Friday, April 13, 2012

Damned for the wrong sin, or, I come not to praise Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is known these days, if at all, for a single sentence, the one with which he opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:
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.
A cursory online search is disappointingly unhelpful in determining when that opening phrase became a cliche. Google's Ngram viewer suggests that a lot of writers thought it worth copying in the first thirty years or so after Paul Clifford was published, with steadily fewer finding it useful in the following century.

The NGram viewer, however, doesn't register the many times when Snoopy enthusiastically typed it out, or any other of its non-bound-book comic appearances. The uptick registered after 1980 can be attributed solely to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which, since 1982, has kept Bulwer-Lytton's name alive, if infamous, by awarding an annual prize--currently $250, described technically in the rules as "a pittance"--for the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel submitted to them.

Like nearly everyone alive today, I've not read Bulwer-Lytton. I've long thought, however, that he didn't deserve his infamy--at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it's not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn't yet become a cliche, then the ground for complaint are two:

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye--but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey's Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don't see it.

Perhaps my instinct to be generous to Bulwer-Lytton is part-and-parcel of my tendency to question opening lines generally regarded as great. "Call me Ishmael" and "I am an American, Chicago-born" I'll accept, but I'm on record as questioning the quality of "All happy families are alike," and to that I'm ready to add "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (Think about it: what propagandistic, controlling work would altering clocks to use thirteen hours have? I'm guessing little, as it's never mentioned again. And even if we want to grant Orwell some license to shock at the start of the novel, then he should at least have made it the more rhythmically satisfying "all the clocks were striking thirteen," no?)

The reason I started thinking again about Bulwer-Lytton's infamy is that after reading the entry on him in John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists--finally available Stateside, from Yale University Press--I became convinced that he's infamous for the wrong reasons. Rather than being awarded for the worst sentence, the Bulwer-Lytton pittance should be given for the worst husband and father--for good god, was Bulwer-Lytton a bad one. Here is Sutherland's account, pulled from various points in the Bulwer-Lytton entry:
On a trip to Italy in 1834 . . relations between him and Rosina broke down. It did not help that, as gossip reported, Bulwer was accompanied by his mistress. There were, by now, two children. A legal separation was enacted in April 1836 and two years later Rosina's children were forcibly removed from her on the grounds of maternal neglect. It was untrue, but Edward wanted custody of his son, the eventual heir to Knebworth. . . . Rosina felt he could quite well make do with his three illegitimate children. . . . By mid-century Lytton . . . had put his public life back together again. His private life was something else. He had callously abandoned his daughter Emily to die of typhus fever in a London lodging house. Her body was brought back to the magnificent family house a Knebworth and it was given out to the world that she had expired there, by her loving father's side. It is the most despicable of Lytton's actions--unless one credits Rosina's allegation that he once hired an assassin to poison her. She had not even been informed her daughter was ill, a fact she furiously publicised. . . . [Rosina's] harassments climaxed at Herford, in June 1858, where Edward was publicly canvassing. She heckled and was cheered on by the crowd who found the row more interesting than government policy. Lytton, driven to desperate remedies, had her abducted and incarcerated for a month in a private lunatic asylum. Tame doctors provided the necessary certification. The Telegraph . . . took up her cause and she was released.
That last episode may be familiar, as it provided Wilkie Collins with plot ideas for The Woman in White--for which, Sutherland tells us, Rosina wrote to thank him.

Seriously, though: even in the annals of writerly familial brutality and self-seeking, surely this stands out more than, relative to the oceans of bad prose, "It was a dark and stormy night" ever could? Surely we're lodging Bulwer-Lytton in the wrong circle of literary hell?


  1. Allan Connery12:17 PM

    Orwell was writing just after the Second World War, when the military 24-hour clock would have been widely familiar, and 13 chimes would have meant 1 p.m. to everyone. I think Orwell's clocks foreshadow the militarized, regulated world of 1984.

    Military time, rendered in bells, would have been tiresome by 5 p.m., and unbearable at midnight -- a small example of the methodical madness of totalitarianism.

  2. Ah, that does make it all make sense--thanks for explaining!

  3. From the preface to the 1840 edn. of Paul Clifford:
    A second and a lighter object in the novel of "Paul Clifford" (and hence the introduction of a semi-burlesque or travesty in the earlier chapters) was to show that there is nothing essentially different between vulgar vice and fashionable vice, and that the slang of the one circle is but an easy paraphrase of the cant of the other.

    I have written a note on and given an extract from Pelham his first book published when he was 25.