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Monday, November 14, 2011


First sentences: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake. Jane Eyre occupies the former category: the opening sentence, rather than being a standalone moment, is the beginning of a discursive paragraph deftly bringing in landscape, weather and social frictions, all major themes throughout the book. But the first sentence, flexible and authoritative, quickly establishes the voice of the narrator.

Immediately clear is that we are hearing a voice with a precise sense of time. 'That day' is specific - no generic 'once upon a time' here - and is also the voice of a memory. 'That day' is significant enough to the narrative voice that we don't need a date, hinting with subtle suspense that events will follow that make it notable: by the end of the day, we are implicitly promised, something interesting will have happened. The voice is confident in its assumption that it needn't be more detailed than 'that day' - not even 'that Saturday', but just a simple 'day', implying that if 'that day' is important to her, we can be trusted to see it as important enough to read about without further justification. An immediate intimacy of tone is established.

At the same time, Jane makes no concessions to the reader. Equivocation and doubt are absent from her voice. There was no possibility of taking a walk: not 'it would be difficult' or 'we'd prefer not to', but a direct assertion that it wouldn't be possible at all. The subsequent story will be deeply concerned with what can and can't be done, both in terms of social constrains and moral imperatives, and Jane's voice is confident in its ability to pronounce on which is which.

It's significant that one can, in fact, take a walk under almost any conditions - it may be inconvenient or uncomfortable, but it's possible - but Jane presents the human decision as an absolute. 'Taking a walk that day' neatly implies that walks are a regular part of the routine; going for a walk' might suggest a spontaneous decision, but one takes a walk like one takes medicine, and that taking it is a matter of possibility versus impossibility rather than choice is the first hint at the authoritarian, inflexible routines that dominate Jane's childhood. Where Jane is and what she does are not, from her perspective, a matter of choice. The first few pages see her hiding with a book and escaping into her own imagination, a hint at the reliance on inward resources that will carry her through the rest of the plot, and the first sentence is full of will. Somebody is making absolute decisions here, and at the moment it isn't Jane - but it is Jane who describes human will in these implacable terms. Weaving in and out of social power is Jane's game, and in the first sentence, she is already an engaged observer of it.

A mark of fine literature is the ability to contain multiple implications in a single sentence. As we meet Jane Eyre, time is sharply contained in an enclosed moment and human judgement elevated to natural law. The stage is set for the delicate balance between naturalistic 'memoir' and intense melodrama to follow.

Thank you, Kit!

As so often, you've clarified and extended the inchoate thoughts falling about in my head.
And i was going to say, before I got interrupted,

Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake.

And some books, at least if you count a Prologue and a Chapter One as two separate beginnings, begin with both.

Pamela Dean's The Secret Country begins the prologue with the handshake:
Edward Fairchild, Prince of the Enchanted Forest, Lord of the Desert's Edge, Friend to the Unicorns, and King of the Secret Country, wished he were somewhere else.

There you have your introduction, a name and (however fantastical) an associated location. Yet it turns out to be a somewhat deceptive introduction, not a lie exactly, but not the whole truth either. And the story will abound in equivocations and hidden truths.

"Wished he were somewhere else" will also have more than one layer of meaning. He wished he were somewhere else, and got his wish, but did he know what he was wishing for?

Chapter One, on the other hand, begins with a short, sharp, unattributed snippet of dialogue:
"Who's done what now?"

Who and what, indeed? That will be the question. Neither "what?" nor "who?" have any obvious answers-- and "how?" is a total mystery.

...this is fun, isn't it?
* waits with considerable interest to see what sentence Kit will choose next *

Also, I hope your arm is better, since you seem to have your old writing style back. (Although it was interesting how much the "chat-speak version" still sounded like you...well, yes, you say, who else would it sound like? But your voice came through loud and clear even with fewer letters to carry it.)

Anyway, I trust that things are a little easier for you now.
I love the idea of this series especially since, as a child, first sentences were magic doorways to me. My mother was a lover of books and I grazed among them -- opening them up to see what was there. There was no "age gateway" for me so I investigated all of them.

I remember being absolutely captivated by the very beginning of Jane Eyre -- I remember feeling that I must read more. And I could not explain why. I was, perhaps, all of 10 years old, but I Bronte had landed me as a reader with that first sentence.

I have never been able to explain why and this piece goes a long way towards doing so.
Well, if you have any requests, send 'em my way! :-)
I'm not sure this counts as a classic (or if you've even read it), but one first sentence that has stuck with me for years was that of WATERSHIP DOWN:

"The primroses were over."

I have thinky-thoughts now on that one, but I'd like to hear yours...
On my list it goes. :-)
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