Monday, August 10, 2009

It was a dark and stormy night on the California coast

From Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Dana has left harbor on a new ship and with a new crew. As a reader long isolated from ready access to books, he scrounges what he can from whatever source he can find.
It being the turn of our watch to go below, the men went to work, mending their clothes, and doing other little things for themselves; and I, having got my wardrobe in complete order at San Diego, had nothing to do but to read. I accordingly overhauled the chests of the crew, but found nothing that suited me exactly, until one of the men said he had a book which "told all about a great highway-man," at the bottom of his chest, and producing it, I found, to my surprise and joy, that it was nothing else than Bulwer's Paul Clifford. This, I seized immediately, and going to my hammock, lay there, swinging and reading, until the watch was out. The between-decks were clear, the hatchways open, and a cool breeze blowing through them, the ship under easy way, and everything comfortable. I had just got well into the story, when eight bells were struck, and we were all ordered to dinner.

After dinner came our watch on deck for four hours, and, at four o'clock, I went below again, turned into my hammock, and read until the dog watch. As no lights were allowed after eight o'clock, there was no reading in the night watch. Having light winds and calms, we were three days on the passage, and each watch below, during the daytime, I spent in the same manner, until I had finished my book. I shall never forget the enjoyment I derived from it. To come across anything with the slightest claims to literary merit, was so unusual, that this was a perfect feast to me. The brilliancy of the book, the succession of capital hits, lively and characteristic sketches, kept me in a constant state of pleasing sensations. It was far too good for a sailor. I could not expect such fine times to last long.

I was struck by this passage because it captures that so familiar feeling of a reader becoming caught up in a welcome new find. But who was this author Bulwer and what of the brilliant book, Paul Clifford, of which I was unfamiliar?

Turns out that I, and probably most people, know at least a little about the book Paul Clifford, or at least how it starts. The opening words of Paul Clifford are the now iconic, "It was a dark and stormy night". While this has become the catchphrase for a florid, trite and cliche laden style of writing, Edward Bluwer (or Edward Bulwer-Lytton to give him his full name, 1803-1873) was, in his time, quite a popular British author, playwright, poet and a succesful politician. He crowded a full life of authorship (more than twenty books and at least three plays) with many years in parliament where he influenced a number of bills, sometimes through his parliamentary speeches and sometimes through his writings and pamphlateering. He had a gift for phrasing as well, being the originator of still extant phrases such as "the almighty dollar" and "the pen is mightier than the sword."

While today little recollected by the general reading public, his style of writing is celebrated (mockingly) through the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest conducted annually by Scott Rice, a professor at the San Jose State University in Claifornia. The contest is self-described as "a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Rice has now branched out and includes a new section, Sticks and Stones, where followers of the contest can post and discuss real life opening sentences or just strikingly bad sentences in popular or major works. For example, from Danielle Steel's Star, "She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco."

Here is an article reporting the most recent contretemps about Bulwer-Lytton as reported in the Guardian, August 19, 2008. Surely Bulwer must have the last laugh though. While his books may not be readily available any longer, he is still discussed and indirectly celebrated six generations after his passing and that is not all that bad an accomplishment.

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