What Planet is This?

10 Jul 2005

Stormy Night

The Peanuts cartoon for today was of Snoopy at his typewriter slowly writing his novel: "It was a dark and stormy night." Those words are actually from the first sentence of an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Paul Clifford, and the full form which I won't repeat here is taken to be one of the worst opening lines in English literature. So much so that there's a Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest where the aim is to submit the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. The problem with the entries to the competition is that they're so forced, whereas Bulwer-Lytton was quite serious.

The dark and stormy night of Paul Clifford was set in London, and at least a storm is better for a writer than the "splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod" time that John Keats had in another part of Britain in 1818, just over a decade before. I don't really think that Bulwer-Lytton's sentence is that bad, though I suppose a book's worth of the same would be a bit much. But he also coined the phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword" so he can't've been an entirely bad writer.

But what about the best opening line of a novel? Perhaps Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times"? Or Joyce's "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed"? Tolkien's "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit"? Those three are quite famous, even though Ulysses is the quintessential difficult novel and I wonder if Boz is as popular now as he was in his own time. He was totally great though.

Incidentally, it's not stormy here tonight: the moon is out, and there were hazy purple clouds drifting in front of it in the twilight.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Stormy Night", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/stormynight


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Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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