Poor old Bulwer Lytton (or Bulwer-Lytton), immortalized for the beginning of Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” This never seemed to me such an awful start, and I wonder how it grew to epitomize bad beginnings. In full the sentence reads “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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” According to Wikipedia the phrase is considered to represent “the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing,” though why we should take the word of The Phrase Finder is not clear. I suspect we’ve all read purpler passages. So OK, it’s a little periphrastic to the 21st century ear: but it’s succinct and to the point when compared with the first sentence of Nicholas Nickleby say or The Canterbury Tales, or many other classic works which have dodged the “bad-first-line” bullet. Is it just because Snoopy began all the novels he wrote “It was a dark and stormy night” that they named it the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? The contest has been going on since 1984, so I guess he’s saddled with it now.

Does he have a hyphen or not? Seems he was the son of General William Earle Bulwer, and added his mother’s maiden name (Lytton) when he inherited Knebworth House from her. His books now show him both with and without it, Dickens corresponded with him without hyphen, but whatever his own preference may have been, it seems we now (mostly) add the hyphen. My copy, an undated Cassell edition printed at The Mershon Company Press, Rahway, New Jersey, probably from the early 20th century, gives the author as Edward Bulwer Lytton (Lord Lytton). There are actually three of them, all of whom wrote. First is William Henry Lytton Earle, Baron Dalling and Bulwer who wrote An Autumn in Greece, Historical Characters and lives of Lord Byron and Lord Palmerston. The second, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton is the dark and stormy night guy, and he is the brother of the first one. The third, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, his son, became viceroy of India, and wrote lots of poetry, often under the nom de plume, Owen Meredith. Confusion reigns: a Google search for Bulwer Lytton brings you info about Edward Bulwer-Lytton with a picture which is actually his son Edward Robert.

Here’s an OUP quiz to test your recall of first lines of famous books, and another for first lines of poems.

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