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Just Visiting: Robert Bulwer-Lytton

Edward O’Donoghue, Bethlem’s chaplain and amateur chronicler from 1892 to 1930, compiled his own list of famous visitors to the Hospital and published it in the in-house magazine Under the Dome in 1898:

“Among the signatures in our Visitors’ Books are those of the Princess Narés of Samoa; of Alfonso de Bourbon, Prince of the Asturias (son of Queen Isabella II of Spain); of General Negrete, and the family of the President of Slavador (Central America); of Robert Browning, Robert Bulwer Lytton, Lewis Wingfield, and Bellew; of George, Duke of Cambridge, Princess Frederica of Hanover, and Prince Salm-Salm’ of doctors and MPs innumerable; of Olga de Novikoff…and of the Ambassador of Austria-Hungary.”

Here is evidence, if evidence were needed, of what we called last month “the lively cultural and intellectual exchange” of ideas and practice about nineteenth-century psychiatry. Here, too, is an indication of just how long Just Visiting could run if we let it. In point of fact, it is shortly to be brought to a conclusion – we cannot do justice to all those mentioned by O’Donoghue. One name that stands out in his list, however, is that of Robert Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891), son of aristocrats Edward and Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, and father to Victor Bulwer-Lytton. It is fair to say of the Victorian-era Bulwer-Lytton family that it had its share of high-profile troubles. These have been recounted in a chapter of Inconvenient People (a new book by Sarah Wise, which we hope shortly to review for this blog). But in a biography of Edward published one hundred years ago, Victor Bulwer-Lytton ventures to say of his novelist grandmother Rosina’s intellect that it was “too much disordered for liberty, and not sufficiently disordered for Bedlam”.1 The principal evidence of this ‘disorder’ comprised the decades of vituperative scorn she poured upon her husband (whom she dubbed ‘Sir Liar’) in print and in public following their separation in 1836.

In 1858 Edward arranged for her to be committed to a private asylum (not Bethlem), but she was released within three weeks, the medical certificates upon which the admission was based having been overturned. The eventual result of this fresh grievance was the publication (in 1880, seven years after Edward’s death) of an account of her misfortunes, entitled A Blighted Life. “To the tale of her sufferings, real and imaginary, was henceforth added the chapter of her kidnapping and forcible incarceration in a lunatic asylum”, wrote Victor, perhaps not entirely sympathetically, in 1913. “In the eyes of those who heard only her version of the facts, her husband became a greater fiend than ever, and between these implacable foes no truce was ever called on this side of the grave.”2

Robert Bulwer Lytton

One can only guess at the effect a visit to Bethlem may have had on Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who had been estranged from his mother from the age of seven, and had most dealings with her in the strained months immediately surrounding her three-week incarceration, after which they never met again.3 His was an impossible situation. In A Blighted Life Rosina exonerates him from direct involvement in what she saw as a plot to silence her, yet faults him for not standing up to his father, and wonders at “the mystery of iniquity about [Edward’s] unhallowed power over his truly unfortunate Son”.4 Hearing later that Robert’s engagement to be married had been broken off, and that he was in “deep misery”, Rosina wrote him a letter “which, if he had had a heart of stone, provided it were only in the shape of a heart! and a conscience, even if no bigger than a midje’s egg [sic], he would have answered! But” she wrote plaintively in A Blighted Life, “he never has”.5 Here is an open window onto the aching trauma of family breakdown.