Tragic story of Victorian novelist's distraught daughter revealed by her descendant

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's teenage daughter Emily
Edward Bulwer-Lytton's teenage daughter Emily Credit: Henry Lytton Cobbold

He lies among the greats in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner; a novelist and playwright who coined such memorable phrases as “the great unwashed”, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and the opening line "it was a dark and stormy night".

However, the Victorian writer and statesman Edward Bulwer-Lytton - whose popularity at one stage rivalled even that of Charles Dickens, but has since languished in obscurity - hid a terrible secret

Bulwer-Lytton’s teenage daughter Emily is now thought to have been driven to suicide by an existential crisis, brought on in part by her troubled relationship with her womanising father and embarrassment over her own affairs, one with a 15-year-old boy.

This startling conclusion was made by one of Bulwer-Lytton’s aristocratic descendants after he visited her tomb at the family seat of Knebworth House.

A wreath on Emily's coffin at the mausoleum in Knebworth Park Credit: Henry Lytton Cobbold

Henry Lytton Cobbold, Bulwer-Lytton’s great-great-great grandson, stumbled across the tale - itself worthy of a Gothic romance - as he explored the mausoleum at Knebworth Park.

Here he discovered that one of the seven coffins inside had been wrenched open - probably by thieves looking for lead - and was found to contain the skeleton of a slight young girl.

Mr Lytton Cobbold established that this was the body of Bulwer-Lytton’s daughter Emily, who died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 19, alone in a London boarding house in 1848.

The discovery launched him on a 17-year quest to establish the truth about Emily, a quest which has now culminated with Mr Lytton Cobbold publishing a two-volume biography of the teenager.

Emily suffered from curvature of the spine and was treated by the pioneering German doctor Jacob Heine, who discovered she had polio.

Her cause of her death was officially given as typhus and indeed Mr Lytton Cobbold initially feared the virus might still have been virulent when he found her damaged casket.

But he now believes that - despairing of her fate and circumstances - she took her own life by ingesting large amounts of the laudanum she had been prescribed for toothache.

Her family would have subsequently covered up the true cause of death, as taking one’s own life was still illegal up until 1961.

Mr Lytton Cobbold, 54, said: “She continued taking laudanum and, I believe it affected her mind. Her worsening relationship with her father and fears that she might be turning into her mother, led to what I suspect was suicide.  

“Certainly her life fell apart in April 1848 in so many ways that if you shoehorned them into a novel you simply wouldn’t believe it.”

Mr Lytton Cobbold said the discovery of Emily’s coffin left a deep impression on him.

“Encountering my great-great-great-aunt’s skeleton was an extraordinary moment,” he said. “The curvature of the spine was evident, and, hauntingly, her skull had tipped back revealing her teeth. “With the shroud still covering her eyes it looked as though she were at the dentist. To me this was Emily giving us the root of her mystery – the laudanum she was prescribed as a teenager for toothache.”  

The Victorian writer and statesman Edward Bulwer-Lytton Credit:  Robert James Ryder

Bulwer-Lytton's plays and great sprawling novels are now largely forgotten, but in his day he was more widely read than Dickens or Sir Walter Scott and had acquired the reputation of a dandy and philanderer.

Emily was the product of his marriage to Rosina Doyle Wheeler, a beautiful but troubled Irish wit and writer who would today probably have been diagnosed as bi-polar.

In June 1858, when her husband - who had taken her two children from her - was standing as parliamentary candidate for Hertfordshire, she appeared at the hustings to denounce him. Bulwer-Lytton had her committed to a lunatic asylum, but she was freed a few weeks later following a public outcry.

Emily, a bright, bookish girl, appears to have been left traumatised by her parents’ bitter battles and the social stigma of her mother’s instability.

Exiled from her warring parents, Emily led a peripatetic life, travelling across Ireland, Germany, and at one stage staying at provincial military barracks across England and Scotland.

“The circumstances of her life in those final weeks were devastating. Her final words in her journal suggest she lost the will to live and that she’d rather be with her God,” Mr Lytton-Cobbold told the Telegraph.

He unearthed Emily’s long-forgotten letters in the Knebworth House archives, cross-written in a small, labyrinthine script and left unread since the 1840s.

Henry,  who has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, is the 19th generation of the Lytton family to live at Knebworth House, which he now runs with his wife Martha.

But though he is happily married and a teetotaller, far from the louche demi-monde lifestyle of his ancestor, he appears to have inherited some of his forebears’ bohemian tastes.

He is well-known for his interest in erotica and naturism and in 2001 wrote a novella called “Wearing a Smile: A Romantic Comedy About Nudity”.

Henry Lytton Cobbold, Bulwer-Lytton’s great-great-great grandson, at the mausoleum at Knebworth Park Credit: Robert James Ryder

Mr Lytton Cobbold’s daughter Morwenna was a successful model and is now a DJ and fashion commercials producer, while his son Ed is a rock guitarist and music promoter and will one day inherit Knebworth, famed for its rock festivals.

Growing up at Knebworth in the 1970s gave Mr Lytton Cobbold a ringside seat, as his parents Lord and Lady Cobbold, desperate to prevent the house and park from being sold to pay death duties, opened it to the public with a string of legendary rock festivals, visitor attractions and film shoots.

During one festival, his mother Chryssie famously guarded the door separating the police from the parlour where Pink Floyd were enjoying a riotous, drugs-fuelled after-party.

* Henry Lytton Cobbold’s two volume book “In the bosom of her father: the life and death of Emily Bulwer Lytton.” is published by The 39 Production Company Ltd, price £80.

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