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Imprisonment of Lady Bulwer-Lytton

Karl Marx

London, July 23, 1858

The great Bulwer scandal, which The London Times thought to be "fortunately" hushed up by an amicable family arrangement, is far from having subsided into a state of quiescence. It is true that, despite the great party interest involved, the metropolitan press, with some trifling exceptions, did everything in its power to hush the case by a conspiracy of silence—Sir Edward Bulwer being one of the chiefs of the literary coterie which lords it more despotically over the heads of the London journalists than even party connection, and to openly affront whose wrath literary gentlemen generally lack the necessary courage. The Morning Post first informed the public that Lady Bulwer's friends intended insisting upon legal investigation[a]; The London Times reprinted the short paragraph of The Morning Post[b], and even The Advertiser, although it certainly has no literary position to hazard, did not venture beyond some meager extracts from The Somerset Gazette. Even Palmerston's influence proved for the moment unavailing to extort anything from his literary retainers, and on the appearance of the flippantly apologetical letter of Bulwer's son[c], all these public guardians of the liberty of the subject, while declaring themselves highly satisfied, deprecated any further indelicate intrusion upon the "painful matter." The Tory press, of course, has long since spent all its virtuous indignation on Lord Clanricarde's behalf, and the Radical press, which more or less receives its inspirations from the Manchester school[581] anxiously avoids creating any embarrassment to the present Administration. Yet, along with the respectable or would-be respectable press of the metropolis, there exists an irrespectable press, absolutely swayed by its political patrons with no literary standing to check them, always ready to coin money out of its privilege of free speech, and anxious to improve an opportunity of appearing in the eyes of the public as the last representatives of manliness. On the other hand, the moral instincts of the bulk of the people once awakened, there will be no need of further maneuvering. The public mind once worked into a state of moral excitement, even The London Times may throw off its mask of reserve, and, with a bleeding heart of course, stab the Derby Administration by passing the sentence of "public opinion" on such a literary chieftain even as Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

This is exactly the turn things are now taking. That Lord Palmerston, as we hinted at first[582], is the secret manager of the spectacle is now un secret qui court les rues[d], as the French say.

"On dit,"[e] says a London weekly, "that Lady Bulwer-Lytton's best friend in this affair has been Lady Palmerston. We all remember how the Tories took up the cudgels for Mr. Norton when Lord Melbourne was in trouble about that gentleman's wife. Tit for tat is fair play. But on reflection it is rather sad at this time of day to find a Secretary of State using the influence of his position to commit acts of oppression, and the wife of a Minister playing off the wife of another Minister against an Administration."

It is often by the crooked ways of political intrigue only that truth becomes smuggled into some corner of the British press. The apparently generous horror at a real outrage is after all but a calculated grimace; and public justice is only appealed to in order to cherish private malice. For aught the chivalrous knights of the inkhorn would care about it, Lady Bulwer might have remained forever in a lunatic asylum, at London; she might have been disposed of more quietly than at St. Petersburg or Vienna; the conventionalities of literary decorum would have debarred her from any means of redress but for the happy circumstance of Palmerston's keen eye singling her out as the thin end of the wedge wherewith possibly to split a Tory Administration.

A short analysis of the letter, addressed by Bulwer's son to the London journals, will go far to elucidate the true state of the case. Mr. Robert B. Lytton sets out by asserting that his "simple assertion" must be "at once believed in," because he is "the son of Lady Bulwer-Lytton, with the best right to speak on her behalf, and obviously with the best means of information." Now, this very tender son had neither cared for his mother, nor corresponded with her, nor seen her, for nearly seventeen years, until he met her at the hustings at Hertford on the occasion of his father's re-election. When Lady Bulwer left the hustings and visited the Mayor of Hertford in order to apply for the use of the Town Hall as a lecturing room, Mr. Robert B. Lytton sent a physician into the Mayor's house with the mission of taking cognizance of the state of the maternal mind. When, afterward, his mother was kidnapped in London, at the house of Mr. Hale Thompson, Clarges street, and her cousin Miss Ryves ran out into the street, and seeing Mr. Lytton waiting outside, entreated him to interfere and procure assistance to prevent his mother being carried off to Brentford, Mr. Lytton coolly refused to have anything to do with the matter. Having acted first as one of the principal agents in the plot laid by his father, he now shifts sides and presents himself as the natural spokesman of his mother. The second point pleaded by Mr. Lytton is, that his mother "was never for a moment taken to a lunatic asylum," but, on the contrary, into the "private house" of Mr. Robert Gardiner Hill, surgeon. This is a mere quibble. As the "Wyke House," conducted by Mr. Hill, does legally not belong to the category of "asylums," but to that of "Metropolitan Licensed Houses," it is literally true that Lady Bulwer was thrown, not into a "lunatic asylum," but into a lunatic house.

Surgeon Hill, who trades upon his own account in "lunacy," has also come out with an apology, wherein he states that Lady Bulwer had never been locked in, but, on the contrary, had enjoyed the use of a brougham and driven almost every evening during her detention to Richmond, Acton, Hanwell or Isleworth. Mr. Hill forgets to tell the public that this "improved treatment of the insane," adopted by him, exactly corresponds to the official recommendation of the Commissioners in Lunacy. The friendly grimaces, the smiling forbearance, the childish coaxing, the oily twaddle, the knowing winks and the affected serenity of a band of trained attendants may drive a sensitive woman mad as well as douches, straight waistcoats, brutal keepers and dark wards. However that may be, the protests on the part of Mr. Surgeon Hill and Mr. Lytton amount simply to this, that Lady Bulwer was treated as a lunatic indeed, but after the rules of the new instead of the old system.

"I," says Mr. Lytton, in his letter, "put myself in constant communication with my mother, ... and I carried out the injunctions of my father, who confided to me implicitly every arrangement ... and enjoined me to avail myself of the advice of Lord Shaftesbury in whatever was judged best and kindest to Lady Lytton."

Lord Shaftesbury, it is known, is the commander-in-chief of the host who have their head-quarters at Exeter Hall. To deodorise it dirty affair by his odor of sanctity might be considered a coup de théâtre worthy of the inventive genius of a novel writer. More than once, in the Chinese business, for instance, and in the Cambridge House conspiracy, Lord Shaftesbury has been employed in that line. Yet Mr. Lytton admits the public only to a half confidence, otherwise he would have plainly declared that on the kidnapping of his mother an imperious note from Lady Palmerston upset Sir Edward's plans, and induced him to "avail himself of the advice of Lord Shaftesbury," who, by a particular mischance, happens to be at once Palmerston's son-in-law and the Chairman of the Commissioners in Lunacy... In his attempt at mystification, Mr. Lytton proceeds to state:

"From the moment my father felt compelled to authorize those steps which have been made the subject of so much misrepresentation, his anxiety was to obtain the opinion of the most experienced and able physicians, in order that my mother should not he subject to restraint for one moment longer than was strictly justifiable. Such was his charge to me."

From the evasive wording of this studiously awkward passage it appears, then, that Sir Edward Bulwer felt the necessity of authoritative medical advice, not for sequestrating his wife as insane, but for setting her free as mentis compos[f]. In fact, the medical men upon whose consent Lady Bulwer was kidnapped were anything but "most experienced and able physicians." The fellows employed by Sir Edward were one Mr. Ross, a city apothecary, whom, it seems, his license for trading in drugs has all at once converted into a psychological luminary, and one Mr. Hale Thompson, formerly connected with the Westminster Hospital, but a thorough stranger to the scientific world. It was only after gentle pressure from without had set in, when Sir Edward felt anxious to retrace his steps, that he addressed himself to men of medical standing. Their certificates are published by his son—but what do they prove? Dr. Forbes Winslow, the editor of "The Journal of Psychological Medicine," who had previously been consulted by Lady Bulwer's legal advisers, certifies that, "having examined Lady B. Lytton as to her state of mind," he found it such as "to justify her liberation from restraint."[g] The thing to be proved to the public was, not that Lady Bulwer's liberation, but on the contrary, that her restraint was justified. Mr. Lytton dares not touch upon this delicate and decisive point. Would not a con-stable, accused of illegal imprisonment of a free-born Briton, be laughed at for pleading that he had committed no wrong in setting his prisoner at large? But is Lady Bulwer really set at large?

"My mother," continues Mr. Lytton, "is now with me, free from all restraint, and about, at her own wish, to travel for a short time, in company with myself and a female friend and relation, of her own selection."

Mr. Lytton's letter is dated "No. 1 Park lane," that is, from the town residence of his father. Has, then, Lady Bulwer been removed from her place of confinement at Brentford to a place of confinement at London, and been bodily delivered up to an exasperated foe? Who warrants her being "free from all restraint?" At all events, when signing the proposed compromise, she was not free from restraint, but smarting under Surgeon Hill's improved system. The most important circumstance is this: While Sir Edward has spoken, Lady Bulwer has kept silence. No declaration on her part, given as she is to literary exercise, has met the public eye. An account written by herself, of her own treatment, has been cleverly withdrawn from the hands of the individual to 'whom it was addressed.

Whatever may be the agreement entered upon by the husband and the wife, the question for the British public is whether, under the cloak of the lunacy act, lettres de cachet[h] may be issued by unscrupulous individuals able to pay tempting fees to two hungry practitioners. Another question is, whether a Secretary of State will be allowed to condone for a public crime by a private compromise. It has now oozed out that during the present year, while investigating into the state of a Yorkshire asylum, the Lunacy Commissioners discovered a man, in the full possession of his mental faculties, who, for several years, had been immured and secreted in a cellar. On a question being put in the House of Commons by Mr. Fitzroy, in regard to this case, Mr. Walpole answered that he had found "no record of the fact," an answer which denies the record but not the fact. That things will not be allowed to rest at this point, may be inferred from Mr. Tite's notice that "on an early day next session he would move for a select committee to inquire into the operation of the Lunacy act."[i]

Written on July 23, 1858
First published unsigned in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5393, August 4, 1858
and reprinted in the New-York Semi Weekly Tribune, No. 1377, August 6, 1858,
and also in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 882, August 7, 1858


[a] The Morning Post, No. 26369, July 5, 1858.—Ed.

[b] The Times, No. 23038, July 6, 1858.—Ed.

[c] Here and below R. B. Lytton, "To the Editor of the Observer", The Times, No. 23049, July 19, 1858.—Ed.

[d] A secret known to everybody.—Ed.

[e] It is said.—Ed.

[f] Being in her right mind.—Ed.

[g] F. Winslow, "To Edwin James, Esq., Q. C.", The Times. No. 23049, July 19, 1858.—Ed.

[h] Warrants for arrest and imprisonment.—Ed.

[i] The Times, No. 23053, July 23, 1858.—Ed.

[581] The Free Traders advocated removal of protective tariffs and non-intervention by the government in economic life. They were supporters of the Manchester School—a trend in economic thinking which reflected the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. The centre of the Free Traders' agitation was Manchester, where the movement was headed by two textile manufacturers, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were a separate political group, which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.

[582] Marx may have referred to his first article about Lady Bulwer-Lytton written on July 16, 1858, but not published in the New-York Daily Tribune.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, 1074 15 (pp.596-601), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME1074en.html