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Monday, August 12, 2013

 

Opening Line: Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here

A reader request:

Request: You mentioned, back in the Opening Lines index post, that you might be open to the idea of doing some bad literature. So how about the quintessential bad opening line? It was a dark and stormy night. Could be fun.

In his essay on Yeats, T.S. Eliot observed: 'One of the most thrilling lines in King Lear is the simple, "Never, never, never, never, never," but apart from a knowledge of the context, how can you say that it is poetry, or even competent verse?' So it is with 'It was a dark and stormy night.' To talk about that famous sentence, we have to talk about its context.

Because here's the thing: on its own, it's not that bad a line. It's just incomplete.

'It was a dark and stormy night' is, in fact, the beginning of a much longer sentence that open the novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. This is the full sentence:

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 lamps that struggled against the darkness.
In context, you can see the problem more clearly, and it's not exactly the dark and stormy night.

Bulwer-Lytton was a tremendously popular author in his day; to quote George H. Spies, he's now regarded as 'perhaps one of the finest examples of a literary figure who was greatly revered during his lifetime and almost completely forgotten after it.' Even looking at that complete opening sentence, you can see the reason for both of these facts.

On the one hand, it's lavishly over-written. Before we've had time to catch our breath Bulwer-Lytton is pounding us with storms, rain, torrents, violent gusts of wind, rattling rooftops and struggling flames: water, wind and fire swirl all over the place, sweeping us into the novel in no doubt that things are going to be dramatic. The 'pathetic fallacy' is a common device in literature and describes the attribution of human emotions to the landscape, usually to express or accentuate a character's emotional state. This isn't quite a pathetic fallacy - 'violent' and 'fiercely' are just on the naturalistic side of the line - but it is, you might say, a stylistic pathetic fallacy. By beginning with such a ferocious setting, Bulwer-Lytton is telling us in no uncertain terms - and no succinct ones either - that this is going to be a story of extreme events and larger-than-life characters. (The story concerns a romantic highwayman, a subject that should surprise no one after such an opening.) This is one of the main reasons why 'It was a dark and stormy night' has become such a catchphrase: it's unquestionably purple prose.

But as a piece of scene-setting, it's also rather vivid. An inexperienced writer is usually well advised not to start with a description of the weather or the landscape: it can be done, and sometimes it can be done beautifully, but it runs the risk of beginning with a sentence in which nobody's there and nothing happens. This is not a problem Bulwer-Lytton faces: what with all the torrents and gusts and agitated flames of lamps, it's a scene full of movement and drama, almost cinematic in mood. Some of the descriptions are good: to describe the guttering of a flame as 'struggled' is really rather beautiful, painting a precise and graphic portrait of its movement, nearly as lovely in its way as the image of flames as 'dishevelled', which falls from such impressive pens as Donne's and Dali's.*. Frankly, as a writer reading that metaphor, my first impulse was to nick it and use it elsewhere (and I might just do that some time) ... but here's where I'd diverge from Bulwer-Lytton: 'struggled against the darkness'. 'Struggled' doesn't just convey the flickering motion in this context; it also conveys a sense of moral conflict: the 'scanty' flames are struggling against the darkness, as if sentient - and more than sentient, possessed of the same purpose as the people who lit them, as if lighting a human pathway was what a flame wanted to do. It's a handsomely Victorian idea - natural element as honest servant - but in terms of storytelling, it also manages to create some drama in a sentence without people. With characteristic speed, a person appears 'wending his solitary way' through the next sentence, but we don't need to see him to get the sense of things. What it's telling us, in fact, is that this is going to be a clash of good against evil.

Now, this is where some of the mockery comes in. It's an effective use of dramatic metaphor, but it's far from a subtle one. Consider, too, the quasi-archaic note of 'for it is in London that our scene lies'. Just as we're being advised that this is going to be a grandly exciting story, so too are we being advised to listen to it as a trusting audience. It's an almost-paternal aside, as if explaining to children hugging their knees around a fireside: it's 'our scene', not 'my scene', and we're assumed to be eager participants from the beginning. We have to accept this on its own terms if the sentence isn't going to feel like a jolly old uncle that nobody takes seriously: in effect, Bulwer-Lytton is forcing us to make a choice about whether we'll be naive readers or not right in the opening sentence. It's easy to make fun of him for this because it's hard to tell whether this is a conscious forcing: the sentence is so fulsome and races along at such a rate that it might just be a convenient aside. And if that's the case, it's easy to laugh at Bulwer-Lytton on the assumption that he's just gotten caught up in his tale without checking whether his audience is with him. We need our novelists to take their creations seriously or the prose won't have any sense of reality to it, but woe betide the novelist who's more convinced than the audience. On the other hand, we could just as easily slip into the role of Constant Reader, accept that this is going to be old-fashioned adventure, and be warmed at the inclusiveness of 'our scene': sometimes it's nice to hug one's knees and listen with simple faith. It could go either way, and the reader is unusually free to make their choice: Bulwer-Lytton runs a risk with this, and it would seem that it paid off for his contemporary audience but fell flat with later readers.

The fall probably has a lot to do with the fact that it's not the only aside. Our cynicism has been primed by a much clumsier one early on: 'the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals...' While the description of those intervals that follows is pacy and vivid enough to distract us if we allow it to - this is prose written to be gulped, not sipped - that really is a bit of a clanger. When a writer throws everything into describing one kind of drama, storms and torrents in full flow, then checks that flow with an 'except' - and 'except at occasional intervals', which has a dry and pedantic ring that doesn't at all suit the tone - it sounds unfortunately as if he'd lost his focus. Loss of focus never looks good, but when it happens between one kind of extreme and another, with a qualification in the middle that smacks more of the inkstain and pince-nez than the swash and buckle, the effect is unavoidably bathetic. To convey broken action needs smooth writing, and Bulwer-Lytton's sentence is in too much of a hurry. Consider, for instance, this lightly-edited version:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents. Violent gusts of wind swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of lamps that struggled against the darkness.
While a little jerky - I'm just removing words, not adding any to counterbalance their loss - it conveys the same information without that bump in the middle. It avoids the comedic glitch - but at the same time it loses some of the enjoyably breathless pace. (One can't fix a problem like that simply by trimming: one has to rewrite, and that's not my task here.) If Bulwer-Lytton had broken his first sentence into two the way I have, it probably wouldn't have become so notorious - but that's partly because it wouldn't have been so interesting. 

Unfortunately for Bulwer-Lytton, it's also easy to imitate. Take a look at this year's Bulwer-Lytton Contest winners - the prize for writing a bad opening sentence to a non-existent novel - and you'll see a lot of it: Alanna Smith, Rachel Flanigan, Maggie Lyons, Ward Willats, Kathryn Nelson, Jackie Fuchs, John Glenn and Kevin Fry all use the awkward aside or qualification to some degree. The combination of high drama and sudden change is not a felicitous one, and if you're looking to parody, that's a simple device to copy. 

Yet it's not this, the worst point in the sentence, that gets most often quoted. The bit people remember is 'It was a dark and stormy night.' Of course, that's the beginning of the sentence and an audience familiar with Bulwer-Lytton would know what 'It was a dark and stormy night...' denoted, but what it's become by now is an in-joke detached from its source: more people know it from Snoopy than from Bulwer-Lytton. (For those who don't know it from Snoopy: the Peanuts beagle is perpetually writing a bad novel, and 'It was a dark and stormy night' is one of the sentences we know it contains.) There's even a board game named after it. Other writers, though, have taken it on as a challenge - famously, Madeleine L'Engle used it as the opening sentence of A Wrinkle In Time, a book that's considered a classic of its kind. It's the foundation of a circular story popular with children; there are various versions, but the one my dad used to tell me went: 'It was a dark and stormy night. Three robbers sat in a cave. Two said to one, 'Come on Bill, tell us a story,' and so Bill began: "It was a dark and stormy night. Three robbers sat in a cave..."'** And it's worth remembering that such stories are told partly as chants just for the pleasure of their rhythm: it would never have stuck if 'It was a dark and stormy night' wasn't a satisfying phrase to recite. By now, the phrase is more a shorthand for bad writing than an example of it, and not every use of it looks badly written. So, what can we say about the actual sentence as it exists in popular culture? What can we make of it, shaved of its context?

Really, it isn't that bad. As L'Engle and the chanting game show, it can sound pretty good in the right setting. It has a decent dramatic rhythm, a trisyllablic drumroll leading to some good solid iambs: 'It was a dark and stormy night.' It contains no particular howlers. If it has a flaw, it's that it would be a weak opening on its own because nothing happens in it except weather, described by two fairly plain and unimaginative adjectives (though you can't accuse the original sentence of these failings). 'Dark and stormy' is easy to understand, but at the same time non-specific: what is described is the sky and air, not the ground and people, so there's not much going on. Its problem, such as it is, is actually opposite to the problems of the full Bulwer-Lytton sentence: overblown though the latter may be, it's crammed with motion and imagery and scene-setting, and even with no people present, it tells us very clearly indeed what kind of book we're going to read. If this wasn't going to be a story about a highwayman, it'd have to have a gang of robbers or a circle of spies or something equally in that vein: we know what kind of people are going to populate this book well before we know their exact profession. In the context of that high-adventure-in-low-places intensity, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is practically disposable. To say a night is dark is not really necessary - some nights are darker than others, of course, but you could do without the word, especially when Bulwer-Lytton ends his sentence with 'darkness'. When rain is falling in torrents, you don't really need to know that it's 'stormy'. At root, it's faulty because while it's tonally dramatic, it's verbally flat: in context, it's a bit redundant, and out of context, it doesn't have the energy that we're supposed to be picturing in the stormy skies it indicates. Linguistically, it's like singing quietly about a loud noise. It informs, but it doesn't convey. 

Now, in itself, that isn't much of a crime. Plenty of fiction, plenty of it perfectly adequate, has plenty of sentences like that scattered throughout their central sections. The problem here is that it's not the way to get a story on the move. If you've ever seen the film Throw Momma From the Train, you may remember Billy Crystal's character being chronically stuck over whether to begin his novel 'The night was hot' or 'The night was moist' (only to be driven to a final murderous rage when the harridan Momma produces the maddeningly perfect solution: 'The night was sultry.') Probably that's a nod to Bulwer-Lytton, but it's also an illustration of writer's block: if you begin by describing the climate, you'd better have a good idea about where to go from there or you've got nothing. 

Fundamentally, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is a sentence that doesn't suggest a plot. It suggests an atmosphere - not very graphically when split from all Bulwer-Lytton's more flourishing additions - but it doesn't give you anything to expect. The art of novel writing is the art of building sentence upon sentence, and a good sentence suggests to the writer what the next should be. That's why Throw Momma From the Train's dramatisation is so deft: if you're trying to get your brain working, talking about what kind of night it was probably isn't going to help you. Sentences need to make things, to introduce and build and create, and there's nothing in 'It was a dark and stormy night' that you can grasp to get a hand-hold up to the next one. 

And that, I suspect, is why it's so popular as a joke sentence. Fiction is highly specific: every sentence tells you something about where you are, who's doing what, what's going on, and even badly-written fiction contains particulars. The world is full of badly-written sentences, but they're usually badly-written sentences about something, and as such don't stand in very well for all bad sentences. Every unhappily-phrased sentence is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy probably wouldn't say, and when one wants a shorthand, the many different varieties of unhappiness are a nuisance. 'It was a dark and stormy night,' though, a phrase that tells us almost nothing and could lead almost anywhere, is usefully generic. In itself, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is nothing worse than mediocre. For it to be truly hopeless, it has to be detached from its context to become meaningless. 

But of course, that's not how it was actually written. You might as well say that 'Shall I compare thee to a sum?' is bad love poetry: once you start removing sections, it's no longer the author's fault if the thing doesn't work. It may not be the most evocative phrase in the sentence and it conveys little in itself, but that's exactly why Bulwer-Lytton didn't end the sentence there: to cut it down is to reduce the frantic profusion that makes it what it is. And what it is, frankly, is enjoyable, not as a sophisticated pleasure but as an enthusiastic piece of unselfconscious romanticism. You can read it generously or ungenerously, and it allows for both options, and if there's some 'perfervid turgidity', as Professor Scott Rice has it, there is also a bravura that deserves its due. 

In many ways, being turned into a cliche is a compliment to a writer. A cliche is simply a phrase that's been repeated too often. Shakespeare's plays have given the language innumerable sayings, from 'high and mighty' to 'a rose by any other name'; you don't sound original saying them nowadays, but that's because they redound to Shakespeare's credit, not yours. 'It was a dark and stormy night' has its flaws as a piece of literature, but it's punchy and, as a result, famous. And if it doesn't convey very much by itself, that's by design. It's just by the design of people who needed something generic and cropped it accordingly. 'It was a dark and stormy night' is as much the creation of Good Read Games and everybody who's ever quoted it out of context as it it is of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and it was created, not to serve as the first sentence of a novel, but to serve as an anti-sentence, a sentence stripped down until everyone could agree it was bad.

Really, though, its badness is as much a social fiction as a literary one. There are many worse sentences. What it possesses is a the right combination of qualities for the purpose required: it's short, it's simple, and it's non-specific. Of those qualities, only about fifty per cent can be attributed to its actual author. The rest is cultural rendering, reducing it down to an easily-packaged soundbite. 

It's been observed that the jokes in crackers tend to be groaningly awful. ('What do short-sighted ghosts wear? Spooktacles!' 'What did the policeman say to his tummy? You're under a vest!') It's also been observed that there's a reason for this: their purpose is to unite people during a family ritual, and one that can include people who don't see each other that often, know each other that well, or even like each other that much. Different people have different senses of humour, and the chances of every member of every family that buys a box of crackers finding the same good joke equally funny are slim. If some people laugh and some don't, the family is, however subtly, divided in the middle of a feast that's supposed to bring them together. What will unite people is something nobody finds funny, a comedic common enemy; if you can't agree with your brother-in-law about anything else, you can at least bask in the brief harmony of agreeing that 'What do you get if you cross a duck and a reindeer? A Christmas quacker!' is a terrible joke. So the cracker manufacturers who add these paper slips with wince-inducing puns are not actually trying to amuse us, or at least, not to amuse us with the jokes themselves. They're trying to get us to wince in unison.

And that, basically, is the purpose 'It was a dark and stormy night' serves: a literary common enemy created by people whose main interest was in speaking generically of 'bad books' rather than of any one book in particular. It's not about the books, it's about the people talking about the books: not artistic expression, but social currency. For that purpose, a sentence doesn't have to be really bad. In fact, it can't afford to be really truly bad: awkward, unnatural, clunky phrasing doesn't stick in our minds as well as something neat and snappy, and there's nothing more moribund than a catchphrase that's hard to remember. To serve the function that 'It was a dark and stormy night' does, it doesn't have to be bad, it has to be memorable. Yet at the same time, it has to be non-specific: if it hinted at anything about plot, genre or characters, then there'd always be some bugger popping up to say, 'You know, I wouldn't mind reading a book that started like that...' and there goes the harmony. Once it's been repeated often enough, it stops meaning 'It was a dark and stormy night'; it takes on the social meaning of 'I'm a terrible opening sentence', and its actual content doesn't matter that much. It could have been done to any number of sentences. 'It was a dark and stormy night' is just the one we happen to have. But when you think about it, remaining memorable after being pruned of almost all your meaning is quite an achievement. Honestly, I think Bulwer-Lytton deserves some plaudits. 

So, to answer the question: In literary terms, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is not a quintessentially bad opening line. It's a proverbially bad opening line - and that's quite a different beast.


*Tip o' the nib to mmy for pointing out Dali's description of Federico Garcia Lorca's verse ('I felt the incendiary and communicative fire of the poetry of the great Federico rise in wild, dishevelled flames...'), and to Amaryllis for reminding me of Donne's 'To the Countess of Salisbury, August, 1614': 


Fair, great, and good, since seeing you we see
What Heaven can do, and I what any earth can be;
Since now your beauty shines, now, when the sun,
Grown stale, is to so low a value run
That his dishevelled beams and scattered fires
Serve but for ladies' periwigs and tires
In lovers' sonnets, you come to repair
God's book of creatures, teaching what is fair...
Thank you both; I knew I'd seen that image somewhere, but it was nagging at me that I couldn't place it. 


**On the other hand, my mother's version was, 'It was a dark and stormy night, and the rain came down in torrents. The Captain said to the mate, "Spin us a yarn, Joe," and Joe began as follows..." I quote my dad's purely because it's the one I remember from childhood, not out of preference for either version or, indeed, either parent. Interestingly, when I told my mum I was doing a post on the 'It was a dark and stormy night,' she assumed that I meant the beginning of the Captain-said-to-the-mate story; like many people who recite those little loops, it was the only version she knew. 

Comments:
Part of the reason the line works so well for L'Engle is *because* it has become a catchphrase.

After all, in A WRINKLE IN TIME, it's literally true; the story begins during a thunderstorm at night. Moreover, all the associations are also true; we are about to be introduced to the main character, an adolescent girl with the very practical name of Margaret Murry, whose emotions are as black and turbulent as the storm outside; moreover, Meg is about to encounter various supernatural characters -- who, if they don't *control* the weather, precisely, certainly can *influence* it -- who will sweep her up into a battle of Archetypical Good vs. Evil.

Yet the very cliché nature of the line is reassuring. It makes the child reader think of Snoopy and silly jokes, and lets us know that despite the dire events unfolding, things are going to turn out all right.

It also subtly moves the story into the realm of the fable, even the fairy tale. L'Engle's previous books were set in what she called "chronos" -- ordinary time -- and were notable for their almost aggressive quotidian contemporaneous-ness (Ugh. You know what I mean).

But A WRINKLE IN TIME was the first of her works to be set in "kairos" -- "pure time", "real time" -- a sort of Platonic realm where stories become reflections and transmitters of a Truth "beyond the fields we know", to steal another lovely cliché from one of Bulwer-Lytton's contemporaries.

 
So I was looking up Bulwer-Lytton's dates, because I wanted to know how much he overlapped wiht Wilkie Collins (who's on my mind lately). And I find that, in addition to his other contributions to the language, he's the source of the trade name "Bovril." As Wikipedia puts it, "Johnston [the developer] took the -vril suffix from Bulwer-Lytton's then-popular 'lost race' novel The Coming Race (1870), whose plot revolves around a superior race of people, the Vril-ya, who derive their powers from an electromagnetic substance named 'Vril'."

So now we know. Well, I didn't know that before, anyway. Maybe it's common knowledge among people who actually eat the stuff?

I agree that what throws me out of the sentence is the parenthetical remark about "our scene." I'm usually a fairly uncritical Constant Reader, and I don't object to cosy authorial interjection in the kind of book that authors interject themselves into-- that's a convoluted sentence, but you know what I mean. But that word "scene" sounds theatrical in that spot, and therefore artificial in a way that pulls me right out of the sentence.

The fact that the scene is in London surprises me as well, for no real reason, except that dark and stormy nights are always darker and stormier outside of the city. But I expect that the London of 1840 would have been much darker on a stormy night than it is now, no matter how stormy, and that change of effect isn't Bulwer-Lytton's fault!

I'd forgotten about all those torrents. It reminds me of a poem, in fact: Darking Summer, Ominous Dusk, Rumorous Rain by Delmore Scwartz:
A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown
Of grey and clouding weakness...


Read that poem in one mood, and it's a miscellaneous rush of sounds and images with not much actually happening in it, just like our sentence. Read it in another mood, and it's an effective description of a particular moment which hints at what comes next-- also like our sentence. But you can get away with purple, or scarlet and gray and gold, poetry more easily than you can get away with Purple Prose.
 
I like that poem! And no, I didn't know that about Bovril, how interesting. Just goes to show, he had his effect in his day.

In a way, I found that the word 'scene' helped to place me in the sentence precisely because it felt theatrical. Style is a verbal special effect, and special effects depend on context. I'm thinking of the difference between theatre and cinema: watching a play, we willingly accept that a sheet of shaken silk is the billowing sea, whereas in a film, we're quick to spot that a body of actual water is too still and must just be an indoor pool with a model boat on it. When the whole setting is artificial, it's easier to bridge the imaginative gaps.

I know I called it 'cinematic' before, but theatre is certainly a more contemporary inspiration, and to me, thinking of it as a theatrical scene helps to accept all the convolutions. They feel excessive, but with the subconscious image of stage-hands rattling away in the wings, it's a kind of excess that works for me because it's stylised - and when something's stylised, you don't expect it to be in proportion.

I think part of the issue is that to make the sentence work, you have to read at one of two extremes of the spectrum. You can be a completely uncritical reader, one of those people who 'doesn't see the page', and so can miss the infelicities as long as the right stuff is there. You can, alternatively, be a highly conscious reader who pays attention to the technique and factors in the historical context and literary traditions that inform it and studies it as an artefact: is it a good or bad example of its kind?

After an author's lifetime, though, the uncritical readers tend to move on to new books that better reflect contemporary concerns, and highly conscious reading isn't something many people would do for the duration of an entire book. Even very educated and conscious readers like to be able to relax into a story. The trouble with this kind of writing is that it throws out little snags that catch anybody who might be reading it after Bulwer-Lytton stopped being a producer of new bestsellers and became a 'classic'.

I still have some sympathy for the writing because it's energetic and purposeful and there was clearly a lively talent behind it. It feels written too fast - which very possibly it was, given the pressures of Victorian publishing.
 
In a way, I found that the word 'scene' helped to place me in the sentence precisely because it felt theatrical. Style is a verbal special effect, and special effects depend on context. I'm thinking of the difference between theatre and cinema:

This brings to mind to me the preface to Vanity Fair:

As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and, looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place....Yes, this is VANITY FAIR: not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the face of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint of his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and the little Jack Puddings behind the canvas.

Thackeray, who began his writing carrier just over a decade after Bulwer-Lytton's, uses the theatrical 'special effect' to place the reader in a particular relationship with both the characters in the book and with the authorial voice which echoes throughout the book. One could argue that the effect makes it somewhat easier for a reader of a different generation to avoid being snagged by excessive convolutions of both plot and writing.
 
The trouble with this kind of writing is that it throws out little snags that catch anybody who might be reading it after Bulwer-Lytton stopped being a producer of new bestsellers and became a 'classic'.

Have you read about the career of Hans van Meegeren (quick run to Wikipedia to check spelling, yes that's right), the very successful forger of Vermeer?

To even the most untutored eye of our day, his forgeries are glaringly obvious. But the little stylistic tip-offs that stand out to us were so much part of the vocabulary of the contemporary painters of his day that critics simply couldn't see them.

That, added to the general critical conviction that Vermeer MUST have painted religious art (although there's no evidence for it) meant that van Meegeren's forgeries were accepted as genuine by many of the most celebrated experts of his day.

Indeed, in an ironic twist, he had to prove his deceptions to a skeptical jury by forging a Vermeer right before their eyes, in order to avoid being convicted of the much more serious crime of selling national treasures to the Nazis.

Sorry -- that's a bit of digression, but it's a fascinating case.

Anyways, it serves to demonstrate how "style" can become invisible to even the most educated critics when they are used to seeing it (sort of like how our culturally imposed ideologies are invisible to us, until we are yanked out of comfortable ways of thinking, to tie this discussion back to the earlier one on deconstruction...)


 
(Returns from Wikipedia and http://www.arttube.nl/en/video/Boijmans/Van_Meegeren.) I hadn't heard of Han van Meegeren, so thanks for pointing him out. It's a sad story, and also very much an artistic cautionary tale about what can happen if you let resentment and the desire for reputation grow larger than love of the art. Getting into a fight with critics is no way to refute bad reviews, and producing convincing forgeries is no way to refute accusations of unorginality; it looks very much like a tragedy of 'thinking of something other than the thing itself' in a man raised so unhappily that criticism simply derailed him. A tragedy of the desire to be acknowledged as an artist eating the desire to make art. (At least, that's how I'd do it if I were making a biopic of him; at this distance we can only speculate. But the biopic almost writes itself. I'd have Nikolaj Arcel direct it, I think, and Peter Morgan write the script, or maybe Jeff Nathanson of Catch Me If You Can.)

Looking at the forgeries, I have to say that the faces seem rather flat and angular in comparison to Vermeer's, and they don't seem to have his angelic use of light, but probably that's hard to say with any authority when all I can see is photographs online. A painting always looks different when you're actually in front of it. Could you say some more about the tip-offs?

And yes, period style in prose is extremely difficult to imitate accurately. So much of our understanding of grammar is at a subconscious level: we know immediately when something 'sounds wrong', but often we can't articulate the subtle rules behind it. And language changes over time, often in subtle ways that we don't quite notice until something starts to sound archaic. That being the case, convincing period style is only going to come from someone deeply immersed in a period style and, as it were, fluent enough in its dialect to speak it fairly naturally.

And at the same time, it can sound like a foreign language to later readers. Carrying on with Paul Clifford I very quickly ran into problems with the way Bulwer-Lytton spelled out accents phonetically; it's not a technique I'm mad about anyway, but the problem was that when he was phonetically spelling a vanished accent, it was actually quite hard to follow what they were saying. In a book that's clearly meant to be read in an excited gallop, that ages very badly, but presumably it would have been fairly straightforward for contemporary readers.
 
No offense, Kit, but your substitute is worse than the original. Breaking the sentence in two also breaks the motion that B-L, for better or worse, is trying to sweep the reader up into.

The dash keeps the movement going.

Really the only thing flat about the original is the parenthetical about London.

Aside from the parenthetical, the text after the dash isn't an aside, because it's the entire rest of the sentence.

B-L has changed topic from the rain to the wind; he hasn't written an aside about the wind, because he hasn't returned to the rain, though you can still see the gleaming wetness of it all over everything as your eye follows the action of the wind.

Sure, the sentence is a bit gaudy, and you wouldn't want to read pages of stuff written like that. But if B-L had settled down after that sentence (and if he had removed the London parenthetical), it would have been a damned good opener.
 
No offense, Kit, but your substitute is worse than the original. Breaking the sentence in two also breaks the motion that B-L, for better or worse, is trying to sweep the reader up into.

...which is why I followed it by saying:

While a little jerky - I'm just removing words, not adding any to counterbalance their loss - it conveys the same information without that bump in the middle. It avoids the comedic glitch - but at the same time it loses some of the enjoyably breathless pace. (One can't fix a problem like that simply by trimming: one has to rewrite, and that's not my task here.)

Compare 'loses some of the enjoyably breathless pace' to 'breaks the motion that B-L, for better or worse, is trying to sweep the reader up into', and I think you'll find very little difference between the two.


Aside from the parenthetical, the text after the dash isn't an aside, because it's the entire rest of the sentence.

It's a very large aside, but structurally it's still an aside. That's one of the problems with the sentence: it's framed such that most of the information and drama is located in a qualification.


you can still see the gleaming wetness of it all over everything as your eye follows the action of the wind

You may imagine it, but you can't 'see' it in the text. All the description after 'except' is about the wind, and wetness or gleaming isn't mentioned at all - in fact, the repetition of 'dark' and 'darkness' rather suggests the opposite.
 
your substitute is worse than the original. Breaking the sentence in two also breaks the motion that B-L, for better or worse, is trying to sweep the reader up into.
The dash keeps the movement going.


Dickens does of good job of demonstrating in the opening lines of the first chapter of Bleak House that the use of a full stop does not necessarily 'break the motion' of a word picture of a scene.


London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

The full stops in that opening don't halt the action they function as points of emphasis.

Compare the two and you can see how punctuation that 'pauses/stops' can actually form a rhythmic and emphasizing beat.

One of the things that makes Bulwyer-Lytton's original opening line sound 'bad' to modern ears is it lack of internal rhythm and beat. The original dash takes the air of the sentence and replacing it with a full stop closes of that leak and makes the next sentence feel more important and less of an aside before the meat of the story is arrived at.
 
One of the things that makes Bulwyer-Lytton's original opening line sound 'bad' to modern ears is it lack of internal rhythm and beat.

It'd be interesting to see a first edition, actually, because it's not unusual for modern publishers to 'update' punctuation to make it flow easier to modern eyes. The dash is a rather archaic punctuation mark whose use has become more strictly limited over time; I wonder whether it might have seemed very different to contemporary audiences?
 
Could you say some more about the tip-offs?

Hmm. Van Meegeren was capitalizing on the theory that Vermeer *must* have been influenced by Caravaggio, so his forgeries show a ... brutality, a violence (maybe?) in composition that you would never see in Vermeer.

Where Vermeer is intimate, Van Meegeren is cramped; where Vermeer is sensitive to mood, Van Meegeren is maudlin; where Vermeer displays a narrative paused, Van Meegeren is static and flat.

The anatomy is awkward and angular, the faces heavy and hollow, the colors are brutal and harsh, the light scattered and spattered instead of delicate and scintillating.

These are especially true of the later forgeries. Some of that is Van Meegeren growing careless and (justifiably) contemptuous of the critics who raved about the works.

But also I think there was a literal inability to see such elements. The artistic fashion in the period between the wars was for a wholesale rejection of the romantic and mannered in favor of the "authentic": vibrant, energetic, sinuous, harsh -- think of the Cubists, the Fauves, even the Surrealists.

Even while Van Meegeren was consciously repudiating these movements (and he was very contemptuous of their innovations), he couldn't help but betray their influence in the holes and shadows of what is missing from his art.
 
There's an interesting test here. I have to say, I didn't do perfectly! http://reverent.org/vermeer_or_meegeren.html
 
Yes, I did that quiz too-- and I only got 70%.

Oh well, the visual arts are not my strong point.

And there's a dash for you; I don't use them in any formal writing, but I'm afraid I'm overly prone to them in Internet comments and other such informality. Also sentence fragments (and parentheticals, just like poor Bulwer-Lytton). But I am strict about such lapses when I proofread my own professional work or my husband's academic writing. (He's a man for whom the dash never went out of style, and his wild abandon with the comma has to be seen to be believed.)

We think of all those Victorian novelists as moss-covered monuments of literature, but at the time, they seem to have been writing with one eye on the magazine deadline and the other on the potential theater script. But then, that's no worse than the contemporary novels that seem to really want to be a screenplay.

As for phonetically written dialect, no, that doesn't age well at all. Is that because the pronunciations have actually changed, or the conventions of representing sounds have changed, or the ideas about what kind of people talk which way have changed?

Some of it ages better than others, though. To cite a couple of other poems, consider T. A. Daly:
GIUSEPPE, da barber, ees greata for "mash,"
He gotta da bigga, da blacka mustache,
Good clo'es an' good styla an' playnta good cash.


Ouch.

Then consider the younger but roughly contemporary Sterling A. Brown:
Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
From blackbottorn cornrows and from lumber camps;
Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin’,
Cheerin’ lak roarin’ water, lak wind in river swamps.

An’ some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin’ in de crowded aisles,
An’ some folks sits dere waitin’ wid deir aches an’ miseries,
Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin’ gold-toofed smiles
An’ Long Boy ripples minors on de black an’ yellow keys.


Still old-fashioned, but it sounds better to my ears.

You could perhaps say that Daly was condescending to Italian immigrants, from the outside, while Brown was writing from the inside of the African-American tradition. But Brown was an educated man of middle-class background, he hadn't spent his youth doing manual labor in any little river settlements, he spent his adulthood teaching at Howard University, and I'm willing to bet he didn't speak like that himself.

Maybe it's just that he was a better poet.

Back to Victoriana, I recently read, almost back to back, Wilkie Collins, No Name and Sarah Waters, Fingersmith. An interesting combination, and an interesting contrast of opening lines. But as opening lines, they have more in common with each other than with Bulwer-Lytton's torrents and cataracts.
 
As for phonetically written dialect, no, that doesn't age well at all. Is that because the pronunciations have actually changed, or the conventions of representing sounds have changed, or the ideas about what kind of people talk which way have changed?

I reckon probably a combination.

A lot of people now consider it offensive to write accents phonetically because it implies that one accent is 'normal' or 'correct' and all other accents are mispronunciations. Popular writers still do it sometimes - Jilly Cooper, for instance, whose snobbery is part of her selling power - but I suspect it's under a bit of pressure in these modern days. (hapax, I suspect you'd be the one to know about that - any thoughts?)

And it can also be an issue in high culture. I know there was some very fierce debate, for instance, about the spelling of poetry in Lallans (lowlands Scots) like Burns's and MacDiarmid's, in which the pronunciation is so different from RP that it actually does make sense to write 'hame' rather than 'home' and so on, but whether or not to include the 'vile, truckling apostrophe' in words like 'aa' for 'all' was a serious fight. In that instance, phonetic spelling was a matter of national pride, to make sure that people pronounced it as it was supposed to be spoken - 'nae' is sort of a different word from 'no' - but including apostrophes offended that pride.

So yeah, big politics about that. But as you say, there's a difference between deciding to spell your own dialect as you see fit and spelling someone else's dialect as it sounds to your foreign ears.

And I suspect that outsider-written phonetics probably age worse, because they're less authentic and tend to flag up the things that strike an outsider, not a speaker. I've noticed, for instance, that really bad American actors trying to sound English tend to say 'Oy am' rather than 'I am', which to English ears just sounds bizarre unless you're trying to sound West Country and do the Long John Silver voice. (Which is a Bristolian accent, Bristol having been a major port town.) But mostly they seem to be trying to do RP, not Brizzle, and it sounds freakish ... but presumably they're picking out a contrast that strikes the American ear. It just doesn't convey the accent very well, and I suspect will age badly.

 
Looking at Paul Clifford, I think he also made some questionable choices about spelling. He was trying to flag up the blurring between V and W which seemed to be a nineteenth-century Cockney thing, and the over-correction that places an H in front of words like 'over/hover' ... by what he also does is alter the spelling more than he needs to. For instance:

Vy, it is no use desaving me.

Despite having an Irish mother and being consequently familiar with the dipthonged 'e', I really had to stop and think before I realised 'desaving' meant 'deceiving'. If he'd written 'desaeving', it would have been closer to the original spelling and easier to work out. And at the same time, he's taken the H out of 'why', which Dickens had better sense than to do: Sam Weller, who has the same accent, says 'vhy'. Much easier to understand.

LIkewise, someone talks about being 'Companion to the Halter', which in the context of talking about a Bible evidently means 'Companion to the Altar', but by spelling it the same way as the object you'd put on a horse, it's confusing.

So in Bulwer-Lytton's case, I fear the issue may not so much be general rules or changing language or politics, so much as it's somewhat fumble-fingered decisions about the rendering. A reader familiar with the accent could probably smooth over it better, but if it's not familiar, then a writer who doesn't take care to keep the spelling as recognisable and non-confusing as possible is going to have problems with posterity. It all seems part and parcel of the same issues with his writing: lots of energy, but rather careless.

Reminds me a bit about the Winnicott theory of the 'good enough' mother: that no mother can be perfect, but if the mother is 'good enough', the baby can bridge the gaps in her parenting with his or her own emotional outreach. Readers bridge gaps between themselves and the writing. Bulwer-Lytton was a 'good enough' writer for a contemporary reader to bridge the gaps, but then the gap widened.
 
A reader familiar with the accent could probably smooth over it better, but if it's not familiar, then a writer who doesn't take care to keep the spelling as recognisable and non-confusing as possible is going to have problems with posterity.

I recall reading an essay by Leo Rosten, who wrote "Hyman Kaplan" stories, about the difficulty he had with that issue, but I can't seem to find it anywhere. Anyway, the gist was that, yes, if he wrote Mr. Kaplan or Mrs. Moskowitz the way that his immigrant relatives and friends sounded to him, nobody would be able to read it.

A lot of people now consider it offensive to write accents phonetically because it implies that one accent is 'normal' or 'correct' and all other accents are mispronunciations.

Yes, it's usually servants, the "lower classes" in general, and minorities who get the phonetic-spelling treatment. Also children; baby talk, of course, for babies-- and that doesn't age well, either, for some reason, although you'd think children would learn to speak English in the same way they always have. And I've know authors who used phonetics as a marker of careless boyhood, so that you've got siblings in the same household speaking differently: the young boy says "I tol' ya" while his older sister says "I told you."

I remember being very confused when I first read Little Women by a moment where Jo is watching her father teaching the alphabet to her nephew by means of direct physical experiment:

"...Now, Demi, made the letter and tell its name."
"I knows him!" and, after a few convulsive efforts, the red legs took the shape of a pair of compasses, and the intelligent pupil triumphantly shouted, "It's a We, dranpa, it's a We!"
"He's a born Weller," laughed Jo..."


What? At the time, I had not read Pickwick, didn't know about the V/W thing at all, and hadn't seen the drafting-aid kind of compass so I thought a compass was the round thing with the needle that tells you which way is north. What?
 
you'd think children would learn to speak English in the same way they always have

I always remember what a friend of mine from antenatal said: 'When my son started talking and I could understand him when no one else could, I though, "Aha, I finally speak Baby!" Then I found I couldn't understand anyone else's kid and realised, no, I only speak Bobby.'*


*Not his actual name.
 
Phonetically rendered accents can still be seen in pulp fiction -- the "dinnae fash yourself lassie" faux-Scots romances, the gutteral "Ve haf our vays" of the German / Russian / Arab /whatever dark and swarthy ethnicity is called upon to be the villain of the latest airport thriller.

More often I see accent and dialect indicated by the dropped foreign affirmative (You know, the character who speaks perfect idiomatic English except for an interjected "Da" or "Oui") or by nonstandard grammar.

This can either be "incorrect" grammar to indicate a lower social class (e.g. "I been walking some time") or a stilted over-precision to suggest an expensive education in English as a second tongue (or for that matter, cyborgs in science fiction, although why such authors can dream up an AI that can fly a starship but cannot manage the fairly simple rules for contractions is beyond me)

I think the phonetic spelling is falling out of favor not so much because it is insulting (which it is) but because it is *distancing*. It breaks the illusion of being caught up in the story by drawing the reader's attention to typographical tricks.

It is, in a way, doing the same thing as Bulwer - Lytton's parenthetical address to the reader; it is an explicit acknowledgment that this is a *scene* in a *story* -- in a book in my hands -- and not some shared dream of experience between the author and I.

All of which is a good excuse to drop a link to an interesting essay on metafictional asides: http://www.themillions.com/2013/08/the-artist-and-the-fly.html

I'm not sure I agree with the author, but that's okay, since I'm not sure that he agrees with himself, either.


-- hapax
 
n.b. "between the author and me" -- I must have been channeling one of those faulty robot grammar modules when I typed that...

-- hapax
 
@ hapax: '- the "dinnae fash yourself lassie" faux-Scots romances'

As skewered by Terry Pratchett:
"Am I fashing myself?" she whispered.
"No, not really," said the toad.
"You would tell me if I was, wouldn't you?" said Tiffany urgently. "It'd be terrible if everyone could see I was fashing and I didn't know."
"You haven't a clue what it means, have you...?" said the toad.


Ach, crivens.

As for using nonstandard grammar to indicate accent, that can work. I'm thinking of Nalo Hopkinson's books, which use standard spelling but Afro-Caribbean syntax for her Creole characters. It reads convincingly, and attractively, at least to me.

@Kit: 'Then I found I couldn't understand anyone else's kid and realised, no, I only speak Bobby.'

Which, of course, reminded me of that dreadful moment in The Phoenix and the Carpet when the cherished baby of the family crawls onto the magical wishing carpet, murmurs something incomprehensible, and disappears.

'But the Lamb never wished,' said Cyril; 'he was only talking Bosh.'

'The carpet understands all speech,' said the Phoenix, 'even Bosh. I know not this Boshland, but be assured that its tongue is not unknown to the carpet.'

'Do you mean, then,' said Anthea, in white terror, 'that when he was
saying "Agglety dag," or whatever it was, that he meant something by
it?'

'All speech has meaning,' said the Phoenix.

'There I think you're wrong,' said Cyril; 'even people who talk English sometimes say things that don't mean anything in particular.'

'Oh, never mind that now,' moaned Anthea; 'you think "Aggety dag" meant something to him and the carpet?'

'Beyond doubt it held the same meaning to the carpet as to the luckless infant,' the Phoenix said calmly.

'And WHAT did it mean? Oh WHAT?'

'Unfortunately,' the bird rejoined, 'I never studied Bosh.'

 
the "dinnae fash yourself lassie" faux-Scots romances

I'm not a Lallans speaker, but that strikes me as an imperfect transliteration. If you were going down that root, it really ought to be 'dinnae fash yersel, lassie', surely? Or probably 'dinna', as the 'ae' sound doesn't lead naturally on to an F.


I'm not sure I agree with the author, but that's okay, since I'm not sure that he agrees with himself, either.

It got me thinking about the nature of parasocial relationships - you know, one-sided 'knowing' where you 'know' a public figure but they don't know you.

Being an audience member to an artist is always, unless you're there to support your mate, a parasocial relationship. I was struck by him quoting his friend saying he liked bloopers because 'they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.' In the sense of common humanity, I can see the point, but it also feels like a discomfort with the limits of the parasocial relationship. We only see the public faces of public figures, but if we see an actor fluff up their line and say, 'To be or not to - oh bollocks, sorry,' we have the impression that we're seeing a more natural, 'private' face, because we're seeing them talking naturally to people they actually know.

The thing is, it's just as parasocial ... but what it does, I suspect, is resolve the 'status anxiety' issue. We tend to regard performers as higher-status than ourselves - there they are out in front or on the screen, here we are paying to see them - and if they or their performances become emotionally important to us, that can be uncomfortable. Seeing a moment of being 'brought down to earth' cuts them down to size: it's still a parasocial relationship, but it feels more equal - even though nothing has changed except some image management. The decision to release 'bloopers' is generally as calculated as anything in the finished product, after all.

 
Popular culture is very into 'death of the author' at the moment, and very into the idea of 'active reading' and the elevated status of the consumer. I have no patience with it myself, but I can see how metafiction plays into that very neatly: it's more poised than a blooper, but it also resolves an issue of status anxiety. The author speaks directly to the audience, sometimes frankly acknowledging the difficulties of writing; I'm thinking of this section in The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles:

Now the question I am asking, as I stare at Charles, is ... what the devil am I going to do with you? I have already thought of ending Charles's career here and now; of leaving him for eternity on his way to London. But the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open, the inconclusive ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given. My problem is simple...

It's extremely flattering, because it feels like we're getting an insider's view. But at the same time, it's entirely impersonal: in reality, not only are we not Fowles's actual friend and confidante, we might be a person John Fowles would thoroughly despise. To me, it feels less like being confided in than listening to someone think aloud, working through themes that could be more subtly explored without showing the strings. I want my relationship with an author to be parasocial, because the experience of reading the book is parasocial - you have to do it on your own - and a writer pretending to be my friend is doing just that, pretending. I don't like to be courted; I'd rather be seduced. There's a difference.

I don't think it's quite the same thing as a character addressing the audience, though, which is a distinction he doesn't quite seem to draw. That seems less like flattery, more like a dramatic device. Where metafictional asides push the reader out of the story (though into a different story in which the writer is their colleague), characters turning to the audience are usually trying to draw the audience further in. It's artificial, of course, but it still puts the emphasis on the suspension of disbelief: we are relating to the characters and story, not the writer and the telling.

That's my interpretation anyway, but then I've been allergic to metafiction all my life. You're more sympathetic to it, I know; what's your view?
 
Seeing a moment of being 'brought down to earth' cuts them down to size: it's still a parasocial relationship, but it feels more equal - even though nothing has changed except some image management. The decision to release 'bloopers' is generally as calculated as anything in the finished product, after all.

Which makes me think of all those "The Making of..." documentaries that so often accompany a popular movie, at least the "fannish" kind of movie, and that so many fans seem to like as much as the film itself. I never saw the point, myself, unless you're interested in the technical aspects of film-making, which I'm not. But I suppose that all those bloopers and outtakes and directors' commentary and cast interviews and CGI demos and all the rest of it allow the fan to feel part of the experience-- not so much of the actual creation of a work of art, which they must know they're not-- but as if they're part of the community from which the work arose, and as if they "know" the artists who actually created it. Which they don't, but they'll talk about "Viggo" and "Billy" and "Elijah" (where personally I'd rather talk about Aragorn and Pippin and Frodo) because, after all, Viggo and Billy and Elijah are talking to them.

And maybe that kind of thing is more likely with films, which are in fact a group effort, so the fans have an easier time stretching the group to include themselves; are, in fact, encouraged to do so with these products. It's understandable, but it's not real.

Absolutely the last link to a poem:
Theatrical Impressions by Wislawa Szymborksa.

I don't think her "sixth act" would be so effective if the first five hadn't stayed in character. Metafiction might be interesting, but it doesn't "grip me by the throat."
 
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