No eggs! No eggs!! Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?
Saint Joan, Bernard Shaw
My edition of this play has a 41-page preface written in 1924 by Ayot St Lawrence which also has a great first line:
“Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920.”
What a great résumé.
Thank you to all of you who’ve read any of these 54 opening lines. Perhaps you’ve been encouraged to write the first line of your own novel, poem or play. As a bonus, I can’t help adding the line that many of us think of immediately when asked for a great opener:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
A book I’ve begun but not yet finished. However, since this is about opening lines, I submit this one as a favourite. I recently tried to describe ‘afternoon tea’ to an older French woman who thought eating mid-afternoon was an odd thing. When I turned up at her apartment the next afternoon with pastries and asking for her to put the kettle on, she chose not to eat or drink anything and simply sat watching me enjoy what Henry James and I call an agreeable hour.
In M-, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O-, a lady of excellent reputation and mother of several well-bred children, had the following announcement published in the newspapers: that she had, without knowing the cause, come to find herself in an interesting condition, that she wished the father of the child she was expecting to present himself; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.
The Marquise of O-, Heinrich Von Kleist (Translated by Martin Greenberg)
I started reading this story because it was recommended in a book about writing, but I continued it after the opening line because I wanted to know whether the father would turn up and how he would prove his paternity.
Queen Maritorne was the terror of greedy thieving children: she reigned from the attic, where lines of pears and apples ripened, to the vat from which the wine was drawn; she was also the punishment for drunks, and without warning would leap out from the cask tapped by the dishonest valet.
Queen Maritorne, Jean Lorrain (Translated by me)
This is the opener of a fairy tale I translated in France. I felt like I’d met her before, this queen who punishes overeaters and overdrinkers.
I am to break into the conversation
With a word that tastes like snow to say;
I am to interrupt the contemplation
Of the familiar headlines of the day –
Horses, divorces, politics, murders –
With a word cold to hear or look at,
Colder to speak.
The Fire on the Snow, Douglas Stewart
A play written for radio: the story of Captain Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, reaching it only to find that Amundsen had beaten him.
Following the tragic events of February, 1937, when the Stinson Airliner VH-UHH crashed in the McPherson Range, I have received many oft-repeated and apparently sincere requests to write the story of that memorable rescue in which it was my good fortune to play the principal part.
Green Mountains, Bernard O’Reilly
A rescue story that has to be read to be believed. Ten days after their plane had crashed into rainforest in a cyclone, two men were still alive. Bernard O’Reilly was their rescuer, and fortunately for us he was a great writer. He was also renowned in south-east Queensland, Australia, as part of the first generation of the family that built O’Reilly’s Guesthouse in 1926 in the Lamington National Park, now run by the third generation.
Wine talks. Everyone knows that. Look around you.
Blackberry Wine, Joanne Harris
I bought this book at a charity shop just before leaving for France, and read it during the first three weeks. I was staying in a small untouristy village and when I found the story turning on another small French village and its future – draw tourists or perish – I started to live in the book, unable to put it down. I finished it at 4am on the morning of my last day, reading it to the end to cure my insomnia. (It didn’t.) My bag was already packed, already too full, so I placed the book on the shelves with several other English language novels; it seems this flat is only ever let to English speakers.
I liked Harris’s tricky point of view – it’s the bottle of wine that narrates the story.
First, in my spare room, I swivelled the bed on to a north-south axis.
The Spare Room, Helen Garner
I heard this author talking about her book on radio and needed to know more. If not for the radio interview, I wouldn’t have bought a book about life’s end. But she was touching, leaving me wanting to find the book that day, buy it and read it.
There’ll be gaps in my posting for a while – I’ve moved, for a brief while, to France. But I have access to shelves of books I wouldn’t normally read, and they might have some intriguing first lines!
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
I bought this book in a grocery store after seeing the movie trailer but not the movie. Couldn’t put it down. Kathryn Stockett listens to the women employed as The Help and writes what she hears. Brilliant. I could just about hear the women myself as I read.
Was she beautiful or not beautiful?
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
I am hooked by this simple question, even re-reading it today. The rest of the book is not simple, it’s quite hard work. But the opening question is brilliant.