The Strange History of the Worst Sentence in English Literature

If you want to start a novel, your options for an opening line are just about infinite. If, however, you are desperate to start a novel, any cartoon beagle can tell you that there’s only one choice: “It was a dark and stormy night.” The phrase has become so ingrained in our literary culture that we rarely give much thought to its origin. When he put pen to paper, it’s likely that author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton had no idea just how infamous his dark and stormy night would become. Bulwer-Lytton was once as widely read as his friend Charles Dickens, but today he’s remembered almost exclusively for one bad sentence. It’s an ironic legacy for a prolific author who influenced some of the most popular novels in English literature, helped invent sci-fi fandom, laid the groundwork for modern crime fiction, and accidentally sparked a movement for an important social reform. “It was a dark and stormy night” opens Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford, about a highway robber who, as part of a con, disguises himself as a gentleman — unbeknownst to the robber, he’s actually the son of a famous judge. The book is largely devoted to highlighting the social circumstances that lead its hero to a life of crime, including a stint in prison after he’s falsely accused of picking pockets. Bulwer-Lytton was mostly forgotten by the middle of the 20th century, but his story-starter lived on. When you read some of the books that claw their way onto the best seller lists today, maybe “It was a dark and stormy night” isn’t so bad after all.