It wasn’t a dark and stormy night… this book that lies open on my desk begins with a rather less evocative phrase. More mundane and far less atmospheric…though the writer who had penned them both was the same. I’ve never really seen what was wrong with that opening, though it has passed into the realms of ridicule as ‘purple prose’ and the Right Honorable Lord Lytton now has an anti-literary prize named after him, awarded for the worst opening phrase of a story. A tad unfair, I feel. His style was the product of a bygone era and a society that held different tastes close to its tightly corseted bosom.
This particular book, I haven’t read in a good many years, but as it is fairly obscure yet has been mentioned by three people in as many weeks, I thought I should rummage through the shelves and find my battered and dog-eared copy. I’ve always liked the work of Bulwer Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright. His style, I grant you, is heavy and sometimes ponderous… like many writers of his epoch, he will seldom use one word when five will do. His storytelling, however, is a different thing and he manages to evoke times long past and populate them with unexpected characters. Little known today, his ‘dark and stormy night’ is not the only phrase he has added to the language. His novels were hugely influential when they were first published. ‘Pelham‘ changed fashionable dress. Verdi, Wagner and others wrote operas based on his historical works. His friend, Charles Dickens, changed the ending of ‘Great Expectations‘ on his suggestion and Bram Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula‘ after reading Lytton’s ‘A Strange Story’, which was the first of his works that I read. The Hollow Earth theory was also popularised by Lytton in ‘The Coming Race’, published in 1861 and was credited with helping to launch the science fiction genre.
I was barely fifteen when my grandfather gave me two of Lytton’s works. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘A Strange Story’. The books could not have been more different. One, a vividly portrayed piece of quasi-historical drama, the other a dark and unsettling tale, set in what seemed to be my own backyard. The locations were referred to only by their initials, but the town sounded remarkably like my own and the Abbey and the old house sounded like those at Kirkstall, Simply because of that, I ploughed through the heavy prose when most of my contemporaries were turning to Barbara Cartland for ‘historical’ fiction.
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