantingly acquitted" (Ch. 84). After the affected prose of the dandy and wit, Job's thieves' cant ("flash") is refreshing, and the happy ending, with Pelham marrying his old friend's sister, acceptable in a novel which concerns itself with the issue of social exclusivity versus social inclusion.

References

Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Edward George D. Pelham; or, Adventures of a Gentleman. The Works, No. 25. New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1892. With frontispiece by H. K. Browne (Phiz).

Harvey, Sir Paul. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th edition revised by Dorothy Eagle. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1983.

Oakley, J. W. "The Reform of Honor in Bulwer's Pelham." Nineteenth-Century Literature 47, 1 (June 1992): 49-71.


Victorian Overview

Last updated 29 October 2006