Always good for a column, John Sutherland looks at first lines in a novel.
The prospective reader has, then, a number of initial "encounters" with the novel before reading it. Reviews and word of mouth may form a distant introduction. The first sight of the cover and the title, a quick-read scan of the blurb and shoutlines on the jacket form another. But the first "close" encounter will be the first line of the text. This is the moment of coupling. The following are two of the more famous first lines, or sentences, in fiction: they are much quoted and will be found in all self-respecting anthologies of quotation as stand-alone statements about the human condition.
"All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way."
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
The first is from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the second from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither assertion is at all plausible, outside the socially artificial world which the novelist has created and into which the sentences usher us.
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