First Lines

In her anthology entitled First Lines (1985) Gemma O’Connor declared that few celebrated writers in English opened their novels and memoirs with arresting first lines. Dickens, Joyce, and Jane Austen were a handful that did, but others, like Hardy and De Quincey, managed to keep the readers’ attention without providing intriguing first lines. Perhaps it’s gift that certain writers of fiction (O’Connor  excludes poets from her anthology) had, regardless of their eminence. Short story writers, like James Stephens and Saki, were masters of this art and indeed most writers of this type of fiction were aware that they needed to start well. Here are some of the most memorable first lines selected by Ms O’Connor. Guessing the authors of them might make an amusing party game.

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits.

J. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

I hate to read new books.

William Hazlitt, One Reading Old Books.

It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore I shall be short.

David Hume, Life, written by himself.

Let me tell you the story of my life.

Maxim Gorky, A Confession.

Once upon a time, and I very good time it was….

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Ours is essentially a tragic age….

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

They order, said I, this matter better in France.

Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Spain

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me ….

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.

Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie.

If you really want to her 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.

J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye.

My father’s name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than  Pip, so I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing.

Jack London, The Call of the Wild.

‘You look worried, dear’, said Eleanor.

Saki, Fur.

A scandal is an unpleasant business anywhere, especially in a village.

George Birmingham, A Public Scandal.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was.

Daphne DuMaurier, Not after Midnight.

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been too expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of one another  during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plaque which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

When I was a young boy, or I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

Mary Renault, The last of the Wine.

I suppose the high- water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.

James Thurber, My Life and other Times.

All this happened a good many years ago.

W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

Neither her Gaudiness the Mistress of the Robes nor her Dreaminess the Queen were feeling quite themselves.

Ronald Firbank, The Flower Beneath he Foot.

Man is a born liar.

Liam O’Flaherty, Shame the Devil

I shall not why, and how, I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.

Harriett Wilson, Memoirs of herself and others

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in need of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

James Coshat-Prinkly was a young man who had always had a settled conviction that one of these days he would marry; up to the age of thirty-four he had done nothing to justify that conviction.

Saki, Tea.

Is matchmaking at all in your line ?

Saki, The Forbidden Buzzards

To be continued…

R. M. Healey

4 thoughts on “First Lines

  1. Coby

    Aw, come on. You’re going to make us wait for this one?

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

  2. Dale Nelson

    The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

    V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River


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