It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton  (1803 to 1873), was a politician, a novelist, a poet and a playwright. Indeed, his books were hugely popular with the Victorian reading public and there sales were such that they earned him a, not inconsiderable, fortune.


In his literary output he was the originator of several well known phrases that have passed into common usage. “The great unwashed” and “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “pursuit of the almighty dollar;” all originated from the prolific pen of Bulwer-Lytton.


He also lent his name to several locations, such as he township of Lytton, Quebec, Lytton, British Columbia, and Lytton, Iowa, all of which are named after him.


An image of the Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Edward Bulwer-Lytton

In addition he was a close friend of Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) and Dickens respected his opinion enough to actually change the ending of Great Expectations (1861) because Bulwer-Lytton advised him to do so because he considered the original ending too sad.

In a letter to his great friend, and primary biographer, John Forster, Dickens explained his decision thus:-

“You will be surprised to hear that I have changed the end of Great Expectations from and after Pip’s return to Joe’s…Bulwer, who has been, as I think you know, extraordinarily taken with the book, strongly urged it upon me, after reading the proofs, and supported his views with such good reasons that I have resolved to make the change. I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”


However, Bulwer-Lytton was also responsible for what is now renowned as one of literatures most enduring examples of  florid and melodramatic phrasing  – also referred to as “purple prose” – with his infamous opening sentence to his 1830 book Paul Clifford, which contains the infamous and oft-mocked line “it was a dark and stormy night.”

The books opening sentence sets the scene admirably with:-

“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.”


Since its first appearance, all those years ago, the line has been lampooned time and time again and has come to be seen as the ultimate example of overly-melodramatic prose.

Charles M. Schulz, for example, in his popular comic strip Peanuts often depicts the budding author Snoopy crouched over his typewriter hammering out the words ‘a dark and stormy night’.


In 1982 Professor Scott Rice, of the English Department at San Jose State University, launched the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which he describes as:-

“…a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels…”

Since it is a deadly serious endeavour the competition strives to ensure that it maintains the “gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude” of the contest, and thus guarantees that “the grand prize winner will receive … a pittance.” Entrants are asked to “inflict their entries” as opposed to merely send them in!

One wonders if, as Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton put pen to paper in 1830, and scribbled out that opening sentence, he realised that he would, in the years to come, inspire so many authors to attempt to compose the most achingly florid prose there creative juices could spit forth?