Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It was a dark and stormy night

A sentence irreversibly linked with Snoopy. But taken originally from the 19th century writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, pictured above. Here is the full sentence in all its glory:

“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.”

The kind of wretched Victorian excess that characterizes this sentence (the opening sentence of the novel "Paul Clifford") didn't exactly burnish Bulwer-Lytton's posthumous literary reputation, and led to the by-now-infamous annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants have to supply the openings of terrible (imaginary) novels.

On a more positive note, it is to Bulwer-Lytton that we owe the phrases "the pen is mightier than the sword", "pursuit of the almighty dollar", and "the great unwashed". But it doesn't stop there. Consider, if you can stand it, the product "Bovril (TM)".

If you have never come across this stuff, dear reader, consider yourself lucky. According to Wikipedia: Bovril is the trademarked name of a thick, salty beef extract, sold in a distinctive, bulbous jar. It can be made into a drink by diluting with hot water. It can also be used as a flavouring for soups, stews or porridge, or spread on bread, especially toast, rather like Marmite. (It can also, presumably, be flushed down the toilet, or thrown in the rubbish, either of which would be preferable to actually ingesting the stuff: the word "Marmite" should be sufficient explanation).

The connection with Lord Lytton? Again, from Wikipedia:

The first part of the product's name comes from Latin bos (genitive bovis) meaning "ox" or "cow". The -vril comes from Bulwer-Lytton's once-popular 1870 "lost race" novel, The Coming Race (also reprinted as Vril: The Power of the Coming Race), in which a subterranean humanoid race have mental control over, and devastating powers from, an energy fluid named "Vril."

Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton : is there no limit to the cultural debt we owe this man?

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