A Place for Purple Prose

It was a dark and stormy night…

No really, it was. This was last week, and as things got a little nasty outside my mind turned to that much maligned phrase. We all know it. Even people won’t don’t move in literary circles will toss it out every now and then, and they know it’s supposed to be said in a melodramatic, self-effacing tone.

But for whatever reason I suddenly became curious as to why? And who said it in the first place, other than Snoopy?

So a little bit of searching and I landed on the Wikipedia entry for the British novelist Edward Bulwer- Lytton, who coined this phrase with the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. So, it is real. It’s not just a joke that someone made up to mock purple prose and is now found in the mouths of just about any wiseass on the eve of a storm. It is, in fact, the beginning of a real book.

But wait – there’s more. Here’s the whole sentence:

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.

Now, let me be the first to admit that if the wiseass I referred to earlier were to quote this entire sentence rather than just the first seven words I’d be impressed.

Secondly, I admit to kind of liking it. Yes, I do. I like this sentence. But I like Victorian literature, and I know I’m not alone in that. Would this sentence work today? Should the opening line of my next YA novel make use of semicolons, dashes, and parentheses all in one go? No, it shouldn’t. No agent would sign off on it and no editor would buy it.

But does that necessarily make this bad writing? Is this sentence worthy of being mocked by every person who has a TV but has never read a book nearly 200 years after it was penned?

I don’t think so. Yes, it’s over the top. Yes, it’s flowery and more than a little self-important. But, take a moment to divorce yourself from the choppy, single-serving easily digestible content of my blog post that surrounds this little snippet and picture a slow pan to the right on this scene and Vincent Price doing the voice over.

Not quite so funny now, is it?

Sometimes I think we’ve lost our connection to what is or is not good writing. Social norms define what is in or out at any given moment. And right now, Bulwer-Lytton is most definitely out, and probably will never come back in. But I don’t think it necessarily means that there is no time or place for this style of writing.

And for the record, even though you may not know his name Bulwer-Lytton also coined the phrases, “the great unwashed,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and “the almighty dollar.”

So let’s cut the guy a break.

9 thoughts on “A Place for Purple Prose

  1. It's also the opening line of “A Wrinkle In Time”.

    Wise post. Where would we be without those long and luscious Victorian novels? It's all part of our history. And those who forget history are doomed… or something…

  2. In a blog entry on advice to aspiring writers Jack McDevitt said, “Don't open with a weather report,” probably in reference to the infamy of that specific EBL sentence. I would say don't open with a weather report unless you can do it as well as Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Cheesy or not, the reader must admit that sentence is effective in conjuring the scene vividly, and the clinchers in it are “swept up the streets” and “rattling along the housetops”. And if I'd been Eddie that's where I'd have put the period. What carries that sentence over the top are its last fourteen words.

    Good or bad writing should be obvious regardless of what century it was written and you can easily find plenty of both in many a book, Victorian or not. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an excellent example. So is Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave.

    What irks me is how often novels open with far less interesting weather reports since EBL. Many respected authors writing good selling and well reviewed books choose to talk about the weather in their opening lines. I work in a book store and encounter more of these books every day and it becomes more irritating each time. I wish most of them would stop doing it. Set the scene a different way and give me the weather report further down or give me a hint on the weather through a character's actions.

    Tommy's tongue stuck to the lamp post and all the other kids laughed at him.

    That sentence tells me all I need to know about the weather in Tommy's story and I didn't even mention it directly.

  3. Thanks everyone for all your thoughts. I agree entirely Frank, that good and bad writing exists at all times. The Victorians get a lot of credit today because the bad has phased itself out and the good endures 🙂

  4. I am currently reading Vanity Fair. First line: While the present century was in its teens, on one sunshiney morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswich Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three corneder hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. . . .

    Now this seems long and run on, but I think in our hurried life we so miss the details. (I don't know that I want to read that many, I like imagining things). But I know I rarely sit down and relax and just SEE things.

    Good Blog as usual Mindy!

  5. Brilliant post, Mindy! I like the sentence, too. I am attempting to read EBL's book, The Last Days of Pompeii (for research, of course). The first sentence includes this description: “… a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.” 🙂

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