Edward Bulwer-Lytton is perhaps most-remembered these days as the author who first wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night” as the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Despite the scorn that style of writing often receives today, Bulwer-Lytton was actually fairly popular writer in his day. He published 28 novels, four plays and several books of poetry. He also introduced several well-known phrases into the English lexicon including, “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almigthy dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
One of his last novels, published in 1871, was called The Coming Race and centered around the exploration of a utopian society that lives in a subterranean world beneath the Earth’s crust. This underground society runs on an “all-permeating fluid” called Vril, which some modern readers have equated with atomic energy. The ideas in Bulwer-Lytton’s book proved so popular that “Vril” began to be used in 1870s slang to mean a powerful, healing elixir (often what we would call snake oil, but still…) and some theosophists have gone so far as to accept his book as having a significant element of truth to it.
The book remained popular enough over the ensuing two decades that Dr. Herbert Tibbitts of the West End Hospital in London used it as the theme of his 1891 fundraiser, which he called the “Vril-ya Bazaar.” Michael Munro has a good summary of the event, but the short version is that the four-day event featured characters in cosplay, vendors selling vril-themed items, and decorations that took their cues from the location descriptions in Bulwer-Lytton’s book.
The event was far from a success, winding up substantially in the red and garnering more than a few critical reviews. His previous year’s event had been a rousing success, so the failure of the “Vril-ya Bazaar” must have been particularly disappointing. Some have casually wondered that perhaps the science fiction nature of Bulwer-Lytton’s story was too strange for Victorian England. But I suspect that’s not the only reason for the failure. After all, the first day of the Bazaar seemed to be well-received and a cosplayer dressed as Princess Zee was hailed for her winged costume.
What seems to have been missed, however, is that Bulwer-Lytton died in 1873, nearly twenty years before Tibbitts’ event. Popular fiction of the 1890s had been shifting towards a less flowery style as exemplified in the Sherlock Holmes stories that began appearing in 1887. Science fiction as a genre wasn’t dead, as evidenced by the continuing work of Jules Verne, and the popularity H.G. Wells began to see a few years later. But Bulwer-Lytton’s particular brand of science ficiton, more specifically the style in which he wrote science fiction, had fallen out of favor. The waning interest in his work almost certainly impacted the Bazaar’s reception.
There were, of course, additional problems specific to how the Bazaar was executed. The themed-constructions were showing their wear after only a day or two, and the “flying” Vril-ya mannequins had mechanical problems that led them to eventually just hanging motionless. But that the event wasn’t especially well-attended in the first place suggests that there were deeper problems with the show. Munro suggests a lack of adequate advertising may have played a part, but given how resoundingly successful Tibbit’s previous fund-raisers had been, this strikes me as doubtful.
I think what we can glean from this is that being in tune with your audience is key. Tibbit’s apparent personal interest in The Coming Race didn’t carry over to much of anyone else. There were undoubtedly still fans of Bulwer-Lytton’s work in 1891, but not in the numbers that Tibbit needed. Show organizers today seem to recognize that, and that partly speaks to why so many guests are included. It might not be profitable to just bring in Gil Gerard, but if you also bring in the likes of Nichelle Nichols, Peter Mayhew, Sylvestor McCoy, Richard Hatch, and Marc McClure, you might be able to attract a wide enough swath of interested parties to draw some crowds. A dedicated show to a single character or property only works if you’re able to capture it while it’s still popular, but miss that window and you’re stuck with a room full of annoyed guests wondering why only one costume included electric lights.