Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016
No, it wasn’t Snoopy who said it first. We owe this wildly parodied opening sentence to Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873), an English novelist (and politician).
Over the years and disconnected from its original context, “It was a dark and stormy night” has become the cliché-iest of all opening line clichés. For any of you who don’t know the dark and stormy origin, here’s how it first appeared in Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, published in 1830:
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.
It’s a night with heavy wind and sweeping rain across London as we enter the world of Paul Clifford, a man who leads a double life: a criminal by night and a gentleman by day. He is arrested for theft and brought before Judge Brandon, who is the uncle of Lucy Brandon, the love of Clifford’s life, and – as it turns out – has a connection to Clifford as well. Although largely forgotten today, Bulwer-Lytton was highly revered at his time, and Paul Clifford was well received. You can still buy the book, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.
One sentence 58 words long and florid adjectives. Bulwer-Lytton wrote in the literary style typical of his time. Paul Clifford has been called a textbook example of purple prose. Professor Scott E. Rice at the San José State University in California had “dark and stormy” in mind when he started the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in 1982. Entrants are invited to write the best worst opening sentence.
Joel Phillips won in 2015:
Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton is also known for coining the phrase The pen is mightier than the sword, from his play on Cardinal Richelieu. Plus, it’s thanks to Bulwer-Lytton that Estella and Pip get together in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Bulwer-Lytton convinced his friend Dickens to rewrite the ending. In the original version, Estella remarried a country doctor while Pip remained a bachelor.
Sidebar photo: iStock.com/tomorca