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Victorian Book of the Month: Famous first lines

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)


"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." (Bronte, Jane Eyre)


"It is a truth universally acknowledged...." (Austen, Pride & Prejudice)

Great 19th century British novels provide some of the best opening lines in literature. But perhaps the most memorable opening line in literature–the most parodied, the most belittled, the ultimate example of dubious literary writing or “purple prose”–is also from a 19th century bestseller: “It was a dark and stormy night….” Thus begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

paul cliffordPaul Clifford is considered an early crime novel or a social reform novel. The titular hero is a robber who was forced into criminality after being raised in squalor and being falsely imprisoned on charges of pickpocketing. He lives a dual life as a highwayman and a man of fashion, vowing to give up robbery after falling in love with the daughter of a country squire. Paul Clifford is arrested and tried for his crimes, but the judge who sentences him to hang turns out to be his long-lost father. Bulwer-Lytton had two social aims for his novel: first to shine light on the failings of England’s judicial system and second to show that there was little difference between the vices of the upper and lower classes.

Paul Clifford was Bulwer-Lytton’s fifth novel and a runaway bestseller. In England, it sold out on its first day in print. This copy of Paul Clifford is from the first American edition, printed in New York City.

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