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Edward Bulwer-Lytton


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Novels, poetry, plays

Writing language

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The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)


The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)

British Literature

The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)

The Coming Race (1871)

Science Fiction

The Coming Race (1871)

Beyond bad writing

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is best known today for a single sentence: "It was a dark and stormy night". And that sentence is known only as an example of bad writing.

Actually that much copied is not so bad, but it is just part of a truly atrocious sentence that begins Bulwer-Lytton's otherwise forgotten novel Paul Clifford:

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.

The introduction has been repeatedly parodied in popular culture and has inspired an annual contest in which thousands compete to create the most dreadful opening sentence to a novel, the best (or worst) of which are collected and published. (See It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Son of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, and so on.)

In short, Bulwer-Lytton's name has become synonymous with bad writing. So I'd like to set the record straight to say he was quite a good writer in his time.

I'd like to but I can't. For he was a terrible writer.

I can say many very good things about him as a writer though. He was extremely popular in his day as a poet, novelist and playwright. He researched his historical romances quite well. He wrote with great learning and socially conscious purpose. He and Charles Dickens were friends and mutual admirers. And at least one novel has stuck around for a quite a while. Scholars occasionally still take his work seriously.

Other expressions originating with Bulwer-Lytton's works, besides "it was a dark and stormy night", are well-known today, though most people who use them don't know who created them—to wit, "The pen is mightier than the sword" from his play Richelieu (1839).

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was born in London, England, the youngest son of a general and an heiress. His first published work was the Byron-influenced collection Ismael: An Oriental Tale, with Other Poems (1820). More poetry followed, as well as his first novel Rupert de Lindsay (1826), while he was still a student at Oxford University.

He was extremely prolific, writing in one twelve-year stretch alone thirteen novels, two long poems, four plays, a history of Athens, and numerous essays, as well as editing a magazine in that period.

His first popular success came with Pelham, or, The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828), a novel of fashionable life. Paul Clifford (1930) was the first of his novels to take up social issues, in this case judicial reform. His psychological crime thriller Eugene Aram (1832) caused controversy because the hero was a murderer. Godolphin (1833) was his first of several novels with an occult theme.

Early science fiction

The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) was historical fiction concerning life in the doomed Roman city before and during the volcanic eruption. It was a sensation in its day and, perhaps aided by twentieth-century film treatments, remains one of Bulwer-Lytton's two major works still being read.

A three-volume novel, Rienzi, or, The Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835) set in medieval Italy, was also popular. Learned novels portraying contemporary high society also continued with Ernest Maltravers (1837), Alice, or, The Mysteries (1838), Night and Morning (1841), and Zanoni (1842), along with the successful play Money (1840) and the epic poem "King Arthur" (1848-49).

In 1871 Bulwer-Lytton published anonymously his only major work considered science fiction, The Coming Race, which is known for two reasons: one it's an early lost-world tale, years before H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs took over the field and, two, it provided a name for the beverage that came to be known as Bovril.

Bulwer-Lytton was also a politician, elected to Parliament as a Whig Radical from 1831 to 1841, and as a Conservative from 1852 to 1866. In 1866 he was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria and sat in the House of Lords until his death.

His son, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, became a diplomat and a noted poet under the pseudonym Owen Meredith.

— Eric