Bulwer-Lytton and Purple Prose

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It was a dark and stormy night.

…the pen is mightier than the sword.

…in pursuit of the almighty dollar. 

Who wrote these?  Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, (1803-1873).  He was a member of Parliament, later made peer of the realm (and attended House of Lords sessions), served as Secretary of State for the Colonies (for one brief year, 1858-9), and wrote – a lot.  He left us a number of cliches, maxims, and trite expressions, most notably the ones above.  During his 45 years of writing productivity, he wrote 28 novels, 3 volumes of poetry, and 6 plays.  Best known of these are The Last Days of Pompeii (novel), Richlieu (play), and an early science fiction novel (some say the first), The Coming Race, about a race living underground, waiting for its chance to take over the surface world.  It drew upon the “hollow earth” theory that was prevalent at the time, and was quite popular.  His genres were eclectic, ranging from romance to the occult to mystery to historical fiction.  

Never heard of him?

I’m not surprised.

Bulwer-Lytton wrote in the style of his time, what we would characterize by 21st-century sensibilities as florid, sentimental, and melodramatic.  Our slang term for it is “purple prose”:  that which is excessively descriptive, and/or aiming to manipulate sentiment in the reader in an exaggerated manner.

As you might imagine, such writing is also long-winded.  Teachers would have a massive student revolt on their hands if they assigned The Last Days of Pompeii, for example.  The paperback is 540 pages long.  That’s a lot of “last days.”

Although his works aren’t widely read anymore, folks are somewhat familiar with his name, as the poor guy has an annual contest named after him, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  It was started by an English professor from San Jose State University in 1982, inspired by the “It was a dark and stormy night” novel-opener of Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford.  Their current slogan is: “Where WWW means: Wretched Writers Welcome.”  It awards winners in several categories of awful novel-openers, along with “dishonorable mentions.”  They just issued a list of the 2012 Contest-Winning Entries.  Here are a few of my favorites, but you can click on the hyperlink to read them all.

 She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on … not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her. — Sue Fondrie, Appleton, WI

And how about this one, from the historical fiction genre:

The “clunk” of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favorite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours. — Leslie Craven, Hataitai, New Zealand

Okay, one more:

William, his senses roused by a warm fetid breeze, hoped it was an early spring’s equinoxal thaw causing rivers to swell like the blood-engorged gumlines of gingivitis, loosening winter’s plaque, exposing decay, and allowing the seasonal pot-pouris of Mother Nature’s morning breath to permeate the surrounding ether, but then he awoke to the unrelenting waves of his wife’s halitosis. — Guy Foisy, Orleans, Ontario

Source Info (in case you can’t get enough Bulwer-Lytton):

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Wikipedia)

Bulwer-Lytton’s works (Gutenberg Project)

Chronology (Victoria Web)

Have you heard of Bulwer-Lytton?  Have you read any of his works, or ever entered the contest?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


4 people like this post.

16 thoughts on “Bulwer-Lytton and Purple Prose”

  1. Rhonda HopkinsRhonda Hopkins

    I’ve gotta admit, I’ve never heard of him before. It doesn’t sound like I’d enjoy reading him though. Those long descriptions are the things I “skip” over when reading. How unfortunate to have a bad writer’s contest after one though.

    Okay — those beginnings were pretty bad, but my favorite has got to be that last one. Funny in a “oh yuck” kind of way. 🙂

  2. Rachel Funk HellerRachel Funk Heller

    Gonfunit! I forgot to enter the contest!!! I need to put it on my calendar for next year. Thanks for the great reminder and the insight into this very odd victorian fellow.

  3. BillBill

    I get minus one point for cultural illiteracy. I never heard of the guy. I always thought the “dark and stormy night” thing was from Peanuts — Snoopy was an aspiring novelist, wasn’t he? (Okay, so my only cultural literacy is via comics — minus two points).

    But what if it really was a dark and stormy night? Isn’t there something in the novelist’s creed that requires honesty? What do you think– are you honest enough to be trite if it was needed?

    Could be an interesting interplay between first rate prose and cheesy cliche, like “Call me Ishmael. Some time ago — a dark and stormy night as I recall — having little or no money in my purse and nothing to interest me on shore, I thought I’d sail around a bit and see the steamy, slippery, wet end of a sudsy world.”

    Hey, I could really get into this.

  4. Natalie HartfordNatalie Hartford

    OH my land, those are some kind of writing snippets. A confidence booster if nothing else. LOL! I never heard of the guy and like Rhonda, those winded and long descriptions are stuff I tend to skip through. A wee bit distracting not to mention, time consuming. LOL!!

  5. PatriciaPatricia

    Never heard of him or the contest. So people deliberately try to write, shall we say, badly? Or do they think they’re writing well and it’s just, well, not?


    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. Amy KennedyAmy Kennedy

    Hilarious. I always think I’m going to enter, and then don’t!

  7. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    An English teacher emailed me an article about that contest! Hilarious stuff. In the comments of the news article, someone had an opening line like, “Barry the flasher was thinking of retiring, but he decided to stick it out.” I thought that could have taken the prize!

    On another note, I kind of like “It was a dark and stormy night.” It worked for Snoopy, didn’t it?

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