Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830
This crazy book, embodies the best and the worst of early Victorian fiction.
- Absurdly long sentences of mostly gibberish.
- Excessively detailed descriptions of minor characters.
- Too many characters.
- Too long.
- Random, gratuitous animal cruelty.
- Antiquated language that rapidly exhausts your attention span.
- Biting social commentary aimed at British class structure and the justice system.
- Pithy zingers.
- Hilarious, sad drunks.
- This book starts with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yes! It originated that phrase!
- The plot! Paul Clifford is so well plotted; it will blow your mind.
I understand why no one reads Bulwer-Lytton anymore. He was friends with Charles Dickens and almost equally popular during his own lifetime. However, his writing style is even harder to wade through than Dickens’. Even though the innumerable majority of humans cannot name a single Bulwer-Lytton title, his mark on the collective consciousness lingers in the form of three widely known phrases penned by the author:
- “It was a dark and stormy night”
- “The pen is mightier than the sword”
- “In pursuit of the almighty dollar”
Impressive, huh? I had no idea those three aphorisms—ok, only two are aphorisms—were written by the same person. The latter two aren’t simply catchy phrases. They’re meaty concepts that we like to chew on with our mind teeth. They eloquently express ideas that are still useful and relevant today. Paul Clifford is full of ideas like these. While reading this book, I had the same “Damn! Social injustice!” reaction that I have to 95% of contemporary news articles.
I know you’re not going to read Paul Clifford, because virtually no one does. I, however, read everything, so you don’t have to. I will summarize the plot for you, because you need to know.
On a dark and stormy night a woman lies dying in an English tavern. She confesses the secret of her young son’s paternity to one man, Dummy Dunnaker. The old innkeeper takes pity on the boy and raises him like a son. She names him Paul Clifford.
The innkeeper pays to have Paul educated, hoping that he won’t fall in with the sordid types who frequent the tavern. Young Paul reads the biography of Dick Turpin, a legendary highwayman, but he is too moral to decide on a life of crime.
Nevertheless, Paul begins spending time in the company of “Long Ned” Pepper, a dapper young criminal. One day Paul and Ned go to the theater. Paul sees an entrancingly beautiful girl sitting with her uncle. After the play, Ned picks the uncle’s pocket and whispers “run” to Paul. Shocked, Paul does not run away and he gets blamed for the crime.
Note: Ned Pepper is also a character in True Grit. Coincidence? I think not.
Unfortunately, the uncle turns out to be William Brandon, a famously ruthless lawyer. Brandon is peeved about the loss of his watch, and sentences Paul to a stay in prison.
Another Note: Paul Clifford preceded Oliver Twist by seven years. Both feature an innocent boy who is blamed for someone else’s pickpocketing. This event is a turning point in both novels.
What does young Paul learn in prison? Well, he learns how to be a criminal. Eventually, he and an experienced thief manage to escape their confines and Paul starts his career as a “gentleman highwayman.” He is so elegant, so intelligent, that he soon becomes the leader of an illustrious band of thieves that scour the English countryside stopping carriages and robbing the nobility of their jewels.
Paul leads a double life as Captain Lovett, honorable thief who flirts, but never hurts the ladies, and as Captain Clifford, society man. He reencounters Lucy Brandon, the beautiful young niece of William Brandon. They fall in love. Twice, he professes his love, then runs away, warning her that he is unworthy of her love or her hand.
Paul is desperately in love and bitterly regrets the life that has made him an unsuitable match for his sweet, innocent lover. Distracted, his hold on his fellow thieves begins to slip. An old friend betrays the location of his secret hideout. Long Ned and another compatriot are captured. Paul risks himself to free them, and ends up in jail.
Long Ned returns to the tavern where Paul was born, to await the conclusion of Paul’s trial. While there, he reveals to Dummy Dunnaker that the legendary Captain Lovett is in fact the same Paul Clifford whose birth Dummy attended.
Meanwhile, ambitious, avaricious William Brandon has been promoted to judge. In this capacity he encounters Dummy Dunnaker, who escapes a pickpocketing charge by selling Brandon some incriminating letters.
The letters are artifacts of a correspondence between Brandon and a beautiful young woman with no fortune. Infatuated, Brandon denies his ambitious instincts and marries her. He becomes a resentful, unaffectionate husband. They have a son. He suspects that her affections are beginning to stray toward his friend. To rid himself of his misalliance, he tells the friend that she is not his wife, but a prostitute and literally sells her to the friend.
The friend only loves her for a minute. Based on Brandon’s misinformation he does not respect her. They quarrel and she ends up on the streets with no way to provide for herself, except by the career Brandon falsely ascribed to her. Angry and bitter, she vows revenge. In the company of thieves, including Dummy Dunnaker, she breaks into Brandon’s home and takes her son. Determined that he will never see his son again, she takes the boy to a shady tavern, where she soon dies. Probably of syphilis.
Brandon spends decades obsessively searching for his lost son, to no avail. Brandon’s other obsession is restoring the name of his once great family. He has amassed political power and great fortune. He wants to bestow it upon his son and heir.
Judge Brandon presides over the trial of Captain Lovett. Lovett does not deny that he has made a living as a thief. Instead he attacks the British justice system. Here are some edited highlights of his impassioned speech:
“Seven years ago I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit. I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law; I came forth, in a few weeks, a man who was prepared to break all laws! You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve; you wronged me yet more deeply when I was sentenced to herd with hardened offenders, your legislation made me what I am; and it now destroys me, for being what it made me.
Let those whom the law protects consider it a protector: when did it ever protect me? When did it ever protect the poor man? The government of a State, the institutions of law, profess to provide for all those who ‘obey.’ Mark! a man hungers,—do you feed him? He is naked,—do you clothe him? If not, you break your covenant, you drive him back to the first law of nature, and you hang him, not because he is guilty, but because you have left him naked and starving”
In the middle of Paul’s testimony Dummy Dunnaker drunkenly stumbles into the courtroom, insisting that he must deliver a message to Brandon. Brandon learns that Captain Lovett is his long lost son!
Stricken, Brandon must proceed with the trial. Before he makes his decision Paul reveals that Brandon himself was the person who sentenced him to prison seven years ago, thus starting his career in crime.
Brandon, guilty of unwittingly throwing his own son into a life of crime, must now be the one to sentence him. He pronounces Paul guilty, thus destroying his life’s work and cherished ambition of bestowing riches and honor upon his offspring.
So good. That plot is so good, I can’t even handle it.
Final thoughts: I have a lot of respect for this author. I mean, dang. Also, this made me think about how gross it is for cousins to marry each other. You get used to reading about that in classic literature. Somehow, the fact that I didn’t originally know that the lovers were cousins, made it much more shocking. I was like “No! Your fathers are brothers! That’s gross. Stop. Don’t get married and procreate, please.” Seriously, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you have a child and your sibling has a child, don’t let those two babies mate. Please.