You open a book for the first time and read the first few sentences. You might be confronted with a ‘brick through the wall’ type of opening much favoured by writers of crime and adventure stories – the kind that plunges you straight into the action with barely a pause to work out what’s happening.
Other times you’ll be faced with one of those measured openings, the type that might not contain any great revelation or insight but intrigues you enough to want to read on. And as you do, the power of the language takes hold and you become suffused with the consciousness that you’re leaving the world you inhabit and being taken over the threshold into a newly imagined world.
That’s the feeling I get with the book I’m using to answer this month’s Classics Club question: What is your favourite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?
For me, just choosing one sentence from all the classics on my bookshelves, felt like an almost impossible task. That’s why it’s taken me almost a month to decide and even now, it’s a close run thing between two novels that are tremendous, though vastly different.
Runner up is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the book that is my number one favourite and the novel that, were I ever to be stranded on some desert island with only one book available, I know could sustain repeated readings. Although it has an extensive Preface, the story proper begins with this sentence:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It’s a classical opening; simple and lucid yet there is a ironic hint about the character concealed beneath its stylishness. Reading further into the novel is to discover how Eliot continues to gently mock her heroine’s desire to vouchsafe everything that doesn’t fit her ardent desire to do good in the world. This is to be a story of misguided ambition and thwarted dreams.
But the novel I chose in the end is Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first of his Raj Quartet series set in an India in the dying days of British colonial rule. It opens:
Imagine then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.
This is a sentence that grabs my attention because it’s so mysterious: Why is the girl running? Who is Miss Crane? What’s the significance of the Bibighar Gardens? And so elliptical – there’s a hint of a connection between the two women. Some experience they both had but there is no clue as to what this might be. It’s a paragraph that’s so replete with atmosphere, of darkness and of space.
What emerges on reading further is that the girl is white and running away from the Bibighar Gardens where she has been raped by four Indian men. She, like Miss Crane, had dared to cross the line between two cultures and paid the price; an event that has political repercussions in a country where relations between the ruling class and the native inhabitants is about to reach a turning point.
It’s a book that poses serious questions about racism and cultural divisions, about colonialism and self determination. A powerful novel that more than lives up to the promise of that opening line.