Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford is most famous for its opening phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night". Today, this phrase is seen as a textbook example of purple prose - writing which is overly extravagant and flowery, drawing the reader's attention more to the words than the story.

In the context of the original novel, was this really purple prose? Was the novel full of purplitude elsewhere, or was it (for its time) a reasonably ordinary piece of writing?

The book is available on Project Gutenberg, so you can read it yourself if necessary to judge its purpleness or otherwise.

  • How is "It was a dark and stormy night" extravagant and flowery? How would you rephrase that in simple descriptive terms?
    – user14111
    Jul 3 '17 at 7:47
  • 1
    @user14111 Well, exactly. It doesn't seem extravagant and flowery to me, but it's held up as the archetypal example of such - hence my question.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 3 '17 at 9:55
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    I don't know if I'm doing it right, but you may be interested in this Google Ngram result.
    – Shokhet
    Jul 3 '17 at 15:01
  • @Shokhet Wow, that's really interesting and unexpected. It looks like the phrase had a steep decline after Bulwer-Lytton used it, and then revived in the 1980s - perhaps when someone unearthed it and popularised it as an example of purple prose? We might even be able to get another question or two out of that graph :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 3 '17 at 20:26

The phrase itself is not "purple prose". In fact, it has been used before. Paul Clifford was written in 1890, and the exact same phrase was used in an 1809 essay The History of New York by no lesser writer than Washington Irving.

It was a dark and stormy night when good Anthony arrived at the famous creek (sagely denominated Haerlem river) which separates the island of Mannahatta from the main land.

(The spelling oddities are in the original)

There's nothing particularly good - or bad - about that paragraph. Contrast it to quote from Paul Clifford set in its full context:

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 overworked and unnecessarily complex and melodramatic, the very epitome of "purple prose".

Over time, memory of the full opening sentence has been lost and all we recall is the opening few words which have come, unfairly, to be held up as the archetypal example of "purple prose".

  • 3
    Are you sure that passage was really considered purple prose for its time? I mean, books published in 1890 were generally written in much more ornate and flowery language than most of the pap published today.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 3 '17 at 9:56
  • Can't shed much light on that I'm afraid. Literary fashions change and, certainly, that style of writing was seen as more acceptable when the novel was published. Certainly the author has given us many more quotes which we remember for more positive reasons: I think "the pen is mightier than the sword" is one. So it's unlikely he was lacking in writerly skill. Jul 3 '17 at 10:27

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