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date: 11 November 2019

Lytton, Rosina Anne Doyle Bulwer [née Rosina Anne Doyle Wheeler], Lady Lyttonfree

(1802–1882)
  • Marie Mulvey-Roberts

Rosina Anne Doyle Bulwer Lytton, Lady Lytton (1802–1882)

by John Jewel Penstone (after Alfred Edward Chalon, 1852)

Lytton, Rosina Anne Doyle Bulwer [née Rosina Anne Doyle Wheeler], Lady Lytton (1802–1882), novelist, was born on 4 November 1802 in co. Limerick, Ireland, the younger of the two surviving children of Francis Massy Wheeler (1781–1820), grandson of Hugh, first Baron Massy of Duntrileague, and his wife, Anna Wheeler (1785?–1848), advocate of women's rights and daughter of Nicholas Doyle, protestant archbishop of Cashel. Rosina Wheeler was brought up with her sister Henrietta (1801–1826) at the Wheeler family home, Ballywife, Kilross, on the border of the counties of Limerick and Tipperary. In August 1812 her mother deserted her father and, assisted by her brother John, left Ireland with her sister Bessie and two daughters. The fugitives embarked on a voyage to Guernsey aboard the Ocean Pearl, which belonged to Anna Wheeler's uncle General Sir John Doyle, who presided as governor of this Channel Island. Here Rosina entered into a more affluent lifestyle, developing her wit and talent for mimicry, and mingling with aristocrats who had fled the French Revolution. Between 1816 and 1820 she received an inadequate education at a private school in Kensington in London, which is dramatized as Miss James's school for young ladies in her fictional autobiography: Miriam Sedley, or, The Tares and the Wheat: a Tale of Real Life (1851).

As a dark-haired beauty with cupid-bow lips, Rosina entered into society, where she attracted the attentions of Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton (1803–1873), who, in April 1826, proposed marriage. Edward's mother opposed the match, and when the wedding went ahead on 29 August 1827 carried out her threat of putting a stop to her son's income. Since this forced him to support his wife by writing novels, a considerable pressure was placed on the marriage. Tensions arising from financial strains and Edward's marital infidelities even erupted into domestic violence against Rosina. Not one placidly to accept this situation, Rosina on a trip to Naples retaliated against her husband's adultery by flirting with a Neapolitan prince. Her action prompted Bulwer Lytton, in 1836, after nine years of marriage, to draw up an agreement to separate. The most painful repercussion was that Rosina was parted from her children. Except for four months in 1858, she never saw her son Edward Robert from 1838 to the time of her death in 1882. She was also denied access to her daughter Emily, and had to be granted a special dispensation by her husband in order to visit Emily, who was then dying of typhoid fever, in 1848.

The annuity of £400 that Rosina received as a separated wife from Bulwer Lytton was inadequate for her needs. This reduced income forced her to leave the metropolis for less expensive parts of the country such as Llangollen in north Wales and then Taunton in the west country. Pursued by creditors, she supplemented her income by publishing novels, and also used her writing to exact revenge on her husband for his desertion. Many of her works set out to attack him, as did the satiric best-seller Cheveley, or, The Man of Honour (1839) and The Budget of the Bubble Family (1840), the latter of which ridiculed Bulwer Lytton's family and their ancestral seat, Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Other fictional exposés of her marriage and the plight of separated wives include: The School for Husbands, or, Molière's Life and Times (1852), Behind the Scenes: a Novel (1854), and The World and his Wife, or, A Person of Consequence: a Photographic Novel (1858). Even novels more removed in setting, such as Bianca Cappello: an Historical Romance (1843), contain fierce polemical passages protesting the ill treatment of women by their husbands. Other novels containing unconventional heroines include: The Peer's Daughters: a Novel (1849) and Very Successful! (1856), the latter of which was particularly well received.

Rosina drew attention to her reduced state in the newspapers and even made an appeal for funds from the public in her Appeal to the Justice and Charity of the English Public (1857). The sparring between husband and wife became more intense when Rosina launched a public and vicious verbal attack on Bulwer Lytton from the hustings while, as colonial secretary in Lord Derby's administration, he was canvassing in Hertford for re-election as a tory MP. The result was that her husband, angry and mortified by this very public humiliation, had Rosina confined in a private lunatic asylum in Inverness Lodge in Brentford. As a result of the public protest spearheaded by her women friends, she won her freedom after three weeks.

A scandalous autobiographical revelation of Rosina's ill treatment at the hands of her husband written in 1866 appeared in book form in 1880 entitled A Blighted Life. Bulwer Lytton had died in 1873, but the memoir aroused the disapproval of their son, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton (1831–1891), who had remained loyal to his father's memory. Rosina denied that she had intended it for publication, and wrote the appropriately entitled pamphlet: Refutation of an audacious forgery of the Dowager Lady Lytton's name to a book of the publication of which she was totally ignorant (1880).

Towards the end of her life Rosina adopted the pseudonym of George Gordon Scott for her historical novel Clumber Chase, or, Love's Riddle Solved by a Royal Sphinx: a Tale of the Restoration (1871). Under her own name she published a collection of essays called Shells from the Sands of Time (1876). Retaining vestiges of her legendary beauty in old age, she died at her home, Glenômera, 77 Longton Grove, Upper Sydenham, Kent, on 12 March 1882, plagued by physical pain, sorrow, and debt. She was buried in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist at Shirley in Surrey, but her grave was unmarked until 12 March 1995, when her great-great-grandson David Lytton Cobbold, second Baron Cobbold of Knebworth, arranged for a tombstone to be erected on her grave with the inscription she had requested: 'The Lord will give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve.'

Rosina had brought about her 'hard bondage' through her refusal to conform to the duties of a Victorian wife, which required women to 'suffer and be silent'. By drawing attention to the plight of married women and separated wives through her novels, pamphlets, and journalism, Rosina contributed towards the mounting pressure that eventually brought about legislation designed to protect the interests of women. Rosina Bulwer Lytton represents far more than a case history of a hysteric or an unorthodox minor Victorian novelist. For her undoubted talent and extraordinary courage in speaking out against injustice she deserves a permanent place in women's history, as she has provided an often unrecognized source of inspiration to those who have followed. Her most immediate legacy was passed to her granddaughter Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton (1869–1923), who became one of the heroines of the Edwardian women's suffrage movement.

Sources

  • L. Devey, Life of Rosina, Lady Lytton (1887)
  • Letters of the late Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, to his wife, ed. L. Devey (1884)
  • Unpublished letters of Lady Bulwer Lytton to A. E. Challon, R.A., ed. S. M. Ellis (1914)
  • H. Small, Love's madness: medicine, the novel, and female insanity (1996)
  • d. cert.
  • E. R. Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl Lytton, The life, letters and literary remains of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton, 2 vols. (1883)

Archives

  • Herts. ALS, corresp. and papers
  • Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
  • Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, papers

Likenesses

  • miniature, 1830–34
  • A. E. Chalon, drawing, 1852
  • J. Jewel Penstone, stipple engraving (after drawing by A. E. Chalon, 1852), NPG [see illus.]
  • ivory miniature
  • miniature, Knebworth, Hertfordshire

Wealth at Death

£405 10s. 0d.: probate, 28 May 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Liverpool Record Office and Local Studies Service
National Portrait Gallery, London
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Bodleian Library, Oxford