1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: The Vril
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Most people in the modern era only know Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Bulwer-Lytton, from that single line of clunky prose. It’s inspired numerous comic strips and an annual writing contest in which participants strive to create the worst opening line they possibly can. This is a sad legacy to a man who was a popular author in his own time, a senior aristocrat of the British Empire, and one of the most entertaining loons of the late Victorian era.
I’ll leave it to the more interested among you to read through his Wikipedia entry, which does point out that he coined the phrases “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and “dweller on the threshold”. Likewise, the infamous sentence is incomplete – there was a semicolon at the end of it, and more to the paragraph. The complete piece is almost Dickensian in its wordy approach to setting the scene.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
But that’s from his fifth novel, Paul Clifford, published in 1830, and we’ll find much more interesting material in terms of the 1879 gameworld in his later work, The Coming Race, published in 1871. Patience, we’ll get there.
First, I’d like to talk a little about his life and political career. Edward Bulwer began as a Whig, what today might be called a progressive, standing for the Commons in Cornwall, and sitting for St. Ives and then Lincoln for ten years. Bulwer was instrumental in the passage of the Representation of the People Act of 1832, which cleaned out the so-called rotten boroughs and brought much needed political reform to an England considerably changed by the impact of the Industrial Revolution. He led the reduction of the newspaper stamp duties, which effort in turn led to the explosive growth of the popular press and the birth of the modern British newspaper. When the Whigs were dismissed from government in 1834, Edward wrote a scathing diatribe on the situation, as a result of which Lord Melbourne, the new Prime Minister, offered him a lordship in the Admiralty. Bulwer, who had previously purchased a commission in the Army but sold it three years later never having served, turned down the office and pursued his career as a writer, which was by then going quite well.
In 1843, Edward’s mother died, and in 1844, pursuant to a request in her will, he added Lytton to his surname, and took up the arms of the Lytton family by royal licence, bringing the name and arms down from his mother’s family. He returned to governance in 1852, having stood for Hertfordshire as a Conservative in order to oppose Lord John Russell over the Corn Laws, which we’ve already discussed in sufficient detail elsewhere. Suffice to say that Edward sat in Commons for the next fourteen years. In 1858, he accepted a post from Lord Derby as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and in 1866 was raised to the peerage as Baron Lytton of Knebworth in the County of Hertford. This moved him to the House of Lords, but he never achieved anything really noteworthy in that chamber. He must have impressed people tremendously, though, as when King Otto of Greece abdicated in 1862, Bulwer-Lytton was offered the crown. (He declined.)
Baron Bulwer-Lytton’s writings had included esoteric materials from an early stage. His 1842 work Zanoni had such strong Rosicrucian elements that the English Rosicrucian Society proclaimed him their Grand Patron, although the Baron professed considerable surprise and noted that he had never sanctioned their society nor been an actual patron. Nonetheless, his work drifted further and further out into the fringes of arcane thought, until finally, in 1871, he published The Coming Race (see, I told you we’d get back round to it).
Also published as Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, the book describes an angelic species calling themselves the Vril-ya living in vast subterranean complexes, performing near-miracles through manipulation of an energy that permeates reality called Vril. The descriptions of how the Vril-ya train themselves to work with Vril, the energy’s nature, and the works performed with it sound suspiciously like mana theory and the efforts of 1879‘s Mages. There’s a framing story about a mining engineer, but he only exists to provide a window character that the Vril-ya can explain things to. The book was accepted as being based on, or presenting, occult truths by several leading lights of late 19th Century occult practice, including Helena Blavatsky, William Scott-Elliot, and George Bernard Shaw. See Blavatsky’s works Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine for her comments; those books are worth reading anyway if you’re interested in the esoteric thought of the era. Quite a few people took The Coming Race very seriously. Sales soared. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, initially published anonymously, was thought to be a sequel to The Coming Race; when it was revealed to be penned by Butler instead of Bulwer-Lytton, sales fell off 90%.
I’ll leave it to the interested reader to skim through the Wikipedia article on Vril or to read Bulwer-Lytton’s own work. There’s enough material there to inspire the Lytton Society for 1879, a group of Mages and mystics (effectively Priests) who believe firmly in the Vril-ya and the power of Vril, sufficiently to get their magic to actually work within that belief system. Within the game world, the impact of Bulwer-Lytton’s work is perhaps greater than in our own, but even in this world, the concepts Bulwer-Lytton introduced, and the ideas discussed in The Coming Race, have inspired generations of arcane practitioners, been developed further in numerous books by leading authors in the field, and led to rumours of flying saucers being developed by the Nazis in the early days of WW2. Oh, yes, there’s a connection, you knew there would be, right? Imagine what the Sons of Thoth could do with the Vril theory.
Oh, and Baron Bulwer-Lytton’s son, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, was viceroy of the British Raj from 1876 to 1880, and put on one of the grandest spectacles of the dying British Empire, the durbar of 1877, in which he had the surviving princes of India swear fealty to the British crown in a formal public ceremony. Robert’s son-in-law, Edwin Lutyens, went on to flatten the Red Fort, discarding centuries of Indian architecture and heritage to make room for the new Imperial capital of New Delhi. But that’s another story for another time.
Do take the time to read the primary source material. There’s so much there that can be brought into your game. So much that we just couldn’t shoehorn into the article on the Lytton Society. So many ideas, so few pages.