Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Dark and Stormy Quest

Charles here, procrastinating instead of writing.

In Vicki’s entry (below), she talks about enjoying The Lord of the Ring’s florid writing style and jokes that her own prose “might start to turn a mite purple.” And, because I was frighteningly close to actually writing something today, I decided to track down the origin of the phrase Purple Prose.

Like most online researchers and all procrastinating writers, I started with Wikipedia. In the Examples section, the webpage notes the oft-quoted opening of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Now everyone knows the line (and the ‘bad writing’ contest it inspired) but how many people know the rest of the sentence that follows those seven infamous words?

“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.”

Laugh at it all you want, but that sentence sets a clear scene and a clear tone – Victorian London and Victorian writing. I don’t know what the rest of the book is like, but this is not all that different from other Victorian writers that are considered literary giants. Open up to a random page of Dickens, Kipling, Stoker, Brontë (either), Stevenson or Eliot and I bet you can find something similar. If Bulwer-Lytton is bad, so is most everything from that era. Maybe it all is, but why pick on one guy?

Blame Charles Shultz. In a Peanuts strip back in 1965, he has Snoopy start his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night…”, a comic device he reused often. An author and all of his work dismissed by punch line in a comic strip. I’m sure thousands of English teachers posted the strip on bulletin boards in classrooms around the globe, the same classrooms that forced the aforementioned Victorian writers on millions of students.

Well tell you what, folks, I’m taking up a quest of Tolkein-ian proportions. I will track down a copy of Paul Clifford and, by god, I will read it! And none of this download crap, I want the physical book in my hands. It may take weeks, months…hell, it could take years, but I will find this book and I will fight my way through the purplest of purple prose.

An epic quest.

A worthy goal.

And a clever way to procrastinate.

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