The Enduring Pen: Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Transformative Power of Words

Evan Swensen
3 min readOct 4, 2023

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” declared Edward Bulwer-Lytton, encapsulating his belief in the transformative power of writing. Born in England in 1803, Bulwer-Lytton was not just a man of words; he was a man whose words changed perspectives and paradigms. Although often overshadowed by literary giants like Charles Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton made lasting contributions to literature and society. The central theme here is simple yet profound — the potent capacity of written words to shape history, challenge societal norms, and profoundly affect human lives.

As a young man, Edward Bulwer-Lytton faced considerable challenges. His father passed away when he was four, leaving him with a stern and controlling mother. Struggling against the societal expectations of following a ‘sensible’ career path in law, Bulwer-Lytton boldly chose to pursue his passion for writing. Unimpressed by this decision, his mother withdrew her financial support, forcing him to confront both economic hardship and social scrutiny. Despite these struggles, he published Pelham in 1828, a novel that initiated many British dandy stereotypes. The hardship didn’t stop him; it catalyzed him. His commitment to writing was a personal choice and a courageous act that defied social stigmas. It was as if Bulwer-Lytton had harnessed the essence of his famous quote, using his pen as a sword to carve his path.

Perhaps an equally compelling chapter of Bulwer-Lytton’s life was his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Rosina Doyle Wheeler. On one hand, he was a romantic, writing passionately about love in works such as Eugene Aram. On the other hand, his marriage unraveled, culminating in separation and resulting in Rosina publishing novels that satirized him mercilessly. This dual nature showcased the complexities of Bulwer-Lytton as a man who could articulate ideals beautifully but found them challenging to live out. The contradiction wasn’t just a matter of personal failure; it highlighted the intricacies of human emotions he explored through his writing.

Bulwer-Lytton’s impact on society was both subtle and far-reaching. His phrase “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” from The Coming Race, has become part of everyday language, critiquing the materialistic focus of modern society. His works often reflected on social inequality and human ambitions, themes that resonated with the societal concerns of his time and continue to do so today. The longevity of the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” is a testament to how deeply his belief in the power of words has permeated public consciousness.

Bulwer-Lytton’s enduring legacy is twofold: the vivid stories and memorable characters he gave to the world and his advocacy for the transformative power of writing. He demonstrates that the written word is not merely a form of entertainment but a tool that can challenge norms, question authority, and evoke change. This is a memorable lesson for aspiring writers — never underestimate the potency of the pen. It can give a voice to the voiceless, instigate revolutions, and even alter the course of history.

If you’ve ever doubted the influence of the written word, let Bulwer-Lytton’s life serve as a stirring reminder: pick up your pen, for it can be mightier than any sword.

“We don’t want to write the laws; we want to publish the books.” Evan Swensen

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Evan Swensen

Book publisher, editor, author, Author Masterminds charter member, founder of Readers and Writers Book Club, and bush pilot.