Of Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

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Most people will have never read Paul Clifford, the 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – but everyone knows the first seven words. “It was a dark and stormy night” has been parodied endlessly, to the point where it is far better known via mockery than via any context that plays the line straight. It’s the opening line of Snoopy’s novel. It is, famously, the textbook example of bad writing, to the point where Bulwer-Lytton now has his name associated with a bad writing contest.

Is this remotely fair? No, it isn’t. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “it was a dark and stormy night” at the technical level. I wouldn’t go using it in a non-ironic sense – we’ll get to that shortly – but quibbling over “where it goes wrong” is, as this 2012 Ferretbrain article suggests, a bit silly.

[Edit: the Ferretbrain web-site is now defunct. The original article can, however, be read here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine]

That said, technical considerations are really one piece of the puzzle. Where I feel the linked article goes off the rails is that it is so interested in exceptions to “superstitious rules” (some of which do exist, for a reason) that it ignores one simple concept. Namely, that the purpose of writing – any writing – is to create an effect in the mind of the reader. Quite apart from Snoopy at the typewriter, what effect does reading “it was a dark and stormy night” have? Well, for me, I don’t immediately think of the image it is trying to evoke. I simply see a stock phrase, and a distracting one at that. Readers don’t like distractions – while everyone uses stock phrases to communicate concepts, I think it advisable to keep them away from story openings. First impressions, and all.

But this is merely why I, writing in 2019, would avoid it, not why a novel written in 1830 has issues, and besides, stock phrases are a dime a dozen (cue deliberate irony…). What has Bulwer-Lytton done to deserve his opening being turned into a stock phrase of eternal infamy? In this case, I would dig a bit further. Never mind the 189 years of received wisdom and mockery, what does “it was a dark and stormy night” evoke? I would suggests it evokes a particular mood. A mood associated with wind-swept heaths, pipe organs, moustache-twirling villains, heaving bosoms, silken handkerchiefs, opera capes, and Christopher Lee’s Dracula in yet in another Hammer Horror retread. In short – and Ferretbrain does not use the word once – “it was a dark and stormy night” creates a sense of melodrama.

Melodrama is over-the-top appeal to emotion, which is problematic because it calls attention to itself, and distracts from the actual story. Encountering characters (invariably female ones) bursting into tears at the slightest setback creates a sense of artificiality. Real people, even sensitive ones, don’t behave like that. “It was a dark and stormy night” conjures up images of that sort of story, so by having those seven words as the opening, Bulwer-Lytton tips us off (unintentionally or not) that his tale will be of a certain type – albeit I have only read the first chapter of Paul Clifford and a plot summary, so I cannot judge how fair that is. In any case, emotion-packed narratives were popular in the nineteenth century – less so now. Modern tastes tend to snigger at melodrama… hence Snoopy, and hence the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Speaking of Bulwer-Lytton being the victim of changing tastes, nineteenth century prose styles were often more verbose than what we encounter today, and in referring to the opening line, I have actually simplified things. “It was a dark and stormy night” is only the first seven words of the opening – even if it’s the only part anyone remembers. The actual first line of Paul Clifford is this:

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.

Oh dear. The melodrama is still there (violent gusts, scanty flames, darkness… are you filled with sufficient foreboding now, dear reader?), but now we really can critique Bulwer-Lytton at the technical level. A surfeit of adjectives and adverbs is forgivable – I have read my share of H.P. Lovecraft – but this opening sentence is objectively overwritten, and the parenthetical aside about London is just funny to a modern eye. That said, my favourite line from the first chapter of Paul Clifford has to be this one:

This made the scene,—save that on a chair by the bedside lay a profusion of long, glossy, golden ringlets, which had been cut from the head of the sufferer when the fever had begun to mount upwards, but which, with a jealousy that portrayed the darling littleness of a vain heart, she had seized and insisted on retaining near her; and save that, by the fire, perfectly inattentive to the event about to take place within the chamber, and to which we of the biped race attach so awful an importance, lay a large gray cat, curled in a ball, and dozing with half-shut eyes, and ears that now and then denoted, by a gentle inflection, the jar of a louder or nearer sound than usual upon her lethargic senses. 

A woman is dying of fever, yet Bulwer-Lytton (in a single sentence!) takes time out to describe a comfortable fireside cat. I don’t think it is really bad writing in the sense of what we normally consider bad writing – it’s actually a nice visual image, described with some precision – but the discrepancy between the death scene and the manner in which it is written is just peculiar. Small wonder that Bulwer-Lytton lends himself to modern laughter, even if it is unfair that he’s only remembered for that “infamous” line. The nineteenth century produced much worse writers than he.

2 thoughts on “Of Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

  1. Pingback: Look On My Works Ye Mighty and Despair: The Literary Future | A Phuulish Fellow

  2. Pingback: An Octopus’ Gardener: Tolkien and Atlantis | A Phuulish Fellow

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