The opening sentences of *Paul Clifford*

by on December 30, 2011 at 11:42 am in Books, History | Permalink

By Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton:

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.

In his defense, the book was published in 1830.

Nick Bruner December 30, 2011 at 11:52 am

I’m not sure being written in 1830 is much of a defense. Starting off with the weather when the story otherwise has nothing to do with it was surely poor style then as now. The floridity was a little closer to the fashion at the time, but I still can’t imagine a line like this ever coming from the pen of Austen or Trollope.

I also note he used both “dark” and “darkness” in the same sentence, another sign the sentence is overburdened.

Claudia Sahm December 30, 2011 at 12:03 pm

“I’m not sure being written in 1830 is much of a defense” … I believe 1830 is before the OP dates the start of The Great Stagnation.

Slocum December 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Don’t start off a novel with the weather when it has nothing to do with the story? Somebody should have warned poor Dickens before he made such a mess of the opening to Bleak House:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits
and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the
tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and
dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on
the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping
on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and
throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides
of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of
the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching
the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.
Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a
nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a
balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Bulwer-Lytton is infamous for his bad writing, but it isn’t *that* bad (really — haven’t we all seen so much worse?)

minderbender December 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Yeah, this “no discussion of weather” rule seems arbitrary, a sort of over-correction of “bad” writing. Honestly I don’t find the passage bad at all, but then I guess my standards are lenient – it seems to me the sentence does what it is supposed to do, and what more can you ask?

Right Wing-nut December 30, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Only on the internet.

Ed December 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Discuss the weather?? Poor Robert Musil.
“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913. (I,3)”

dan1111 December 31, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I find this opening compelling. It creates a vivid picture, and I like how the most important piece of information, the setting of London, is inserted parenthetically.

Sure it is overdone, but the worst ever? Seems like typical artistic snobbery, when anything popular must be bad.

tkehler December 30, 2011 at 1:21 pm

I see it as a defence of sorts. It is only in the intervening years that it has become a cliche to start novels with reports on the weather in the fictional world. I believe there’s a similar treatment of the weather in plenty of novels, especially by the likes of Melville and Conrad, though not surprisingly they do a better job.

Sigivald December 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

As others note above, it’s not itself a problem.

Indeed, weather as literal atmosphere is only tainted by overuse. In 1830, it wasn’t yet overused, and is still not wrong-in-itself.

Guy Fulton December 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Precisely what do people hate about these opening lines?
“Starting off with the weather when the story otherwise has nothing to do with it was surely poor style then as now” I don’t believe is much of a criticism. Everybody seems to like Dracula which contains great piles of unnecessary sentences like this one: “There were dark, rolling clouds overhead, and in the air the heavy, oppressive sense of thunder. It seemed as though the mountain range had separated two atmospheres, and that now we had got into the thunderous one”

And this is also true of Frankenstein, Harry Potter, The Odyssey, and don’t ever read Oscar Wilde if you hate random, unnecessary descriptions of the weather.

If you hate having been told that it is stormy and then hearing a description of what a storm is then clearly poems like “In the Bleak Midwinter” are not for you, nor is “Dover Beach” nor are many of the best poems of Robert Frost.

So really, what exactly is wrong with this sentence? I’m interested in suggestions! And are people who really know about good writing interested in a much over used Cliché about the supposed worst opening sentence ever? Isn’t the use of such Clichés a mark of bad writing?

Kat December 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

Well, of course; I learned that through the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Marie December 30, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Yeah, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t know about this, Tyler.

As for Dickens (who seems to be mentioned numerous times in this thread) my office mates and I had a game where we’d have other authors edit/rewrite different books to see if they could be improved. I always thought Hemingway should have a go at Dickens.

Urso December 31, 2011 at 9:34 am

I wonder how Hemingway would have fared if he, like Dickens, had been paid by the word.

Ted Craig December 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

It’s not that bad. And the point isn’t the weather, but the mood. Also, I wonder if it wasn’t written to be read aloud,.

Claudia Sahm December 30, 2011 at 12:01 pm

+1 for “purple prose” (in moderation)… I’d pick it any day over mean-spirited prose. Of course, a one-sentence paragraph is more than enough. Amusing to see how this sentence got picked up and sometimes made fun of in other literary works:

B.B. December 30, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Dark and Stormy is a nice drink, rum and ginger bear with a slice of lime.

Happy New Year.

Hank Morgan December 30, 2011 at 12:12 pm

It’s a brilliant first line for a work of genre literature. Often parodied because it can’t be improved upon. Just think how many action movies, thrillers, etc., have their opening scenes on dark and stormy nights.

Andrew' December 30, 2011 at 12:14 pm

All nights are dark, and aren’t most of them stormy (for it is in London that our scene lies).

JWatts December 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Um no, all nights are not dark. Have you never been in the country on the night of a full moon? It’s not dark. As a teenager I would routinely drive long stretches with my headlights off.

KJ December 30, 2011 at 12:41 pm

True, all nights are dark, but some nights are darker than others. “The night was unusually dark, and none too unstormy either; the rain fell in torrents…” There. I just fixed it.

Andrew' December 30, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Or, “It was incredibly dark, compared to mid-day, and rather stormy for London, which is often stormier than most.”

msgkings December 30, 2011 at 2:42 pm

The birth of Ultra-Literal Fiction

dearieme December 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Apart from the Tale of Two Cities, I find pretty much all of Dickens as bad as that. Dickens is the most over-rated writer in English, just as Shakespeare is the most under-rated.

Rahul December 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Now I’m curious to hear who’s your favorite writer.

msgkings December 30, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Has to be Shakespeare. Most UNDERrated?

msgkings December 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I guess if Shakespeare was rated properly his works would be taught in schools all over the world and his plays would be seen by millions. Or something.

dearieme December 30, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Yeah, but without dissent.

Dave December 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Other books start with the same line. “A Wrinkle in Time” is particularly unreadable.

msgkings December 30, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Maybe for a grownup. That was my favorite book at age 10.

JWatts December 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm

I’m reminded of this article about a new comic, which is a re-telling of the Superman Myth.

I’m not a comic book reader, but I noticed the dialogue was really quite atrocious. The numerous comments afterward lead me to believe that it is really bad even for the genre.

Christian Bjoernskov December 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I agree that it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of the novel. However, what is the comparison when we say that it is horrible? Are we comparing it to the many books by Barbara Cartland? If so, it probably comes off pretty well. Isn’t the problem that we tend to compare most literature to an almost unreachable ideal? Is this what the readers implicitly have in mind?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

minderbender December 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Here’s what I have in mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Here’s what Micheal Steele has in mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” However, like me he is thinking of Tolstoy.

Claudia Sahm December 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Or how about Ayn Rand? I made it to p.288 of Atlas Shrugged and had such an overload of purple prose (the mix of some over-idealized men and anti-government venom grated particularly on me) that even I had to put it down. Of course, to each his own, I hear some people rave about her writing.

jimi December 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm

same here….

I struggled all the way to ~688 until I read, “his face was open…” *again*.

Write ‘his face was open’ again! I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, write ‘his face was open’ one more Goddamn time!

NAME REDACTED December 30, 2011 at 4:47 pm

I love it. I don’t care what others say or their bad taste. It paints a great picture and sets a marvelous scene.

Ed December 30, 2011 at 4:48 pm

“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.”

I fixed it for modern sensibilities.

I can’t read Dickens now either. The problem is the internet. I’ve been trained to scan through writing quickly to get the gist; nineteenth century writing, paid by the word, meant to be read out loud, when there are not many other demands on one’s time, just works terribly today compared to writing from other eras.

Sam December 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

In the UK, this sentence is famous for being one the worst in the English language…

Although it must have inspired Charles Schlutz, he named a Peanuts anthology “A Dark and Stormy night”..

john malpas December 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Anfd there is no mention of climate change . How is this possible?

Boronx December 30, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Can’t be as bad as


by Jim Theis

The weather beaten trail wound ahead into the dust racked
climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the
Norgolian empire. Age worn hoof prints smothered by the sifting
sands of time shone dully against the dust splattered crust of
earth. The tireless sun cast its parching rays of incandescense
from overhead, half way through its daily revolution. Small
rodents scampered about, occupying themselves in the daily
accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust sprayed over three
heaving mounts in blinding clouds, while they bore the burdonsome
cargoes of their struggling overseers.

jkl December 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Stil i dont get it. What is so wrong?

jkl December 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm

in fact without knowing anything from him but for his autoship of the Last days of Pompei, I began a tale in a test in 5th year of elementary schooll almost the same way.( I guess because I have read to many times Peanuts)

Winter December 30, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Thomas Pynchon’s book “Against the Day” has major themes associated with Bulwer-Lytton’s book “Vril, The Power of the Coming Race” and a weird conspiracy theory that sprang up from it. “Vril” describes a society of subterranean super-beings. For some reason, people started to take it seriously and supposedly a secret Vril Society was established. This society was supposedly tided in with the Nazis and looking for an Aryan homeland in Shangrila, etc., all themes in “Against the Day.”

J Storrs Hall December 30, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Apparently 2103 will be similar to 1830. As Paul Graham put it,

” It’s hard to predict what life will be like in a hundred years. There are only a few things we can say with certainty. We know that everyone will drive flying cars, that zoning laws will be relaxed to allow buildings hundreds of stories tall, that it will be dark most of the time, and that women will all be trained in the martial arts. …”

Tony December 30, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I think it violates “show, don’t tell” more than anything.

Seth C December 31, 2011 at 12:27 am

Weather has its place: James Joyce:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

EdH December 31, 2011 at 7:45 am

You can think of the fog as a major actor in Bleak House, – a metaphor of the law obscuring light and reason, and giving cover to other sorts of darkness. It permeates both London and the story.

Bulwer-Lytton on the other hand is adjective-laden and generic.

Urso December 31, 2011 at 9:37 am

Everyone focuses on the beginning, but the last phrase grates my ears: “fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”

Sovietologist December 31, 2011 at 10:44 am

Am I the only living person who’s actually READ this book? It was bound into the 1850s copy of Last Days of Pompeii I bought off eBay and I ended up reading it. I did so in search of insights into the Victorian mind (I’m a historian by trade), but it’s actually a lot of fun! I’ve since read quite a few of his other novels and, besides encompassing an astonishing range of genres, most of them are not written in the same overly florid style as Paul Clifford. Bulwer didn’t become wildly popular among 19th-century readers without reason.

dearieme December 31, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Dear God! If you know what you’re talking about, why are you commenting on an economics blog?

WillJ January 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I think this passage is quite good when you take out the inexcusably awful “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)”.

…leaving us with “It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in torrents, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (I also changed the semicolon to a period.) Not bad, if you ask me!

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