The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Zanoni (1842)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Zanoni was written by Edward Bulwer Lytton. Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over forty years. 

Zanoni is, among other things, a love story. In Naples in the latter half of the eighteenth century Viola Pisani is a beautiful actress and opera singer. She meets the mysterious foreigner Zanoni, and the two are instantly attracted to each other. But Zanoni does not court her, instead pressing the Englishman Glyndon to pursue her. But though he is attracted to Viola Glyndon cannot swallow his pride enough to propose marriage to her; she is below his class and he would risk social ostracism in England if he brought her there. Glyndon gains glimpses of Zanoni’s mystic abilities and asks to become his disciple. Zanoni warns Glyndon that he must renounce earthly desires, including Viola, if he wants to become like Zanoni. Glyndon agrees, and Zanoni hands Glyndon over to his Mejnour, Zanoni’s friend and former mentor. With Glyndon gone Zanoni gives in to his desires and marries Viola, even though he knows that in doing so he loses much of his power.

Zanoni and Viola have two years of wedded bliss and produce a child they both love. Glyndon, meanwhile, begins well as Mejnour’s student but when confronted by temptation gives in to it and opens himself up to being haunted by the terrifying Dweller on the Threshold. Mejnour abandons Glyndon, who wanders around Europe, trying to find Mejnour so that he can exorcize the Dweller from Glyndon. Glyndon eventually meets Mejnour, who refuses to exorcize the Dweller, and Glyndon is forced to return to England. The plague comes to Naples, and Zanoni, because of his diminished powers, is unable to protect Viola and their unnamed child. Zanoni tries to call upon Adon-ai, a benign celestial creature who in former times was Zanoni’s spirit guide, but Adon-ai does not respond, so Zanoni is forced to summon up the Dweller to protect Viola and their child. In a letter Mejnour prophesies doom to Zanoni, and when Zanoni goes on a trip Glyndon visits Viola and warns her about the perils of the spirit world. Frightened, Viola flees to Paris and stays with Glyndon. Unfortunately, the French Revolution is in full swing, and Viola is among those imprisoned by the rebels. Zanoni goes in search of Viola and learns that she is in Paris. He goes there and meets Glyndon, who tells Zanoni where Viola is being held. In exchange for this information Zanoni exorcizes the Dweller from Glyndon. The Dweller then attaches himself to Zanoni, but he performs a final summoning, and Adon-ai appears and banishes the Dweller. Zanoni then bribes the General of the Parisian National Guard and switches places with Viola. Zanoni allows himself to be guillotined. The next day Viola dies in prison before she can be freed.

Zanoni has a complex publication history. It began as Falkland and Zicci (1841), but Bulwer Lytton quarreled with his friends and left Zicci unfinished. He used Zicci as his source for Zanoni, changing names and some of the plot points but keeping much of the text.

Zanoni is a love story. It is also a work of mysticism, occult fantasy, and horror. It is significant as the first major British work of occult fantasy in the nineteenth century and the novel which, along with Bulwer Lytton’s A Strange Story, helped establish the genre of occult fantasy in the English language. There were predecessors to Bulwer Lytton, of course. William Beckford’s Vathek, among others, can be considered occult fantasy. But the modern genre of occult fantasy was begun by Bulwer Lytton. Zanoni is not as significant in the formation of the genre of horror, but it, and Bulwer Lytton, were certainly influential on those who followed him, and an argument can be made that the school of cosmic horror which Lovecraft made famous and which Arthur Machen did best (see: “The Great God Pan,” The King in Yellow) begins with Zanoni, or at the least is strongly influenced by it. Dickens took the ending of Zanoni for his A Tale of Two Cities, while Villiers de l’Isle-Adam was heavily influenced by Zanoni’s Rosicrucian and mystic elements in the writing of Axël.

In some ways Zanoni has not aged well. Bulwer Lytton’s style is dated. He over-writes and uses inflated verbiage and rhetoric. He strains for affect, trying much too hard to evoke emotions in the reader. Bulwer Lytton tells rather than shows. He inserts great heaps of philosophizing monologues, ruining what momentum the novel has and reducing its pace to stops and starts. Bulwer Lytton does not practice full historical immersion and leaves Zanoni rather light on facts and accurate historical context. Most of the novel’s dialogue is stilted and awkward. And the hostility to science and materialism which appears in The Coming Race is also present in Zanoni.

But for all these flaws Zanoni still has some power. Bulwer Lytton tries hard to evoke a mystic atmosphere and to force his readers into considerations of the Eternal and the philosophical concepts which Zanoni and Mejnour discuss. Even if much of Zanoni is fustian, hyperbole, and metaphysical rubbish, there remain some thought-provoking passages. The mysticism is often heavy-handed but is occasionally effectively underplayed. And there are a number of passages which are striking in their imagery and powerfully creepy in their execution. The Dweller on the Threshold is a wonderfully terrifying creature—the double, in the spirit world, of Robespierre, showing what Bulwer Lytton thought of the rationalistic materialism of the French Revolution1—and the moment when the Dweller invisibly curls up around Zanoni’s child is a startling and frightening one.

Bulwer Lytton was reportedly an active Rosicrucian and supposedly joined a Lodge in Germany in 1842. Zanoni is modeled in part on both Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), the French magical philosopher who Bulwer Lytton knew and idolized, and on Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), the French occultist responsible for modifying Masonic rites and emphasizing their mystical aspects. In keeping with the Rosicrucian beliefs, Bulwer Lytton wrote Zanoni

to demonstrate that debased art, instrumental love and revolutionary politics are signs of ‘a spiritual rather than a merely social or political crisis.’ All are symptoms of the spiritual malaise of modernity. 

A catch-all term for that modern spiritual malaise is ‘materialism.’ Zanoni might be read as a taxonomy of the types of materialism that Bulwer-Lytton, like many of his contemporaries, felt were plaguing modern spirituality.2 

In terms of influences, Zanoni was influenced by the German bundesromane or “lodge novels,” a “genre revolving around a secret society that controls the hero:”3 

It emerged during the latter half of the eighteenth century at the time when such arcane orders as the Freemasons and Illuminati, as well as conspiracy theories regarding their secret power, were at the peak of their influence and most of the leading figures of the age belonged to one order or another. Arising as they did as antimonarchical and generally democratic movements against increasingly absolutist monarchies, these groups sometimes claimed for themselves a moral position beyond good and evil in order to achieve their goals. It was inevitable that their momentum should communicate itself to the literature of the day.4 

Bulwer Lytton uses the Rosicrucians where later authors, like George Sand in The Countess of Rudolstadt (original: La Comtesse de Rudolstadt, 1843), would use the Freemasons.

Zanoni is not a page-turner. The reader will be tempted to skim a number of passages and occasionally whole paragraphs at a time, and in all honesty the reader should give in to that temptation. (You won’t be missing much). But readers should finish Zanoni, not just to get a sense of where modern occult fantasy came from and what influenced cosmic horror but also for the parts of Zanoni, like the scenes involving the Dweller, which will stick with the reader after the book is done.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edward Bulwer Lytton, Zanoni. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2008.


For Further Research

J. Jeffrey Franklin, “The Evolution of Occult Spirituality in Victorian England and the Representative Case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton,” in Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 123-142.


1 J. Jeffrey Franklin, “The Evolution of Occult Spirituality in Victorian England and the Representative Case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton,” in Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 134.

2 Franklin, “The Evolution of Occult Spirituality in Victorian England,” 133.

3 Ziolkowski, The Lure of the Arcane, x.

4 Ziolkowski, The Lure of the Arcane, 70.