“In ages far remote — of a civilisation far different from that which now merges the individual in the state, there existed men of ardent minds, and an intense desire of knowledge. In the mighty and solemn kingdoms in which they dwelt, there were no turbulent and earthly channels to work off the fever of their minds. Set in the antique mould of castes through which no intellect could pierce, no valour could force its way, the thirst for wisdom, alone, reigned in the hearts of those who received its study as a heritage from sire to son. Hence, even in your imperfect records of the progress of human knowledge, you find that, in the earliest ages, Philosophy descended not to the business and homes of men. It dwelt amidst the wonders of the loftier creation; it sought to analyse the formation of matter — the essentials of the prevailing soul; to read the mysteries of the starry orbs; to dive into those depths of Nature in which Zoroaster is said, by the schoolmen, first to have discovered the arts which your ignorance classes under the name of magic.
“In such an age, then, arose some men, who, amidst the vanities and delusions of their class, imagined that they detected gleams of a brighter and steadier lore. They fancied an affinity existing among all the works of Nature, and that in the lowliest lay the secret attraction that might conduct them upwards to the loftiest.”
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Zanoni: A Rosicrucian Tale
I would not be astonished if many of my readers have already reached for the keyboard to take them to some less eccentric site. But you're still here. Good enough.
Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (published in 1842) and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) both conclude with scenes in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror with one of the main characters going to the guillotine in place of another. I don’t know enough about Dickens’s life to say if he might have gotten the idea from Bulwer-Lytton, or if he had ever read the latter. Something for Dickens scholars to consider, maybe.
In every other respect, the books could hardly be more different. A Tale of Two Cities is still read, possibly even assigned to students in high school English classes that have not been dumbed down to sub-basement level. Zanoni, like its author, is obscure. Bulwer-Lytton’s literary reputation, what remains of it, is limited to The Last Days of Pompeii.
One reason: the Dickens novel is an adventure story, dramatic and based on a well-known historical epoch. Bulwer-Lytton’s is set mostly in 18th century Naples, of which few readers can have much of a mental picture or any strong interest; it is also fantastical and metaphysically driven.
My paperbacked copy of Zanoni, in which pages have come loose from the cheap binding, was reprinted in 1971 by Spiritual Fiction Publications, an offshoot of a Rudolf Steiner organization. “Spiritual fiction” is not a very large category; in fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any other novel that belongs in it other than H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra, which is more about the religion of ancient
Zanoni is unapologetically set in two worlds: the ordinary, everyday physical one that we know, and a transcendent realm known only to initiates. Those two dimensions are interwoven throughout the story.
There are three principal characters. Zanoni passed the initiatory mystery rites discovered long ago and so attained, among many powers, immortality. He is thousands of years old yet in appearance forever young and strikingly attractive. Mejnour, another immortal, has (as part of the price for attaining immortality and knowledge of higher truths) renounced all human feeling; scientific curiosity is his only motive. Zanoni, as becomes evident, has not, despite his transformation, completely closed off worldly emotions and attachments. He becomes involved with a beautiful, musical young woman of Naples, Viola — first out of a disinterested desire to do good and protect her from plots against her virtue, and then in love. (A fourth character, a young Englishman called Glyndon, is more of a catalyst than an active participant in the plot.)
Bulwer-Lytton, who was among the most popular novelists of his period, is widely derided today for prose that is considered “purple,” over the top. If any of his detractors read Zanoni, they will find support for their criticism, and I agree with some of it. Although the plot is coherent and the interactions among the characters over time add interest, there are too many trivial incidents. The book is overlong, although that is common enough among authors who wrote when educated people had a lot more time on their hands and far fewer distractions. The dialogue includes some archaisms for effect (the Romantic poets were sometimes guilty of the same offense) which are tiresome to the modern reader.
But the main stumbling block for current tastes is Zanoni’s constant references to the teachings and practices of ancient mystery schools of wisdom, and its taking as reality higher states of consciousness that the modern scientific outlook sees as fantasy, if not outright lunacy. Even at the time of its first publication, I suspect that
I don’t know much about Rosicrucian teachings (and Rosicrucianism, as a specific doctrine or organization, actually doesn’t play an overt role in the story). But Bulwer-Lytton was both metaphysically inclined and very learned in the history of mystery religions and philosophy. He quotes, for instance, Iamblichus, the neo-Platonist of the third and fourth centuries, and evidently knows his way around Middle Eastern and perhaps Vedic religions. That may not sound so impressive today, when you can walk into any Barnes & Noble or decent public library and find a handful of books on such subjects; but occult wisdom was in Bulwer-Lytton’s time really occult. You had to go out of your way to study it.
So what about Zanoni as literature? Notwithsanding the problems I mentioned above, it is still a fine achievement, a remarkable view of human events from a more spiritually advanced perspective, that does not slight the glories and loves of this world. It’s well plotted on both levels, and despite some dull patches a good read, especially its concluding chapters when Viola, Zanoni’s and Viola’s infant son, and Glyndon are in the hands of Robespierre’s Jacobin guillotineurs.
As for that “purple” style — obviously, a matter of taste. It’s the language of another era, in which prose could aspire to flamboyant poetry without embarrassment. For me, sometimes Bulwer-Lytton’s style is of a muchness, but more often, his images stir the imagination and capture the heart.
And, seating himself by her side, he [Zanoni] began to reveal to her some of the holier secrets of his lofty being. He spoke of the sublime and intense faith from which alone the diviner knowledge can arise — the faith which, seeing the immortal everywhere, purifies and exalts the mortal that beholds — the glorious ambition that dwells not in the cabals and crimes of earth, but amidst those solemn wonders that speak not of men, but of God …
Bulwer-Lytton’s vision could not be more different than that prevailing in our materialistic world today. On the one side, a tradition going back at least to the Upanishads and, in the Western world, the Gnostics and neo-Platonists, which sees this life as only the minor visible part of a vast spiritual universe whose progressive knowledge comes at the price of faith in the unseen, of self-discipline and of virtue. On the other side, a world view in which there is no God, only man and the State, in which the goals are pleasure, acquisition, and power, and the end is dust and ashes.
One of these approaches to life, surely, is right.