In the first month of a new year I thought it was fitting to write a post about first lines. First lines are important because they create an immediate impression in the mind of the reader. If they’re memorable, they can pass into common cultural reference. Think for example of the famous opening lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which apparently are the most widely-known, according to this Guardian article. But ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, from LP Hartley’s The Go Between, and ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, are also common cultural currency, quoted again and again and sometimes in contexts far removed from their original source!
Here are some of my favourite first lines from famous books:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit)
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four)
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?'(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. (Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)
All children, except one, grow up. (JM Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy)
I could go on 😊 of course but I won’t! What I want to focus on is why those lines work so well.