The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XIII. Lesser Novelists

§ 5. The Caxtons

Lytton had early premonition of the change in taste which occurred about 1848, and sought to fall in with the new realistic trend in The Caxtons (1849), My Novel (1853) and What will he do with it? (1858). The result is illuminating. The hero of The Caxtons is neither “dandiacal,” overwrought nor perverted; and, while in Lucretia the effects of evil home life and upbringing are traced, in The Caxtons the conditions are reversed and nearer to common experience. To this degree, Lytton becomes a realist. But he could not bring himself to face life squarely; a great part of The Caxtons is devoted to the Byronic youth Vivian; the simple annals of the family are narrated in the manner of Sterne; an elderly impracticable scholar, a lame duck, a street organ-grinder feeding his mice provide some of the occasions for emotional indulgence. If anyone should seek in My Novel for varieties of English life, he will be disappointed: only one point of view is possible for the writer, that of “our territorial aristocracy”; the varieties may be found in Kingsley’s Yeast (1848).

In the fantastic Asmodeus at Large (1836), Lytton had foreshadowed the idea of The Coming Race, which antedates by a year Butler’s Erewhon. Lytton’s book gives an original turn to an often-used convention; in this case, the ideal republic is dominated by an irresistible destructive force Vril, and, therefore, is at peace. The inhabitants look down upon civilizations barbarous and unfixed in principle. By its implied criticism of contemporary society, the book is connected with Kenelm Chillingly and The Parisians, which was left unfinished in the same year. These books picture England and the Paris of the second empire, sterile in large ideas and feverishly experimenting with new and untried expedients; vast financial depredations, communism, political shiftiness, muscular religion, realism in art—these are some of the innovations which are contrasted with the old aristocratic pride and conservatism.