Today, I came across this piece in the Daily Telegraph, which begins with this literary accusation:
One of the worst lines in literature is widely regarded to be “It was a dark and stormy night”, which first appeared in Washington Irving’s 1809 work A History of New York. It became the catchphrase for awful writing and one which authors are warned to avoid.
Whether you believe these are really the “worst lines in literature” is a matter of taste (and of some discussion). But one thing that isn’t really true is that the phrase originated with Washington Irving–or at least not the phrase that became the cliched opening for bad novels.
Washington Irving did use the words in that particular order in a revised edition of his mock history of New York City, A History of New-York. The book was originally written in 1809 when Irving was 26-years-old, and revised periodically throughout his life. In one of the revised versions (not in the 1809 original), Irving writes:
It was a dark and stormy night when the good Antony arrived at the creek (sagely denominated Haerlem river) which separates the island of Manna-hata from the mainland.
That’s a perfectly useful sentence, and not at all one of the “worst lines” in literature.
It would actually be a contemporary of Irving’s, the Romantic English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to use the phrase as the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Here’s Bulwer-Lytton’s opening:
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.
Again, whether that’s a clunker of an opener is up for debate; for a bit of English Romanticism, it does the trick. It is a bit purple, however, which is likely what made it ripe for satire–most notably by Charles M. Schulz, who regularly used it in Peanuts:
So, is Irving the true creator of “It was a dark and stormy night?” Not really. While he used the words in that particular order in his History, it would be Bulwer-Lytton who would dramatically use them as the opening of his novel* — and Charles M. Schulz who would turn them into a modern-day punchline.
* And inadvertently spawning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest at San Jose State University, where entrants are encouraged to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”