May 19, 2015
As first lines go, I am partial to “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’” –a bit of dialog which could lead to all kinds of stories that I don’t want to read, but which is then followed by the gloriously banal, “said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” And, of course, we all want to read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
The first line of Pride and Prejudice is now universally known. I find that I do not remember the first lines of four of the other books; I could have told you what the content of the first pages are, but not the line . . . although the first line of Northanger Abbey clearly deserves to be remembered: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” I shall endeavor to remember you in the future.
But the first line of Emma – as unforgettable and almost as ironic as universally acknowledged truths: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Handsome? In the rest of the book, letters, summerhouses, rooms, praise, curves in a river, mourning attire, and men are handsome. Women, besides Emma, are described as handsome only three other times (thank you, Guttenberg Project people, for your searchable .pdf files). Before anyone has seen Mrs. Elton, the assumption is that she must be handsome. When she does appear, Emma is relieved that while she is handsome, she is “plain” enough to supposedly make Mr. Elton regret Harriet Smith. Then Emma acknowledges that Jane Fairfax is “more than handsome.” Oh, to be more attractive than mourning attire! I am waiting for my sonnet. What rhymes with “black bombazine”?
Clever? The least intelligent people in the book use the word ‘clever’ frequently. The narrative voice describes only one other person as “clever”—Emma’ s brother-in-law, Mr. John Knightley, whom Emma does not like.
As in Pride and Prejudice the irony of the opening sentence is exposed by the end of the first page. “Best blessings of existence” – whoops, her mother died, oh, well, never mind. “Very little to distress or vex her” – the fourth paragraph tells us that she gets her way all the time. Yeah, that would kind of block out a lot of things that vex and distress most of us.
So what are your favorite first lines? Or your least? Or what would you rhyme with “black bombazine”?