It’s time to free Edward Bulwar-Lytton

February 28, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: writers, writing.

After being consigned by several generations to literary purgatory, Edward Bulwar-Lytton deserves to be free — if not for his sake then for our own. He is a far more interesting man than simply being the author of the most famous first line in all of English literature:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Ok, not very good, I’ll admit, but I have read much, much worse (and so have you). It certainly doesn’t deserve the scorn that has been heaped upon it and its author for lo these many years.

Bulwar-Lytton was by no means a great writer. He is today classified as a minor 19th-century English author. So be it. But he was a pretty good phrase-maker. For instance, the following are his:

The pen is mightier than the sword.

. . . the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

. . . the great unwashed (although some keen-eyed literary detectives have found this phrase in use before Bulwer-Lytton came up with it)

. . . dweller on the threshhold.

So, give the man some credit. He was a serious writer doing the best he could, and his works were quite popular in his day.

Bulwar-Lytton (1803-1873) began his literary career with a book of poems in 1820, but the publication of his novel Pelham in 1828 brought him fame and money. Pelham was a humorous novel of pre-Victorian high society that had readers talking and guessing who the characters in the book were based on. Bulwar-Lytton was also involved in the politics of his day, rose to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, and had much to do with the founding of the province of British Columbia in Canada. At one point in his life, he left politics for a time because his literary career took precedence.

Bulwar-Lytton married Rosina Wheeler in 1827, but the marriage was anything but ideal. His devotion to politics, his literary career, and other women embittered Rosina, and they separate in 1833. The acrimony of that separation led Rosina to write a novel that satirized her husband mercilessly, and the disputes between them were carried on for many years. Twenty-fives after the separation, she denounced him publically when he ran for Parliament. He had her committed to a mental asylum but after a public outcry had her released.

The writer himself suffered from many ills, both physical and mental, but through it all he kept writing. His 1830 novel Paul Clifford is the one we remember, however. Here’s the full opening paragraph:

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.

As I said, not great. But the man deserves better.

It should also be noted that Edgar Allan Poe also used the phrase “dark and stormy night,” but he never began anything with it.


Illustration: A caricature of Bulwar-Lytton for Vanity Fair by APE (Carlo Pellegrini)


To prove, to some extent, that Bulwer-Lytton was not as bad a writer as some think, below is the first chapter of his popular novel, Pelham. It’s very short, so read and enjoy.

Pelham, chapter 1

Ou peut-on etre mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?—French Song. [Where can one be better than in the bosom of one’s family?]

I am an only child. My father was the younger son of one of our oldest earls; my mother the dowerless daughter of a Scotch peer. Mr. Pelham was a moderate whig, and gave sumptuous dinners; Lady Frances was a woman of taste, and particularly fond of diamonds and old china.

Vulgar people know nothing of the necessaries required in good society, and the credit they give is as short as their pedigree. Six years after my birth, there was an execution in our house. My mother was just setting off on a visit to the Duchess of D_____; she declared it was impossible to go without her diamonds. The chief of the bailiffs declared it was impossible to trust them out of his sight. The matter was compromised—the bailiff went with my mother to C___, and was introduced as my tutor. “A man of singular merit,” whispered my mother, “but so shy!” Fortunately, the bailiff was abashed, and by losing his impudence he kept the secret. At the end of the week, the diamonds went to the jeweller’s, and Lady Frances wore paste.

I think it was about a month afterwards that a sixteenth cousin left my mother twenty thousand pounds. “It will just pay off our most importunate creditors, and equip me for Melton,” said Mr. Pelham.

“It will just redeem my diamonds, and refurnish the house,” said Lady Frances.

The latter alternative was chosen. My father went down to run his last horse at Newmarket, and my mother received nine hundred people in a Turkish tent. Both were equally fortunate, the Greek and the Turk; my father’s horse lost, in consequence of which he pocketed five thousand pounds; and my mother looked so charming as a Sultana, that Seymour Conway fell desperately in love with her.

Mr. Conway had just caused two divorces; and of course, all the women in London were dying for him—judge then of the pride which Lady Frances felt at his addresses. The end of the season was unusually dull, and my mother, after having looked over her list of engagements, and ascertained that she had none remaining worth staying for, agreed to elope with her new lover.

The carriage was at the end of the square. My mother, for the first time in her life, got up at six o’clock. Her foot was on the step, and her hand next to Mr. Conway’s heart, when she remembered that her favourite china monster and her French dog were left behind. She insisted on returning—re-entered the house, and was coming down stairs with one under each arm, when she was met by my father and two servants. My father’s valet had discovered the flight (I forget how), and awakened his master.

When my father was convinced of his loss, he called for his dressing-gown—searched the garret and the kitchen—looked in the maid’s drawers and the cellaret—and finally declared he was distracted. I have heard that the servants were quite melted by his grief, and I do not doubt it in the least, for he was always celebrated for his skill in private theatricals. He was just retiring to vent his grief in his dressing-room, when he met my mother. It must altogether have been an awkward rencontre, and, indeed, for my father, a remarkably unfortunate occurrence; for Seymour Conway was immensely rich, and the damages would, no doubt, have been proportionably high. Had they met each other alone, the affair might easily have been settled, and Lady Frances gone off in tranquillity;—those d—d servants are always in the way!

I have, however, often thought that it was better for me that the affair ended thus,—as I know, from many instances, that it is frequently exceedingly inconvenient to have one’s mother divorced.

I have observed that the distinguishing trait of people accustomed to good society, is a calm, imperturbable quiet, which pervades all their actions and habits, from the greatest to the least: they eat in quiet, move in quiet, live in quiet, and lose their wife, or even their money, in quiet; while low persons cannot take up either a spoon or an affront without making such an amazing noise about it. To render this observation good, and to return to the intended elopement, nothing farther was said upon that event. My father introduced Conway to Brookes’s, and invited him to dinner twice a week for a whole twelvemonth.

Not long after this occurrence, by the death of my grandfather, my uncle succeeded to the title and estates of the family. He was, as people justly observed, rather an odd man: built schools for peasants, forgave poachers, and diminished his farmers’ rents; indeed, on account of these and similar eccentricities, he was thought a fool by some, and a madman by others. However, he was not quite destitute of natural feeling; for he paid my father’s debts, and established us in the secure enjoyment of our former splendour. But this piece of generosity, or justice, was done in the most unhandsome manner; he obtained a promise from my father to retire from Brookes’s, and relinquish the turf; and he prevailed upon my mother to take an aversion to diamonds, and an indifference to china monsters.

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