I’ve read a couple of novels with fantastic first sentences recently, which has started me thinking about memorable beginnings. Here are some of my favourites.
Jane Austen of course. Pride and Prejudice begins: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I know that sentence by heart, despite its length, and what a wonderful sentence it is. The novel’s themes, the narrator’s voice, the social milieu laid out for the reader in a few words. Read them and weep.
And J R R Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Another (much easier) one I can quote from memory. And with that sentence, you’re immersed in the world. What is a hobbit? Why do they live underground?
And from The Scarecrow by New Zealand author Ronald Hugh Morrieson: “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.” I haven’t read the book for 20 years, but I still know the opening line. It’s vivid, memorable and encapsulates the novel’s funny disconcerting juxtaposition of mundane and nasty. Or, as the jacket copy of the edition I bought Travis for Christmas puts it: “The greatest first sentence in New Zealand literature opens this hilarious Gothic melodrama.”
I’ve just started The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, so I don’t yet know how the first sentence relates to the novel as a whole. But I do know that it’s a great sentence on its own terms. “”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” One line and I’m hooked. I want to know who this intrepid aunt is and what the hell she’s doing with a camel.