First Words: Three Centuries of an English-Language Wonder

This year marks the 300th anniversary of that hand-sized wonder, the English novel. All was triggered when a London printer of Pater-Noster Row, behind St Paul’s Cathedral, took a risk on a book-length fictional tale set entirely in prose. Penned by the journalist Daniel Defoe and marketed by a bookseller friend in Fleet Street, this inventive narrative found a keen readership during 1719. Several other working writers followed Defoe’s lead, their efforts being referred to around the city’s coffee-houses as the nouvelle or “new thing”.

There was an eventual rumpus, dubbed the “Battle of the Books”. The literati of Georgian London, who never doubted the artistic and moral superiority of verse over prose narrative, judged novels an unsavoury commercial fad. That is why Alexander Pope’s satire of mediocre writing and journalism, The Dunciad, mentions Defoe, while Jonathan Swift parodied the best-selling Robinson Crusoe with a mock novel, Gulliver’s Travels. But the “new thing” persisted.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Talk of novels ever since has tended to fix on character and plot. Generations of readers have been absorbed in the fictional lives of Jane Eyre or Soames Forsyte, Mrs Dalloway or the Artful Dodger, Emma Woodhouse or Hercule Poirot, explaining personality traits, discussing behaviour. And everyone relishes a good storyline twist: Jim Dixon delivering the “Merrie England” lecture, Winston Smith going to Room 101, the reappearance of Magwitch.

Opening passages can grip the attention, particularly a novel’s initial sentence. Those first words are designed to set off the imagination—see how Aldous Huxley thrust 1930s readers into the future when beginning Brave New World:

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.

Squat? Only thirty-four storeys? Huxley’s nine words suggest much. This is not our world. It’s bigger, more constructed. And the building’s greyness hints of monotony. There’s also economy, a sense of things being minimal and undecorated, shared by buildings and words. The verbless sentence is short and lean; which translates as an efficient and functional imagined world.

Compare that with an opening sentence by Thomas Pynchon. He opens The Crying of Lot 49 with a sentence which is lengthy, excessive, over-packed with words:

One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

There is a breathlessness to this. The sentence goes on and on and on in a way that makes you feel you are running out of air; there are not enough commas, which is deliberate, and there are the trivial asides. It’s like hearing someone gossiping on a telephone. The clichéd talk and excessive detail of this sentence are pitching to an urban reader of a different time from Huxley’s audience. Modernity has lost its sparkle and life is immersed in consumerist clutter. Things not only seem plentiful—having them brings inconvenience. They are a burden on your time.

Here is another overlong opening, a celebrated sentence by J.D. Salinger, who uses punctuation to replicate the pace and rhythm of a voice:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

We have the impression of a youth talking. Besides the sentence’s cadence and overall measure, the vocabulary conveys much about the speaker’s character, adding slang touches to give tone (“lousy childhood”, “kind of crap”). This voice continues in an informal and confiding, at times insolent manner through all 192 pages of The Catcher in the Rye.

Refraining from such a direct address, with its implications of an individual viewpoint, Sam Selvon uses conversational language throughout what is a third-person narrative:

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

Reading this spicy Jamaican patois in The Lonely Londoners is to start ingesting aspects of the “Windrush” experience of post-war Britain as broadly encountered by West Indian émigrés.

Rating these sentences highly is not cultural snobbery. Huxley and Salinger, Pynchon and Selvon put language to work. Dip into their novels and you see the skill of the author, his professionalism and inventiveness, from the opening line. In comparison, the average commercial paperback starts with a sentence more like this: “I’d been hearing about the Tennis Club for years, but I’d never been inside of it.” This is how the hard-boiled detective novel Black Money by Ross Macdonald begins, although that line is soggy and weak. You anticipate next will come a description of the club, a lame one, too. Curiously, with careful pacing and a firm narrative drive, Black Money is Macdonald’s best thriller. Its high reputation is deserved, yet the first line is flavourless and bland. Especially irritating are the two words—“of it”—at the sentence’s end. They sit there like a lumpy kink on a cat’s tail.

Most books start with dull sentences. It’s not a convention. The novelists don’t intend to write bad lines. They just don’t seem to have the necessary mix of inventive ability and craftsmanship. So their opening lines are flavourless and bloated. John Grisham’s best-selling The Firm could have begun with this: “He was hungry; with his background, he had to be.” But this decent sentence appears halfway down the first page, which instead starts off lamely: “The senior partner studied the resume for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.” What a dreary line.

Many popular authors claim Raymond Chandler among their key influences. Few of them understand him in depth. Chandler had judgment and literary flair in spades, as is instantly evident with the tight sentence beginning Farewell, My Lovely:

It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro.

This opening stands alongside the best in modern prose fiction. It has a structure like the sentence from Black Money cited above, but Chandler makes language perform. Readers today shudder when they encounter this opening sentence, because it’s not politically correct. That’s the point—it never was. Chandler mentions the unmentionable. His words tell us we are in America, at a clear point in its history, and the narrator is white, urban, educated, and prefers straight talk. So he’s not afraid to voice unpalatable truths, like how neighbourhoods will change ethnically. But is the sentence’s last word bigoted? It is significant this narrator uses the polite Negro rather than vulgar alternatives.

Here’s a variation of that abrasive type of opening line, this time by Graham Greene:

“That nigger going down the street,” said Dr Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, “he reminds me of you, Mr Wormold.”

That second word offends, and it is meant to. We are about to slip into 1950s Cuba, and the line is already sketching it in. This sentence launches Our Man in Havana, and the speaker is one of those Teutons who flocked to Latin America after Germany lost the war. Notice the bar’s name, Wonder Bar, which conveys a gaudy cheap dive while echoing the German word wunderbar. A point is also being made about Havana not being wonderful, an irony that is very British, and very Greene. The casual way Hasselbacher is chatting indicates he is talking to someone who won’t take offence at the comparison. This man’s name is Wormold—“old worm” rearranged—which is apt for a timid character. Greene’s first lines signal much.

Opening sentences that carry several clauses are often weak. But some authors handle them with a swagger. Here is another opening bar scene, this one by Angela Carter:

The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake; an ad-man’s crazy dream of a Spanish patio, with crusty white walls (as if the publican had economically done them in leftover sandwiches) on which hung unplayable musical instruments and many bull-fight posters, all blood and bulging bulls’ testicles and the arrogant yellow satin buttocks of lithe young men.

This hurdy-gurdy description launches Shadow Dance. There is a delicious zaniness to the mounting imagery, and the reader anticipates a journey into the fantastic. Mind you, Carter really knows word-craft, launching her sentence with a firm Latinate tricolon which would please a Roman orator (mock-up, forgery, fake); then ending on a more shaggy extended tricolon (blood and testicles and buttocks) cheekily interwoven with Saxon alliteration. Try to top that.

Kenneth Fearing is not as technically flamboyant, yet there is an understated invention to this opening line which runs to a mischievous paradox:

I first met Pauline Delos at one of those substantial parties Earl Janoth liked to give every two or three months, attended by members of the staff, his personal friends, private moguls, and public nobodies, all in haphazard rotation.

Look closer at the rising order of that list of invitees: staff, friends, moguls, then nobodies. The author might have halted with the deflationary nobodies, but, after a comma, he shoots off a deftly nuanced oxymoron (“haphazard rotation”). In other words, the planning is a veneer. Things are hit and miss at these lavish parties.

Given this sentence opens a novel titled The Big Clock, connecting haphazard with rotation does not bode well. The story’s setting is a New York media company—a caricature of Henry Luce’s Time Inc.—and much is made of staff working to clocks, schedules and deadlines. Time will soon be ticking down for the narrator, a reporter anxious to solve a murder before a closing deadline. He’ll be in the frame if he doesn’t. The author milks the language of time management throughout his thriller, building the urgency.

The poet Sylvia Plath wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, which opens with a memorable line. She does this by positioning an attention-catching clause in mid-sentence:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

This would be an undistinguished sentence if not for the insert. The punctuation is ungainly, yet those six words about the convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg leap out like the “pow” sign in a Pop Art canvas. They not only cement time, place, mood; they inject foreboding. And, yes, the narrator, a young innocent from the Mid-West who has won a New York trip, is on track for disaster. This may explain that fourth word, queer—the city is where danger lurks ready to prey on unwary, decent folks.

Philip Kerr’s period thriller The One from the Other likewise opens with a gem. As with Plath, it mixes weather, mood and history. But Kerr does not insert a clause. Instead he shapes a quick dual sentence, with a line fragment extending from a first sentence proper:

I remember how good the weather was that September. Hitler weather, they used to call it.

First sentences are significant, although some novelists excel when devising an overall opening paragraph. This one by David Goodis, which sets off his novel Dark Passage at a brisk pace, is outstanding:

It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

Those clipped sentences tell you about Parry. Their bluntness conveys his decency. He is a man of few words, a mister average, not deep, who says things as he sees them. This prose is firm and factual with no fudging or frothy phrases. At the same time the succession of short sentences conveys where he is, how all has followed a step-by-step process. For Parry, there is no manoeuvring. He’s caught up by circumstances. This is where an absence of emotional colour to language is significant: the sentences have that same procedure-based coherence of the legal system. And, as in a police report or judicial notice, he is already a bare surname. The scales have tilted against Parry, even though the second line affirms his innocence.

Rhythm is critical here. Notice an absence of commas. There is a short sentence (five words), another short one (three words), then a long one of twenty-two words. They establish a pulse. We move to another long sentence, which at eighteen words is around the same length, then back to a short again (six words). This rhythmic pace is propulsive, driving the reader along. The novel shifts between those lengths. It will be several short sentences, then a long one. Or a couple of long ones, then a short. For a time Goodis’s style was so admired that script writers for the television crime drama Dragnet modelled Sergeant Joe Friday’s dialogue upon it.

Dark Passage is American “pulp fiction”, yet that certainly doesn’t mean it is defective writing. To position the author in his 1940s context, Goodis was struggling with, learning from, and reacting against this prose crafted by Ernest Hemingway:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

This watershed passage opens A Farewell to Arms. A lilting rhythm to the words, drawing us along, is immediate. It stems from the author’s progressively lengthening sentences (syllables are measured throughout); how he punctuates, deploying the commas sparingly; his cadenced use of the conjunction and. Then there is his choice of clear concrete words. There are no adjectives, adverbs or qualifying terms. Hemingway sticks to nouns and verbs of few syllables; so you could read any of these sentences to a child, and they would grasp it without trouble.

Then there’s imagery. The author is describing countryside in the Veneto region of northern Italy during those early weeks of the Great War. This rural autumn is portrayed as serene, attractive, clean, fresh, but it is overtaken by movement and busyness. A river runs, troops march, dust rises, a breeze stirs, leaves fall. And about those troops. Three times they are said to be going along the road, the cumulative effect suggesting there were many, many marching soldiers. Then, at paragraph’s end, tranquillity has returned although change has occurred. The empty road is white with dust and littered with dead leaves.

Contemporaneous readers saw symbolism, too. After a funeral the minister recites the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over the grave. Likewise, the troops move “down” the road as if going graveward, while raising a dust which coats all as they march. As well, that image of bare tree trunks powdered with dust foreshadows the wasteland of trench warfare.

Hemingway’s opening is purged of “voice”, quite deliberately so. Even as he was trying to achieve this, other modern writers like the English novelist Jean Rhys were reinventing how “voice” might be handled. She opens Good Morning, Midnight like so:

“Quite like old times,” the room says. “Yes? No?” There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

This carries mood so effectively. It doesn’t only describe place, which is urban France. It suggests how the narrator, Sasha, has hit dead end. Her being trapped is not only conveyed in the room’s squalor, but in small turns of phrase: the basin is “shut off”, the street is an “impasse”. Those words hint this is what Sasha’s current life is: shut off, stuck at an impasse, which is French for “dead end”—impasse means literally “no way”. And it’s all set in present tense. So the language makes it now, saying, “This is where I am at, and what I am trapped in.”

Notice, too, how Rhys has the paragraph start out with the room talking. It’s effectively saying, “Here you go again, you haven’t learned, have you?” Having inanimate things feel or talk—the pathetic fallacy—was associated with syrupy Victorian writing, so most modern authors spurned the device. Rhys makes it suit her purposes by having such a harsh opening: the room moralises, and by using the “Yes? No?” it shoves all in Sasha’s face. This is like the cop at the police cells saying you’re a deadbeat, a loser; although Rhys has the room pass judgment. Of course, this is a device. Really Sasha is judging, and finding herself wanting. Here you are, girl, she’s thinking, back at this again, you fool.

The passage by Rhys reinforces how essential awareness is to literary genius. Great writers exhibit heightened understanding. And it’s part of the demand reading fiction makes on us—of our reading meaningfully—not to confuse sentiment or cant with wisdom. Certain openings aspire to lofty insight into human nature, but they exhibit more a studied cleverness.

Some fans of Jane Austen idolise her first line to Pride and Prejudice—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She rough-drafted that at the age of twenty-one, and it shows. Many youngsters sometimes strain to craft sentences like this. Teachers who have marked student essays recognise the attempted pearl of wisdom from someone with simulated knowledge of the world’s ways. Compare that early opening with Austen twenty years later, in Persuasion, when the passage of life has matured, and ripened, her. Here is that other Jane at full throttle:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: Elliot of Kellynch-Hall.

Instead of describing the appearance of a key character, we are told of his mental habits, which reveal much about his personality, and also the world of the subsequent story. This is full-bodied social satire, yet it stays above condescending caricature. If we are amused by Sir Walter’s imaginative life—a snobby fixation with status, pedigree and smug pleasure at his own family’s condition—he is not a one-dimensional comic figure. There is psychological depth here. And it shows how wisdom in late Austen arises from a capacity to understand human foibles.

Daniel Defoe gave writers two ways of opening a fictitious story when he invented the English novel. One was to have the narrator introduce himself or herself, stating the locality they hail from as well as positioning them socially:

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade lived afterward at York, from whence he married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in the country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called, nay, we call our selves and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always called me.

This is how Defoe’s first effort, Robinson Crusoe, of 1719, begins. It was an instant best-seller. Defoe used variants of this format over the next twenty months in his follow-up novels Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton and, another runaway success, Moll Flanders.

He minted a different method in 1722, when he shifted to an anonymous narrator for A Journal of the Plague Year. He now opened by sketching a context for what will happen:

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned from Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

Despite slight differences both openings supply background, the when and the where. A modern reader may find them long-winded. Defoe’s sentences go on and on due to early customs of punctuation. Commas are rampant, and he handles semi-colons like medieval cathedral builders with flying buttresses, putting in another when he wants to keep adding. Often a Defoe paragraph is an inordinately drawn-out single sentence.

Early imitators repeated these mannerisms—until the publisher Samuel Richardson took up a goose quill in 1740. If you have waded through much eighteenth-century literature, the opening line of his first novel, Pamela, stands apart:

Dear Father and Mother, I have had great Trouble, and some Comfort, to acquaint you with.

This beginning is not only brief. The author foreshadows events related over the next two pages, as well as the tangled tale which will unfold across several hundred pages in this two-volume work. Where Defoe pulls the reader in by addressing him or her like a garrulous speaker who doesn’t pause for breath, Richardson announces. No details, no contextual colour, just the enticing bald statement of serious news to relate.

It takes a strong craftsman to use this innovation successfully; which is probably why the long, discursive opening held sway among early novelists. Still, the form was given a twist by Henry Fielding who imported into fiction customs from the sermon and the moralising essay. We see this with his Joseph Andrews, of 1742, penned as a riposte to Richardson. Spurning the rustic matter-of-factness of Pamela, which he loathed, Fielding began with a lofty reflection:

It is a trite but true observation, that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts: and if this be just in what is odious and blamable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praise-worthy. Here emulation most effectually operates upon us, and inspires our imitation in an irresistible manner. A good man therefore is a standing lesson to all his acquaintance, and of far greater use in that narrow circle than a good book.

Literary mischief is afoot here. Fielding’s sermon-style opening sets the reader thinking he is being serious; although once into the story, it is apparent that with those remarks the author was having a sly dig at novels, and the ostentatious talk now becoming attached to popular fiction. This went over the heads of some readers—and writers—which led to the pretentious sermonising stuck at the opening of countless leaden novels.

Long-winded first paragraphs were settled in English fiction until century’s end. Ann Radcliffe moved towards a tight opening with her romances, progressively trimming her first sentence in each successive book. By 1794, with The Mysteries of Udolpho, she had cut back the wordy opening common in novels to:

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monseiur St Aubert.

This is lean prose when set against Radcliffe’s contemporaries, although there is a clunkiness brought out by punctuation. There’s no flow, no easy rhythm here, which may indicate the romance genre was losing steam. Contrast that first sentence with this one:

Scarcely had the Abbey-Bell tolled for five minutes, and already the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors.

Here is a break into something new. It starts off The Monk of 1796, a racy gothic novel by Matthew Lewis. It’s not just a matter of concision. Using a single comma, he tightens the descriptive focus. This ensures the reader’s attention is not laboriously taken Defoe-like from one thing along to another, then the next, adding on excessive descriptive detail. Instead Lewis uses direct, concrete, scene-setting.

By this point all the literary techniques and devices existed that start up most English novels. From Ivanhoe to The Solid Mandala, from Brideshead Revisited to Riders of the Purple Sage, the first sentence stems from literary constructions developed by these innovators. There is only one further innovation, for which we appear indebted to Charles Dickens. We see him adroitly employing it to start Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!”

This bombast plonks the reader right in the middle of things—the novel starts mid-conversation as a key character, Mr Gradgrind, is holding forth. Merchant, factory owner, banker, principal citizen of Coketown, Gradgrind presents himself through the book as a pinnacle of civic virtue. But by its end we know him to be the source of local corruption.

Readers find that the Gradgrind circle prospers by concealing “Facts”. Gradgrind’s companion Mrs Sparsit is a malicious parasite; his upper-class friend Mr Harthouse is an idler and seducer; his son Tom is a closet gambler, and frames a decent man for theft; Gradgrind himself conceals his true past, banishing his mother under another name to a distant town. So besides introducing this opinionated figure and his public persona, the opening passage craftily prepares one of the novel’s driving themes: moral hypocrisy and deceit.

Entering a fictional world mid-conversation is demanding. Few authors can carry it off. John Marsden has a novel pivot on a tantalising query uttered by a teenager to his best friend. The two youths have been just knocking about, eating fresh strawberries, and are about to play kick-to-kick with a football. Here is the opening line:

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Horatio asked him.

Re-presenting Shakespeare as a novel can be asking for trouble. But Marsden’s Hamlet is a gripping page-turner. Reading that opening sentence, I was hooked.

Christopher Heathcote, who lives in Melbourne, wrote “From Bullitt to Dirty Harry via the Supreme Court”  in the March issue.

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