Storm front — Frank McNally on the dubious fame of Edward Bulwer-Lytton

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .”

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who died 150 years ago on Thursday, was a highly successful writer in his day.

He was also a prominent politician, serving for a time as British colonial secretary. Moreover, his aristocratic credentials were sufficient in 1862 to see him proposed as a stopgap King of Greece. He turned the offer down.

Even so, he is probably best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for having once started a novel with the line: “It was a dark and stormy night;”.

As a result of which, he himself has been dubiously immortalised by two annual international contests in which people compete to produce the opening sentence of what promises to be “the worst of all possible novels”.


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is organised annually by the English department of San José State University, California. Last year, the 41st, attracted more than 6,000 entries.

Maximising the potential awfulness of their novels, however, entrants often err on the side of verbosity with the opener. So a separate Lyttle Lytton contest has also emerged, run by an American writer, in which the limit is 200 characters.

It should be noted in this context that Lytton’s infamous original did not end with the word “night”. That would have been pithy, at least. But as was the style then (1830), it was followed by a semi-colon, after which the weather report continued:

“. . . 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 struggle against the darkness.”

The structure of that, including the semi-colon, was retained by the 2023 winner of the main Lytton contest, a New Yorker named Maya Pasic, who began her potential novel as follows:

“She was a beautiful woman; more specifically she was the kind of beautiful woman who had an hourlong skincare routine that made her look either ethereal or like a glazed donut, depending on how attracted to her you were.”

Which is arguably not a bad opening at all. As the adjudicators themselves said of it: “We’re laughing and hungry!” I would certainly want to read the second sentence of that novel. If the tone could be sustained throughout, the author might have a comedy classic on her hands.

In fairness to the original Bulwer-Lytton, he also wrote many other lines that have become memorable to the point of cliché.

In an 1839 play, he had a fictionalised Cardinal Richelieu say “the pen is mightier than the sword”. He invented the esoteric concept of the “dweller on the threshold”, later to be the title of a Van Morrison song, among other things. And if he wasn’t the first to use it, he at least popularised the idea of the “pursuit of the almighty dollar”.

But as dubious as his dark-and-stormy-night fame may be, he could be remembered for worse things, not least the treatment of his wife, “a noted Irish beauty” by the name of Rosina Doyle Wheeler.

Portraits suggest that Wheeler’s beauty was of the ethereal (rather than glazed donut) kind. And like her Tipperary-born mother, Anna Doyle, she too became a writer. Alas, her earliest foray into literature, The Man of Honour (1839) was a bitter, borderline-libellous satire on her husband and the by then disastrous marriage.

Relations between them were still poisonous enough that two decades later, on what may well have been a dark and stormy night in 1858, she turned up at a by-election rally he was addressing and publicly denounced him.

After that, Bulwer Lytton resorted to the well-known 19th-century stratagem of having her locked up in an insane asylum. Released after a public outcry, she continued to write about her experiences, greatly to his embarrassment.

Respective literary outputs aside, even the couple’s lives read like overwrought Victorian fiction.

When “Lady Lytton” died in 1882 (she had held on to the alliterative title decades after the marriage ended), a Life magazine obituary suggested they were equally high-strung, and that trouble was visible from their wedding day, when both looked like they were about to faint.

“We must remember,” wrote Life, “that that was the age of sentiment, and not only was it the role of the bride to be nervous, pallid, and in tears, but that the bridegroom would have been considered an inferior being had he not also shown signs of what was then known as ‘sensibility’.”

Recalling Bulwer-Lytton’s funeral from 1873, the obit noted the attendance at the graveside of a mysterious figure whose identity could nevertheless be easily guessed.

Despite the bitterness of the marriage, “a lady very thickly veiled, but not so hidden by the crape which made her seem one black figure from top to toe as that her agonizing grief could not be too plainly discerned by all around her, stood on the farther side of the grave, into which flowers fell softly from her hand.”