(for it is on my blog that our scene lies)
Placed on the page just where it ought to be, so that I could nibble on it as I was taking a break from the cryptic crossword yesterday, itself a break from some HTML hand-coding (yum!), I was enjoying a piece in the Guardian which looked at the results of the latest Bulwer-Lytton Contest as they make use of weather imagery. Honestly, I think B-L has been dealt a bad hand. It’s not that Paul Clifford isn’t appalingly florid; nor is it that there’s so much out there that’s every bit as bad. The problem is that the meme by which his memory is perpetuated — that the beginning of Paul Clifford is iconically bad — isn’t really true:
“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.”
Now, with one or two caveats, I think that’s an entirely creditable bit of scene-setting. The word choices are mostly modest. The imagery is effective. There’s some pathetic fallacy in the struggling of the lamps, but the whole isn’t nearly as purple as one might be led to believe. Is the problem — like the kid who comes to Hamlet and complains that it’s full of clichés — that repetition and parody subsequent to B-L’s time (viz. Peanuts) have made it impossible to experience with fresh eyes something that’s at worst a bit pedestrian?
Or maybe it’s that huge, steaming, parenthetical turd which sits in middle of the thing. There might be nothing at all wrong with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ — at least, nothing to merit its comical baggage — but ‘(for it is in London that our scene lies)’ is tripe packed very densely indeed, and worthy of its own bad writing contest. It’s a non sequitur: it appears to seek to confirm something we’ve not been marginally led to infer — that we’re in London. The authorial voice comes crashing in as if in desperate attempt to fill a just-noticed but crucial gap in an unreversible oral telling. The chummy ‘our scene’ is jarringly meta and hatefully precious. But look:
“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, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Is that so bad?