Toff and prof to duke it out in literary slugfest
Last Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 2:15 PM ET
The Canadian Press
Even if the weather remains sunny at high noon in the B.C. Interior town of Lytton on Aug. 30, they'll still be talking about a dark and stormy night.
There, in the dusty summer wind, a future British baron and a California professor of English literature will face off.
Henry Cobbald-Lytton, heir to the barony of Cobbald, and Scott Rice, professor of English at San Jose State University, will take part in a verbal duel as part of Lytton's 150th anniversary celebrations.
Their topic may be among the most famous words in English literature: "It was a dark and stormy night."
Lytton, situated near the convergence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers, is named for Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton whose now-immortal words opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.
"It will be good fun duelling with Prof. Rice," Cobbald-Lytton, a descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, told the Canadian Press from his family home in England.
"None of us really approve of Bulwer-Lytton being used as an example of bad writing. He's a great hero to us all over here," he added, referring to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, founded by Rice, which celebrates bad writing.
According to its website, the contest "is a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."
In fact, more than 10,000 wretched writers have tried their hands at outdoing Bulwer's immortal words since the contest was founded in 1983.
And what do they win?
"In keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive … a pittance," the contest rules say.
Paul Clifford was one of a number of novels and plays written by the former British colonial secretary. But, of those thousands of pages, seven words are now remembered.
In his ancestor's defence, Cobbald-Lytton added that Bulwer-Lytton also coined, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
And he came up with "the great unwashed" and "the almighty dollar," Cobbald-Lytton said.
Rice said he expects the B.C. battle of words to be "a little tongue-in-cheek, a little serious."
"I come to bury Lytton, not to praise him," Rice said of the upcoming duel. "The evil that men do lives after them, in Lytton's case in 27 novels whose perfervid turgidity I intend to expose, denude and generally make visible."
He added that the famous quotation has become the "stereotypical opening to a potboiler novel. If you want to scare me, you're going to have to work a little harder than that."
Cobbald-Lytton, however, said the contest is scurrilous and he's happy to defend his ancestor.
"I very strongly feel that the first person to come up with a cliché is genius," he said. "I agree that the words are now clichéd but, if you're the first to pen them, surely that's a remarkable thing, something to be proud of."
Cobbald-Lytton said he thinks Rice secretly respects Bulwer-Lytton.
"He wouldn't admit it to you," he said with a chuckle.
Rice did just that in an interview.
"I'm ready to concede the guy did have some powers of invention," he said. "Some people credit him with creating the historical novel as we know it.
"He was just very melodramatic and reached too hard for effects. I think he was pretentious. He was convinced he was a genius.
"[But] he was very talented," Rice conceded.
The complete quote reads: "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."
Rice will take a set of Bulwer-Lytton's collected works to the debate for an audience draw. "The loser will win the books," he said.
Lytton's mayor, Chris O'Connor, said Bulwer-Lytton helped shape the history of British Columbia.
As British secretary of state for the colonies, Bulwer-Lytton took an interest in the development of the Crown Colony of British Columbia.
O'Connor noted that Lytton sent a detachment of royal engineers to the province under the command of Col. Richard Clement Moody, an experienced colonial hand who had a great influence on the colony during its formative years.
""Lytton was also deeply concerned about the welfare of British Columbia's First Nations and sent specific instructions to Gov. [James] Douglas in that regard.
"He made a huge contribution to building British Columbia," he said.
The duel between Rice and Cobbald-Lytton is part of Lytton's Riverfest Aug. 29-31 celebrations.
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