Past, Present & Beyond – The adventures of a Gentleman

It was a dark and stormy night and a good time was had by all haunted house fans. Barbara Roden's tale of a man named Lytton.

As a writer I firmly believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, and while I’d like my work to live on after me, I hope it doesn’t do so for the wrong reasons: think of the scorn heaped on that infamous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”. I take as much interest in the pursuit of the almighty dollar as anyone else, so it would be nice to think that one of my works might be adapted into a big-budget motion picture. I love ghost stories, and the tale of the house so haunted that anyone who stays in it either dies or goes mad is a favourite trope, if it’s done well. As the daughter of a policeman, I have a great interest in tales of law and order, especially from the days when the west was a good deal more wild than it is now, and the first policemen tried to tame it. And although I’m not a picky eater, the beef extract known as Bovril, which is beloved by millions of British people, leaves me cold.

What, you ask, does this have to do with Golden Country? Well, everything listed above has a direct connection to a village in our area, as astounding as that might seem. And it is all thanks – directly or indirectly – to one man: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton.

He was born into an aristocratic family in 1803, and showed early signs of a precocious intelligence: his first writing, a book of poetry, was published when he was only 15. It was not long before he was earning a living with his pen: he had a huge success with his 1828 novel Pelham: or, The Adventures of a Gentleman, and continued to turn out bestselling works for many years.

He entered politics in 1831, left it in 1841, then re-entered the political arena in 1852 and stayed there until 1866, when he was made a Peer and elevated to the House of Lords. In 1858 he was made Secretary of State for the Colonies, and this is where our Lytton enters the picture. Sir James Douglas, the Governor of the newly formed Crown Colony of British Columbia, felt that a suitable way to honour the new Secretary was to name something after him; so the former Hudson’s Bay Company fort at Camchin or Kumsheen, at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, was renamed Lytton.

One of Bulwer-Lytton’s first duties as Secretary of State for the Colonies was to do something to prevent a tide of lawlessness sweeping across B.C. following the discovery of gold in the Interior. Mindful of the crime which had sprung up in the wake of the California gold rush a decade earlier, Bulwer-Lytton determined that a police force of some kind was needed, so dispatched Sub-Inspector Chartres Drew of the Royal Irish Constabulary to B.C. When Drew arrived in November 1858 he was immediately appointed as chief inspector of police, and set about recruiting local men to serve as police officers. Within a short time the new force had expanded throughout the Colony, and was instrumental in keeping the peace despite the thousands of gold-seekers flocking to the area.

While Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction has not, for the most part, stood the test of time, he did have a way with words when he chose. “The pen is mightier than the sword” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar” can both be attributed to him, and one of his ghost stories – “The Haunted and the Haunters” – is a classic of the genre. It concerns a house in central London which contains a room that is so haunted, it is said no one can spend the night in it and remain unscathed; so of course two friends decide to test it out and see what happens. Although the idea has cropped up in numerous ghost stories over the last 150 years, it has seldom been done better than it was by Bulwer-Lytton, and the story is still a thrilling read today.

The same cannot be said for most of his other fiction, which has lapsed into obscurity. The Last Days of Pompeii was enormously popular in its day, and spawned an opera, stage plays, and film versions. The 1935 movie took only Bulwer-Lytton’s title and his vivid descriptions of the devastated city, but it was an early blockbuster, its budget of $1 million making it one of the most expensive films ever made. Unfortunately, the author’s only other literary claim to fame today is the infamous opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night”, which has been endlessly ridiculed and parodied. It also gave birth to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which participants compete to come up with the worst opening line for an imaginary work of fiction.

Perhaps oddest of all is Bulwer-Lytton’s contribution to the world of food products. His 1871 novel The Coming Race – one of the earliest works of what we now call science fiction – concerns a subterranean race called the Vril-ya, who are waiting to reclaim the earth, and who derive their power from a substance called “vril”. In the 1870s an Englishman named John Lawson Johnston had come up with a thick, salty meat extract and was looking for a name for it. He settled on “Bovril”, taking the first two letters from the Latin word bos (cow or ox), and the last four from Bulwer-Lytton’s magical, powerful substance.

So the next time you drive through Lytton, think about the man who gave it its name, and the legacy he bequeathed us. And if it’s a dark and stormy night, you can always fortify yourself with a cup of hot Bovril.

Barbara Roden