Being the sort of person who decides whether or not to read a book based on the cover, the blurb and the opening line, I was intrigued by the Telegraph’s 30 Greatest Opening Lines in Literature, which includes such obvious candidates as Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Nabokov. It is a predominantly male list however. Apart from Jane Austen, there are mentions for George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys and Charlotte Bronte. This got me thinking about books written by female authors that have great opening lines, and in a completely unscientific piece of research, I scanned my bookshelves and pulled out some potential candidates for a brand new list of “Greatest Opening Lines in Literature by Women Authors”. Catchy isn’t it?
First on my list would be the marvellous Hilary Mantel, whose ability to make time and place seem present in the reader’s imagination makes me love her with a passion and envy her madly. Wolf Hall begins with:
” ‘So now get up’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard.”
Which makes an impact in more than one way. The opening lines of Wolf Hall’s follow up, Bringing up the Bodies, is even stronger:
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.”
Which frankly is a hundred times better as an opening line than Hardy’s “The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody was sorry” from Jude the Obscure, which won a place in the Telegraph’s list.
More prosaic than Mantel, but equally thought-provoking, are the opening lines of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, who is probably better known for A Hundred and One Dalmations. I Capture the Castle is a great book though, every teenage girl should read it. The opening lines are:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dogs blanket and the tea-cosy.”
Which is a great start to a book.On a more sinister note, my next favourite from my personal collection would be the opening lines of the prologue in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
So what makes a great opening line? It has to provoke something in the reader; a desire to read on and find out more. Sometimes this is done by creating a bizarre situation, such as Dodie Smith’s character starting the story from the kitchen sink, or Hilary Mantel’s children falling from the sky. There needs to be something either familiar, or strange, or both in the opening lines. This means the reader will either identify with something in the lines (Smith’s kitchen sink), or will be attracted through the alienating strangeness of the sentences. In Tartt’s case, the fact that the character is obviously involved in a death for example.
To create my own list of 30 great opening lines by female authors, I need to get reading, so I will keep you updated with my progress.