The Coming Race – A Book Review in Two Parts

lytton.jpgThe Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 2007, Hesperus Press Ltd., first published in 1871.


Sadly, the Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton is today best known for his inspiringly turgid prose which sparked the modern Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  The purpose of the contest is to produce a prize-winning terribly written opening sentence to emulate Bulwer-Lytton’s own:

“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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”  (From the novel Paul Clifford, 1830.)

This is a shame, for Bulwer-Lytton is a better writer than that despite his occasional awkward verbal jugglings typical of the ponderous style of his time.

His utopian novel, The Coming Race, is considered to be among the earliest science fiction novels, about a subterranean superior civilisation and its powers.  In its day (and beyond), the book was tremendously influential as a novel of ideas, of scientific and philosophical speculation.  In some quarters it was even taken as thinly disguised truth.

I found myself thinking about this novel and trying to understand it from three different angles: the man himself and the times in which it was written, its cultural consequences, and the actual substance of the novel.

In 1871, when this novel was first published, labour unions had just been legalized in Great Britain.  The Franco-Prussian War had ended with the capitulation of France.  Ulysses S. Grant was the President of the United States.  Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass.  George Eliot wrote Middlemarch.  Charles Darwin completed The Descent of Man

Two years before, Francis Galton published Hereditary Genius, a pioneering treatise on eugenics, which advocates the improvement of the human species through direct intervention.  (Inspired though he was by his cousin’s Charles Darwin’s writings, this notion fell into disfavor in later years when it was taken up by Hitler’s Nazis.)  This is the intellectual climate out of which Bulwer-Lytton’s novel emerges. 

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was born to General William Earle Bulwer of Heydon Hall and Wood Dalling, and Elizabeth Barbara Lytton in 1803.  Educated at Cambridge, he took up writing apparently to finance an extravagant lifestyle as a man of fashion.  He began his literary career in 1820 with a book of poems and went on to publish works in historical fiction, mystery, romance, the occult and science fiction.

Separated from his wife in 1836, she went so far as to publish three years later her own novel devoted to a bitter caricature of Bulwer-Lytton.

He began his political career as a reformer, becoming member of parliament in 1831.  At one point he was offered lordship of the Admiralty which he turned down because it might interfere with his writing.  Eventually he became a baron and served in the House of Lords.

Strangely enough, he took a keen interest in the affairs of Britain’s Canadian colony of British Columbia where I live.  The town of Lytton at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers is named after him.

It is said that Bulwer-Lytton had a lifelong quarrel with Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Due to Bulwer-Lytton’s keen fashion sense, Tennyson called him effeminate.  In turn he accused Tennyson of “girlishness.”

Bulwer-Lytton’s belief in the power of the imagination took him to an interest in the occult and he was not above claiming initiation into the Rosicrucians.

He coined the phrases ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’ and ‘the great unwashed.’

Bulwer-Lytton, in the words of George S. Spies, “is perhaps one of the finest examples of a literary figure who was greatly revered during his lifetime and almost completely forgotten after it.”

About the only work that retained interest into the next century was his novel The Last Days of Pompeii, about the destruction of that city by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.  The novel was filmed as an ABC-TV miniseries in 1964, although other versions were made as movies in Italian previous to that.


In Part II we will get to Bulwer-Lytton’s novel itself, with its ideas about the mysterious and powerful energy of vril along with his anthropology of the Vril-ya, the underground race of superior beings who wield that energy he describes in The Coming Race.

This edition also has a fascinating introduction by Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians, which is also worth mention.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Science, Science Fiction, Writing

2 Comments on “The Coming Race – A Book Review in Two Parts”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Fencer, I may be a member of the great literary unwashed, but I always figured that this guy got a bum rap. I never saw what was so bad about this sentence. Maybe it ain’t Shakespeare, but I’ve read worse. Was the contest established before or after Snoopy started using it as the opening line for his novels? MDW

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,
    I’m pretty sure the contest started after Snoopy’s involvement…
    There’s some pretty funny efforts submitted to the contest. Here’s last year’s runner-up winning entry, for instance:
    “I know what you’re thinking, punk,” hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, “you’re thinking, ‘Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?’ – and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel loquacious?’ – well do you, punk?”
    Stuart Vasepuru
    Edinburgh, Scotland


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