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Quick Draw: Who first wrote ‘It was a dark and stormy night?’

Read Thursday, 10 Mar 2016

In ‘Quick Draw’ , Sophie Quick gives short and sweet answers to obscure literary questions you never actually asked.

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton: responsible for some annoying cliches and a mass-produced beef paste. Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill via <a href=“http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04079/Edward-George-Earle-Lytton-Bulwer-Lytton-1st-Baron-Lytton?”>National Portrait Gallery</a> (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The famous opener to the 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, was written by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. What happens next in the story? It’s a mystery. No reader has ever got past the full opening sentence, which actually goes downhill after the notorious first seven words. In its full, florid glory, it’s a sentence that starts with a weather report and proceeds to give birth to itself:

‘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.’

Bulwer-Lytton was a Member of Parliament in England and a mildly successful writer, who wrote novels, plays and poetry in the mid-19th century. ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is not the only cliché he invented. The same man also coined the adage, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the phrase, ‘the great unwashed’.

Most importantly, Bulwer-Lytton partly inspired the name of a canned beef extract. His 1871 sci-fi novel, The Coming Race, was about a superior race of beings who derive their powers from a substance called ‘vril’. (Bovines inspired the other part of the product name: Bovril.)

Every year San Jose State University runs the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, challenging writers to compose an opening sentence to a novel even worse than the start to Paul Clifford. But maybe it’s time to stop mocking Bulwer-Lytton. After all, the man coined three clichés still in everyday usage and inspired a spreadable meat paste. Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens were writing around the same time as Bulwer-Lytton and their combined total beef spread output is zero.

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