We all know about it being ‘a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ (‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jane Austen), but there are many many others equally stunning, from proper literature, non-fiction and all the other sorts of writing. The Pride and Prejudice example is so popular – and the most quoted – because it accurately presages the novel to come, not just that it’s about middle class characters seeking husbands, but that the writer is funny. The famous Jane Austen wit. When you read articles/attend courses on writing, you are always told how important it is to get the first line right – attracting the reader’s attention, drawing the reader in. Miss Austen, however, hit the mark straight off – amazingly – without MA in Creative Writing, scribbling by herself, long-hand, in rural Hampshire.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ On the face of it, this is the blandest of bland openings. Is it such a big deal that they couldn’t go out on one particular day? Initially, it was the ordinariness of this opening that I liked. I myself have a predilection for novels with very plain titles. (I wanted to call one of my own stories ‘A Family Day Out’, until wiser counsels (who didn’t share my unusual preference) got me to rename it ‘Cut to the End’.) For me, a boring title or first line flags up a story about people and character, rather than a piece seeking to wow me with fights and car chases, exotic locations and fanciful creatures, and other themes which would bore me rigid.
‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ There’s more to it than its ordinariness. Feel the constraint, the claustrophobia, the closing off of one small respite.
Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Once again, we are reading about escape, a century later, this time from the chores associated with staging a formal dinner party, to lose herself in the flower markets of London. ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ the text goes on.
Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ This one hits the gut straight away. What is Manderley? What’s special about it? Why is mc not there now? Why can she only dream about it? Again, this first line sets the tone. Straight away, I get it that we’re in romance territory, a man and love, drama and tragedy.
Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby)
‘It’s in there all the time, looking for a way out.’ Immediately, I ask myself what is in there. I guess that ‘it’ is an emotion, and already I’m connecting because emotions always seek ‘a way out’, in order to express themselves, and already I’m guessing that this emotion is more like obsession. People and character again. I’m aware (because I’ve read the blurb on the cover) that ‘Fever Pitch’ is about football and, from my personal experience, I know following a football team is all about emotion, leading very quickly to obsession, also that football supporters bring football into every conversation. But ‘…looking for a way out’ also suggests conflict, trying to find an escape, and hints at the writer’s complex relationship with the beautiful game. Interesting, I’m thinking, and different. Later on in the book, Hornby will tell us that watching Arsenal is a chore that he can’t avoid.
Five Months with Solidarity (John Taylor) (non-fiction)
‘For some reason a man was taking a photograph of a small red sign, in a sort of side alley, over the entrance to a
cream-coloured five-storey building on the main thoroughfare. Then I realised I had found the place.’ This first-hand account of an English traveller’s short involvement with the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, published while it was all fresh in his mind, in 1981, is a gem, a true primary source, and – astonishingly – still in print. Like Rebecca, that first line immediately begs questions. What place has he found? What is this red sign that someone feels compelled to take a photo of? We have to know. We have an idea because we’ve read the blurb, that it’s about Polish Solidarity trade union, whose logo was red on white. This time we’re drawn to something unfamiliar, the ‘cream-coloured five-storey building’ and – we hope – an insight to life behind what was then the ‘Iron Curtain’.
Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood)
‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking…’ (Years ago, when I used to be an active member of Writer’s Dock, one of the members whose work I most admired was an Australian who used the avatar Iamacamera, although I’ve only just realised where the idea came from.) We get the idea at once of an invisible narrator, who doesn’t want to be noticed. Not only is taking in everything, without trying to impose his own slant on it, he is without conceit – unlike Leigh Fermor and Buchan below. He is the perfect journalist, who will never ‘become the news’ (as the saying goes). Then there’s the intriguing bit about ‘not thinking’. What does he not want to think about? We already know this book is about Berlin during the first years of Hitler. Is he an apologist? Is it all too much? Again, there are questions and the reader needs to know the answer.
‘My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared.’ This is another Isherwood first line, from ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’, the prequel to ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. If he’d put that up on a writing site, I think I would have advised him to cut the first and start with the second. I don’t care about the colour of the stranger’s eyes. He was scared and he wanted mc to do something about it. More questions which I need to know the answer.
What of Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) and ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? Well, that saying doesn’t resonate with me, nor does it introduce the novel. What of A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) and ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Yep, I love it, especially when it moves on to seasons of Light and seasons of Darkness, echoing first chapter of the Gospel according to St John. But, Dear Reader, you know all of these. I wanted to make this a personal collection, even though two of my first lines are from mainstream classics.
How not to do it. ‘Dear Xan, As I have only just finished piecing these travels together, the times dealt with are very fresh in my mind and later events seem more recent still…’ (A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor)) The first sentence actually goes on for six lines, for heaven’s sake. What do I know about this book? I’ve no idea where he’s travelled, or what sort of travelling he’s talking about, only that he is self-regarding. The same pomposity is evident in ‘During the past year, in the intervals of an active life, I have amused myself with the construction of this tale.’ (Greenmantle (John Buchan)) Once again, we learn nothing about what might follow, only that the author regards it as beneath his dignity. (‘I have amused myself…’)
Dear Reader, I’d love to know about your favourite first lines. Do let me know.
This afternoon, I was very chuffed to learn that my story, ‘My Friend Simon’, was a runner-up in the Short Story category of the Words With Jam Bigger Short Story Competition 2014. It didn’t win any of the prizes (£300 for first place) but I was thrilled that it nearly got there. A very good feeling. And, yes, I will sub it again, asap, together with my other entry to the comp, ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’, which no one will touch, probably because it’s about a schoolgirl running off with her teacher. All these editors who say their publications are ‘edgy’ and ‘pushing boundaries’ are too scared to touch it.