Dark and Stormy Night

  Jerome Shea       June 15, 2008      Weekend Wonk

These things always start innocently enough. I was browsing in a new reference book and came across the entry for the prolific Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The only thing noted besides his name and dates was the fact that Bulwer-Lytton is notorious for having written the worst opening line in English letters: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

That’s when it hit me (yet again): I have known for years that this line is supposed to be the benchmark for atrocious writing, and yet I never really understood why. For years I have felt like the only guy in the room who doesn’t get the joke. With a wild eye I am laughing along with the rest, but all the while I am clueless and terrified of being found out. And to really rub salt in the wound, I set myself up years ago as a prose stylist! Every spring term I teach this stuff. Am I no better than a cobbler who can’t spot a shoddily-made pair of shoes to save his life?

I confessed this terrible secret to my old friends Joe and Ron, both emeritus English professors. “The line is unexceptionable, yes, but is it really such a clinker? What am I missing here?” I wailed. Joe came staunchly to my aid. He never thought it was such a clinker either, and he railed against those effete aesthetes who take cheap shots that can mortally wound. Because I have deep regard for Joe’s opinions, I began to feel a little better.

Then I heard from Ron, who pointed out what Shea (and, it seems likely, Joe) never knew, namely that those first seven words are only the BEGINNING of a much longer sentence, a shorthand for the execrable, if you will. As Ron wonderfully put it, “[That sentence] waddles clumsily on.” Aha!

I have in hand a copy of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Paul Clifford, home of the offending opening. And here it is, in all its waddling glory:

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.

Now that, as they say, is more like! If not the worst sentence, it is a serious contender. But notice, first, that if Bulwer-Lytton had simply stopped at the end of those first seven words, Joe and I would be right: that would not be a sentence to frighten (literary) children with. In fact, I rather like it. A little flat-footed, perhaps. Would “It was a dark night, and stormy” be better, or is that a little too fussy, precious? (Playing with variations is something that we stylists do.) What you consider “flat-footed” I might for the same reason deem “forthright.” And as for the “anticipatory it,” which some purists would decry, he really had no choice (“A dark and stormy night existed”? Oh please).

But anyone can see now where our man goes seriously off the rails: it is with that dash and everything past it until he gets back on the rails with “rattling along the housetops.” That parenthetical flummery simply will not do. He is a man trying to stuff ten pounds of potatoes into a five-pound poke and seriously taxing our patience and our focus into the bargain. The “occasional intervals” stuff is bad enough, but that indulgent aside “(for it is in London that our scene lies)”—when he could simply have written “swept up the [London] streets”—calls for a good caning or worse. If this is not the world’s worst sentence—I would bet on Henry James in a 15 rounder with Bulwer-Lytton—it is certainly a silly and affected one.

Which brings up another question: who decided that this was the world’s worst opening sentence? For that, we must go to Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University in California, who put “It was a dark and stormy night” on the map, as it were, at www.bulwer-lytton.com. That link opens up the home page for his brainchild, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (I have emailed Professor Rice with my question, but he hasn’t got back to me yet; if he never does, I will understand.)*

At any rate, the background story is that as a humble graduate student Rice was cruelly abused. “Sentenced [sic] to write a paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose…Edward George Bulwer-Lytton….” And there, I think, we have it, a story as old as grad school. It was not some scorned Victorian lover or literary archrival who exacted revenge on Bulwer-Lytton. No, it was Scott Rice, with PhD safely in hand (I assume), who got his revenge by inaugurating the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest back in 1982, It was Scott Rice (ladies and gentlemen of the jury) who declared poor Bulwer-Lytton the worst of the worst!

I do encourage you all to visit the website. Its many links will take you to literally hundreds of hilarious winning entries (i.e., opening sentences even more atrocious than Bulwer-Lytton’s), to a quiz pitting Bulwer-Lytton’s sentences against some of Charles Dickens’s (you guessed it: Dickens often gets the worst of it), to a collection (“Sticks and Stones”) of truly awful sentences by other published writers, and to much, much more.

By the way, Bulwer-Lytton himself was reputed to be a rather odd duck, so perhaps he is enjoying this left-handed immortality. I hope so.

*I need to add that shortly after I had put this wonk to bed I did get a gracious and detailed reply from Professor Rice, pointing out, among other things, that “It was a dark and stormy night” may not be syntactically bad, but it is quite melodramatic (agreed) and in fact had become a clichéd opening long before Bulwer-Lytton got hold of it. As to who was the first to beat up on old B-L, I will take Scott Rice’s silence on the point as an admission.

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