Friday 25 May 2012

Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Peerless Unreadability

Today would have been my father's 103rd birthday (long generations on that side of the family - his grandfather was born before Waterloo and the last of said grandfather's many grandchildren in the 1930s). But today was also the birth date, in 1803 - before even my great-grandfather - of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a hugely successful novelist in his day, now all but forgotten and unread, remembered only for incidentals. He coined the phrases 'the Great Unwashed' and 'the almighty dollar' as well as the proverbial 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. He is also the man who persuaded Dickens (a friend) to revise the original ending of Great Expectations, bringing Pip and Estella together in a reader-friendly happy ending - and the originator of the 'vril' in Bovril (taken from his science-fcition novel, Vril, The Power Of The Coming Race). And he came up with the famously 'bad' opening line (to a novel called Paul Clifford), 'It was a dark and stormy night'. Actually there's nothing wrong with that - it's only as it painfully unfolds that the sentence reveals Bulwer-Lytton's limitations as a prose stylist:
'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.'
That is bad writing at its baddest.
One of the strangest book finds of my life was of a Bulwer-Lytton. For reasons of research, I needed (or fancied I needed) one of his more obscure titles, Lucretia. This was back in the days before the internet, let alone AbeBooks or Gutenberg, and it proved impossible to track Lucretia down. Then, on a summer walk in rural Suffolk, I was passing a cottage when I noticed that a few tatty old books had been scattered on a small trestle outside, like so many unwanted vegetables, for anyone who cared to take them away. One of these volumes was a sturdily bound, if mouldering, copy of Lucretia. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial.
Naturally I took it away, then made the mistake of trying to read it. Twice I took a run at the opening chapter, but twice I was obliged to pull up halfway through. Bulwer-Lytton's prose is of such peerless unreadability that the reader feels like one lost in a steamy jungle, hacking away with a machete in the fading hope of stumbling upon a clearing. And yet this man was one of the top-selling authors of his day. It goes to show how, for the most part, the bestsellers of every age become unreadable to later generations (a heartening thought as one scans the bestseller shelves in W.H. Smith). Truly, the past is another country; they read differently there.


  1. "Bulwer-Lytton's prose is of such peerless unreadability that the reader feels like one lost in a steamy jungle, hacking away with a machete in the fading hope of stumbling upon a clearing."

    love it!

  2. I LOLed at this one. I love that "(for it is in London that our scene lies)"... the McGonagall of thrillers.

  3. A friend of mine owned the first edition of Sylvester Stallone's long out-of-print novel, "Paradise Alley." The opening line-- I quote from memory after several decades, alas, and may not do it full justice-- was (approximately): "The sun beat down like a kick in the guts, but Vic could haul a 60 pound block of ice up three flights of stairs without blowing his breakfast." Top THAT, Mr. Bulwer-Lytton.

  4. His "Haunter and the Haunted" scared me when I read it as an eight year old, and stayed with me, though I forgot the title and the author's name. It wasn't until much later that I searched for it and realised it was by the "dark and stormy night" guy...

  5. Clearly he had his moments, Mike - I guess he must have done... But he was certainly no match for Sly Stallone!

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