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.